by T. B. Baines.
Section 1 of: The Lord's Coming, Israel, and the Church.
Chapter 1 Direct teaching concerning the Lord's return for living believers.
Chapter 2 Indirect references to the Lord's coming for living believers.
Chapter 3 The coming of the Lord with His saints.
Chapter 4 The teaching of our Lord's parables concerning His coming.
Chapter 5 The return of Jesus for believers who have "fallen asleep."
Chapter 6 "The first resurrection."
Chapter 7 A general resurrection and judgment at the end of the world, not taught in scripture.
Direct teaching concerning the Lord's return for living believers.
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 is affects the living saint and next as it affects the dead. The Old Testament Scriptures are full of the coming of Messiah in glory and power. Indeed the Jews were so occupied with these prophecies that they overlooked these 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. 24:3); are told to watch, "for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come" (v. 42); and admonished by the question — "When the Son of man comes, 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, almost invariably, foretell only the coming of the Messiah Himself, and though one of them declares — "The Lord my God shall come, and all the saints with Thee" (Zech. 14:5) — nothing here, or elsewhere in the Old Testament, indicates who these saints are. The New Testament, however, not only shows that in this glorious advent Christ will be accompanied by His saints, but makes it plain that these saints are believers, displayed in glorified bodies, and in the likeness of the risen Lord Himself. 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 14:1-3). 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. 5:1-9). 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 fulfilment 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 21:22). 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, such an 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 afterwards 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 pasts 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. 21:23), 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 authorised 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 thus 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 of 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 1:10-11). 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. 20:11-15.) 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 — had only for "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 labour 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. 1:9-10). 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 slightest 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. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout. . . Then 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. Wherefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thess. 4:15-18). 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 believers 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. 15:51-52). 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 searches "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, has 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. 9:26-28).
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 Christ 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, has 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 hears My word, and believes on Him that sent Me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment" (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 "first man," 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 earthy" 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."
Indirect references to the Lord's coming for living believers.
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 armour of light" (Rom. 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. 8:23-24). 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. 8:29). 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 realised at some remote period? No; but as a living hope, which might be realised 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 Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our body of humiliation, that it may be fashioned like unto His body of glory" (Phil. 3:20-21). Here, again, the apostle is waiting, not for death, but for the coming of Jesus, whom he expects as a Saviour, 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 Saviour," 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" (Phil. 4:5). 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 brings salvation has 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 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. 5:23). 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 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. 3:5), 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 4:7). "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.
So, too, the Apocalypse presents this hope in those closing verses where, after the unfolding of the events about to happen on the earth, and of the glories of "the Bride, the Lamb's wife," the Lord once more turns to speak with His servants as to the moral effect which this revelation should produce on the hearts of those who received it. This He connects with the near prospect of His own return — "Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keeps the sayings of the prophecy of this book," adding, in connection with the responsibility of the believer, "Behold, I come quickly; and My reward is with Me, to give every man according as his work shall be" (Rev. 22:7, 12). It is most deeply interesting to see how, in the closing words of exhortation and warning to His Church, His people's affections are awakened and their consciences aroused by the repeated references to His speedy return.
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, even 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. 2:24-25). 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. 3:11). 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 kills you will think that he does 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 has 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. 10:35-37). 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. 10:24-25). 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 behaviour 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 5:7). 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 waits for the precious fruit of the earth, and has 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 draws nigh" (vv. 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 "draws 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. 22:17-20). 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 follow at the close of a long train of unaccomplished prophecy.
V. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" 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. 2:1-2). 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. 11:26). 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 coloured 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 longsuffering to us-ward, 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 3:3-10).
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, here 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! 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 fulfilment, 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?
The coming of the Lord with His saints.
The passages cited in the preceding chapters either treat the Lord's return in a general sense, without distinguishing between its two acts, or, in the greater number of instances, describe only the first act, the coming of Jesus for His saints. The second act, the return of Jesus with His saints, is more frequently spoken of as the "appearing," the "revelation," or the "manifestation" of the Lord, and is not, like the other, a doctrine specially confined to the New Testament. On the contrary, as we shall see more fully at a later stage, this return of Jesus to the earth in glory and power is a theme which occupies a most prominent place in Old Testament teaching, and the great point added in the New Testament is that, when He thus returns, He will be accompanied by those who have previously been caught up to meet Him in the air. Until the special New Testament hope, the return of Jesus for His saints, had been revealed, their return with Him in glory was a feature which could not be made known. My object in this chapter is not to enter into the character or circumstances of this manifestation of Jesus in glory to the earth, but simply to show that whenever and however it occurs, the saints are manifested with Him, thus proving that they must have been taken up to heaven at a still earlier period.
In the second psalm the return of Jesus is described. The Gentiles are raging, the people imagining a vain thing, the kings and rulers of the earth conspiring against Jehovah and against His Christ. Then it is that the Lord vexes them in His sore displeasure, and declares that in spite of their rage, He has set His king upon Zion, the hill of His holiness. Christ then publishes the decree — "Jehovah has said unto Me, Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I shall give Thee the gentiles for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Ps. 2:7-9). No passage could on its face bear stronger evidence of God's purpose to establish Christ's authority on earth by power and judgments. Language less descriptive of the spread of Christian truth, or language more descriptive of the forcible and violent establishment of dominion, could hardly be devised.
But we are not left to conjecture as to how the prediction of this psalm receives its accomplishment. On the contrary, its fulfilment is thus graphically narrated. "And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse: and He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns; and He had a name written that no man knew, but He Himself. And He was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations: and He shall rule them with a rod of iron: and He treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God" (Rev. 19:11-15). The passage then goes on to describe the gathering of the armies of the beast and the false prophet, the capture and fearful doom of the two leaders and the destruction of their followers, the binding and imprisonment of Satan, and the reign of Christ together with His saints for a thousand years. That the One here described is Christ cannot be questioned, and that the work He accomplishes is the same work as that foretold in the second psalm the identity of the language clearly proves. The forcible establishment of Christ's dominion, therefore, and the destructive judgment of his enemies, takes place at least a thousand years before the end of the world. He then comes to the earth in manifested glory and resistless strength to execute the judgments of God and to reign in righteousness over the world.
But there is a feature in this description of His return which does not appear in the corresponding passage in the Psalms. In the Revelation, we find that He is followed by the armies of heaven, and the question arises — "What are these armies of heaven, and of whom do they consist?" By looking a little further back in the same chapter, we discover something which casts light on this subject. We there find mighty rejoicings going on in heaven — "the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia; for the Lord God omnipotent reigns" (Rev. 19:6). But the song of joy and thanksgiving does not stop here. This magnificent chorus goes on to praise God, that "the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousnesses of saints" (vv. 7, 8).
Now the Lamb's wife is, we need hardly say, the Church, which, therefore, is beheld in heaven previous to the sudden and terrible appearance of Christ to execute judgment on the earth. But not only is the Church in heaven; it is also clothed in fine linen, which is the same dress in which the armies of heaven, who follow Jesus, make their appearance shortly afterwards. Nor is this mere coincidence. The fine linen has a peculiar meaning; it is the righteousnesses of saints. Those, therefore, who issue from heaven with Jesus are attired in raiment which has just before been said to be emblematic of the saints' righteousnesses, and surely none could be clothed in such vestures except the saints themselves. The armies of heaven, then, which follow Jesus, are manifestly the saints, who must, therefore, have been previously caught up to be with Him in heaven.
This is shown by another passage, where, after describing the powers that combine with the beast against Christ — the kings of the earth who "take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed" the writer adds, "These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and they that are with Him are called and chosen and faithful" (Rev. 17:14). Angels are faithful, and in one passage are spoken of as "chosen;" but we never hear of angels being "called." "Calling," however, specially characterises believers. They are "called to be saints," or saints by calling (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). They are described as "sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called" (Jude 1). They "are the called according to God's purpose," for "whom He did predestinate, them He also called" (Rom. 8:28-30). And so in many other well-known passages. The companions of Christ, therefore, in this victory over the beast and false prophet, the armies of heaven spoken of as coming forth with Him, are not angels, but saints, believers called by God's grace, and before this period taken to be "for ever with the Lord."
There is another link, however, by which this chain of evidence is rendered still more complete. What we see the saints actually doing in the chapter we have just been considering, is the very thing which is promised to them in an earlier part of the same prophetic book. In addressing the Church at Thyatira, Christ had thus spoken — "He that overcomes, and keeps my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers, even as I received of my Father" (Rev. 2:26-27). Thus those who overcome, that is, real believers as distinguished from false professors, are here joined with Christ Himself in that judgment of the nations foretold in the second psalm. The armies of heaven, then, clothed in a dress emblematic of the righteousnesses of saints, are no other than these overcomers, that is, the true saints, who were before seen to be in heaven. So that believers are taken to heaven before Christ comes to reign, and when He does come, they come with Him, and in His glory.
If it is urged that the Book of Revelation is a difficult one, and that its language is highly figurative, I reply that a special blessing is attached to its study, so that the Spirit meant it to be understood. Besides, while admitting that the book contains difficult passages, there are some portions as easy as any other parts of Scripture, and the texts above cited are plain enough for the simplest reader to comprehend. But, to remove all doubt, it may be well to show how fully its teaching harmonises with other portions of God's Word.
The Epistle of Jude contains a very ancient prophecy uttered by the patriarch Enoch, the seventh from Adam, in which he foretold, "saying, Behold the Lord comes with ten thousand of His saints, to execute judgment upon all" (Jude 14-15) Now there are but two scenes named in Scripture to which this can refer. In one of these, the judgment of the great white throne at the end of the world, there is nothing said about the saints being present. In the other, the coming of Christ to take His earthly dominion, we have already seen that the saints, as the armies of heaven, issue forth with Him, clothed in His likeness, and are His companions in executing judgment on His foes. There can, therefore, be no doubt that this is the event to which Enoch's prophecy relates.
In writing to the Thessalonians, Paul says — "The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power, when He shall come to be glorified in His saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day" (2 Thess. 1:7-10). Here, again, the scene is not at the end of the world, for then Jesus is seated as a judge, instead of coming forth as a minister of vengeance: And though "His mighty angels" are here named as His companions in executing judgment, the saints are also revealed with Him; for He is glorified in His saints, and admired in those who believe — the Thessalonians being thus recompensed for their sufferings and persecutions. In the former letter Paul had spoken of Christ coming "with all His saints" (1 Thess. 3:13). He now adds that when He comes to take vengeance on the wicked, His saints will be manifested with Him. The manifestation is referred to as a known event and could only be what he had named in his first letter. The testimony of Thessalonians, therefore, exactly agrees with that of Jude and Revelation.
Romans 8:18-23 shows that while the believer is "waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of the body," he has another hope; "for I reckon," says the apostle, "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us." And when is this glory revealed? We are told in the next verse, "For the earnest expectation of the creature (or creation) waits for the manifestation of the sons of God," by which it will "be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God." Now this is just the very thing we see in the Apocalypse. There we behold creation groaning under fearful woes, till Jesus and all the other sons of God are manifested in their glory, coming from heaven for its deliverance, destroying "them which destroy the earth," and reigning in peace and happiness for a thousand years. In the Romans, as in the Revelation, the manifestation of the sons of God is in glory, that is, it is not while the believer is groaning in himself but after the redemption of the body. The first thing to be anticipated, therefore, is the coming of Jesus for His saints, when the redemption of the body will be accomplished; and the next His appearing with His saints to destroy his enemies, to deliver creation from its bondage, and to establish His dominion over the uttermost parts of the earth.
Again, in another epistle, Paul says, "Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory" (Col. 3:3-4). And John writes in the same strain, "It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him" (1 John 3:2). This is not in heaven, for how could Christ's appearing in heaven be spoken of as a future thing? Is it, then, at the end of the world? There is no Scripture to show that the believer will appear with Christ at that time. But there is Scripture for saying that Christ will be manifested for the deliverance of creation at least a thousand years before the end of the world. And there is Scripture for saying that when He is thus manifested, believers will be manifested in the same glory. Why not, then, bow to the authority of' God's Word, and accept the interpretation which lets Scripture speak for itself, and in consistency with itself, instead of forcing it to suit our own preconceived notions? Nothing is simpler to follow than the truth of God, if allowed to flow in its own natural bed; nothing more difficult, if diverted into the artificial channels of human theology and tradition.
We now see, then, that Jesus will come to reign before the end of the world, and that when He does come, His saints, including the Church, will come with Him. Thus, while the believer's immediate hope — for which he should be constantly waiting — is the coming of Jesus for His saints, another hope is also often mentioned, namely, the coming of Jesus with His saints. The first event is generally called the Lord's "coming;" the second His "revelation," "manifestation," or "appearing." But these names are not invariable. Thus Christ "appears" to those who look for Him when He "comes" to take them to Himself; while He "comes" at the time when He "appears" to the world. In most cases, indeed, the nature and object of his coming or appearing are seen by a glance at the context, and do not depend for their proper interpretation on the use of any particular word.
My object, however, is not to look into the nature of this latter act in the Lord's coming, but merely to show that as it long precedes the end of the world, the rapture of the saints, which is still earlier, must also be before the end of the world; thus establishing by independent evidence, what we have already gathered from other sources, that there is no formidable barrier of unfulfilled prophecy lying between the believer and the consummation of the hope he is so often bidden to cherish. Instead, therefore, of having the expectation of the Lord's return as a distant prospect, with a long series of events intervening, we have it as a present hope, for the realisation of which we may be instantly waiting.
Both of these aspects, or rather parts, of the Lord's coming, are held out as hopes, but there is a difference in the way in which the hope is put forward. The earlier act is generally so named as to show its immediate character; the later, though never regarded as distant and though expected to produce a present effect, is not spoken of as an event to be momentarily looked for. Again, the coming of the Lord for His saints is a hope addressed to the affections, and the appeals founded upon it are rather to the heart than to the interests, as a wife would wish so to order things during her husband's absence, that his return might be a source of unalloyed delight. The coming of the Lord with His saints, on the other hand, is the time when faithfulness of walk and service will be manifested in its result, and the appeals founded upon it partake largely of this character, the reward being presented to the mind, as well as the delight of the Lord's own presence.
As the period when the fruits of faithful service will be gathered, it is often spoken of by the apostle Paul. Thus, looking forward to the results of his labours among the Corinthians, he gives thanks that they are "waiting for the revelation (see margin) of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:7-8); and he is glad that they have acknowledged him in part, "that we are your rejoicing, even as ye also are ours in the day of the Lord Jesus" (2 Cor. 1:14). Writing to the Philippians, he is confident "that He which has begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6); he prays that they "may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ" (Phil. 1:10); and trusts "that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain" (Phil. 2:16). So Timothy is charged to keep the commandments laid on him by the apostle, "without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Tim. 6:14); and in the second epistle, the writer, looking forward to his own approaching martyrdom, says — "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing" (2 Tim. 4:8). In like manner, the apostle writes to the Thessalonians — "For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?" (1 Thess. 2:19). Here the coming is referred to in a general way, but the prominent feature is the joy which would be experienced by the workman in the manifested results of his labours.
It is urged, however, not only as the reward of faithfulness in service, but as an incentive to holiness and purity of walk. In this use, the object is so closely analogous to the practical exhortations founded on the expectation of the Lord's coming for His saints, that the two are sometimes united together. The Colossians being dead with Christ, and having a life "hid with Christ in God," are exhorted to heavenly affections by the assurance that "when Christ who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory" (Col. 3:4); and the apostle prays that the Thessalonians may have their hearts stablished, "unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints" (1 Thess. 3:13). In these cases only the coming of Jesus with His saints is named, but in others, where the same object is in view, the two parts of the coming are used together. Thus, in the letter to Titus (Titus 2:13) besides the "blessed hope," the believer has set before him "the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ," as an incentive to the denial of ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to a sober, righteous, and godly life. So, too, in the writings of another apostle, the exhortation to "abide in Him, that when He shall appear, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming" (1 John 2:28), is closely associated with the assurance "that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is," followed by the practical moral effect which this truth has on the walk, "every man that has this hope in Him purifies himself even as He is pure" (1 John 3:2-3).
Another use to which this second act in the Lord's coming is applied, is to encourage the believer in the midst of suffering and persecution, by the contrast of the glory in which he will then be manifested. Thus in writing to the Romans, Paul tells them that "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18), and in another epistle he says — "If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him" (2 Tim. 2:12). Peter also encourages those to whom he writes by showing them how "the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise, and honour, and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ;" and urges them to "gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end, for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:7, 13).
In all these cases, the hope, though different from that of the Lord's immediate return for His saints, is closely connected with it, and absolutely dependent upon it, for the believer cannot be manifested with Christ when He comes to reign on earth, unless he has first been caught up to be with Him in glory. It is only as establishing this truth that we now refer to it, reserving its character and results as regards the world and God's purposes concerning it, for consideration at a later stage.
The teaching of our Lord's parables concerning His coming.
During our Lord's ministry, the time for disclosing the mystery of His separate advent for His saints was not arrived, and in this parable the two parts of the coming are spoken of without distinction. His words were to be interpreted by the Holy Ghost, sent after His departure, and it is in the light of the truth thus given that His parables must be understood.
In Matthew, we read of a "servant whom his Lord made ruler over his household to give them meat in due season." It is said, "Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord when he comes shall find so doing. Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods. But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My Lord delays his coming, and shall begin to smite his fellow-servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; the Lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him off and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 24:45-51).
This is followed by the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the wise virgins who "took oil in their vessels with their lamps" going in with the bridegroom to the marriage, while the foolish virgins, who "took no oil with them," when they come, after the door is shut, and entreat, "Lord, Lord, open to us," are told in answer, "Verily I say unto you, I know you not" (Matt. 25:1-12). This leads to the practical exhortation — "Watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour" (v. 13). The rest of the verse given in our Bible is unauthorised.
In Luke, the following exhortation is given — "Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning, and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he comes shall find watching; verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants" (Luke 12:35-38). This is followed by the parable of the steward, the same in all essential particulars as in the Gospel of Matthew. In Mark, the exhortations to watch are most solemnly given, but the teaching on this subject does not add to that of the two other synoptical gospels.
All the parables just named represent persons awaiting the arrival of another. The One expected is Christ. But what is the time of the coming looked forward to? it cannot be the end of the world, for all modes of prophetic interpretation insert a period of a thousand years following our Lord's ministry before that time, and no exhortation could be given to watch for an event known to be a thousand years off. A more usual and probable explanation is, that our Lord speaks of the hour of death. But death is not elsewhere described in any such terms. The good man goes to be with Jesus, or is seen in Abraham's bosom. The bad man's soul is required of him, or he is found in hades. Each goes to his own place; or if either is taken, he is "carried by angels," not by Christ coming for him. But besides this, in these parables, the Lord always comes "in a day when he looks not for Him, and at an hour when he is not aware." Now this is not usually the case with death, which, more frequently than not, advances with full warning of its approach. Moreover, the whole tone of the parables implies a great public event such as the coming of the Lord named in the epistles, not a mere matter of private moment like the death of individuals. It is, then, the Lord's coming that is here spoken of, but its two parts are not distinguished. They form portions of a whole, and are so represented, the different times at which different events occur not being noted. Some receive reward, others punishment, and whether these begin when the Lord comes for His saints, or when He comes with them, is immaterial to the object of the parable.
The moral purpose of the parables is the same as the references to the Lord's coming in the epistles. While the steward watches he is vigilant and sober; when he says in his heart "My Lord delays his coming," he begins to beat his fellow-servants, and to eat and drink and be drunken. How like Paul's teaching, — "The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us walk honestly as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof" (Rom. 13:12-14). In both cases, watching for the Lord is the incentive to faithfulness, while unwatchfulness leads to carelessness of walk, indulgence of lust, and worldliness of heart.
In the parable of the virgins, we have the same point, but the condition of welcoming the bridegroom is also shown. Watching virgins should be awake and should have oil in their lamps. All fail in the first; as the Church did for ages lose sight of the hope of the Lord's coming. But there is a difference in the other matter, the possession of oil; some having the Spirit, that is, being real believers, others only false professors. Before the cry is raised, these classes mingle together; but when it is heard, they divide. This shows that the expectation of the Lord's return is not only the spring of individual purity of walk, but the source of holy separateness, and care for the honour of Christ, in the assembly. In all ages there have been Christians with oil in their vessels, but till the cry of the bridegroom's coming was raised, they slept carelessly in company with mere empty professors, and it is the expectation of the bridegroom's arrival which causes them to part fellowship.
In the parable of the servants waiting for their Lord's return from the wedding, the same general lesson of watchfulness is inculcated, but another element of great importance is added, in the caution given as to the uncertainty and possible distance of the time; "and if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants." What is this but an intimation that while the watch ought to be constant it might be protracted? As the intimation to John, and the language addressed to the Thessalonians, required watchfulness from the first, this parable warns us against relaxing our watchfulness, or growing careless because the expected advent has not yet taken place. In the Epistle of James, though the sufferers are exhorted to look for the Lord's coming, they are told that the watch may require "long patience." So here; but the blessing of faithfulness is all the greater. Carelessness in watching is as earnestly deprecated, and the reward of diligence as emphatically stated, in the third watch as in the first, in the nineteenth century as in the apostolic days.
The object of the parables, then, is just the same as that of the teaching concerning the Lord's coming contained in the epistles. We shall see the same thing if we look at the rewards. In the case of the steward who acts faithfully, he is made ruler over all that his lord has. Here the joint-heirship is shadowed forth, "if we suffer, we shall also reign with Him." In the parable of the virgins, the blessing is different, the wise virgins entering in with the bridegroom to the marriage feast; while in the case of the servants found watching for their master after he returns from the wedding, they sit down to meat, and the lord comes forth and serves them. The figure in the two parables differs, and the reward differs to suit it. But the principle is the same, and agrees with the "blessed hope" of the epistles, to be for ever with the Lord, in His presence, and partakers of His joys, the objects of His watchful love and unfailing delight. How beautiful the fitness of our Lord's teaching down to the minutest detail! Where it is the heart watching for the Lord's return, the reward is the joy of the Lord's communion, the blessed society of the Father's house. Where it is the service of patient waiting, the Lord himself owns it in service to the faithful ones. Where it is careful watching over the Lord's interests, the suited response is, to be made rulers in the kingdom.
Looking at the punishment, the same is seen. The unfaithful steward is cut off. At the time of the Lord's coming for His saints he is left behind, no longer as a steward, but as one under judgment, which is executed when Christ comes with His saints and the angels of His power, "taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." In the case of the virgins, all that is said is that they are shut out, that is, they are not taken up to be with Christ when he comes for His own. In both the rewards and the punishments, no note is made of the difference of time between the two acts of the Lord's coming, merely the results being stated, in exact accordance with what the epistles teach, but without reference to the period of their realisation.
There is one common feature to be noted in all these parables. The same servants who are bidden to watch are those who welcome their lord: the same steward who receives his master's charge is found in possession and rewarded or punished. There is nothing about a succession of servants, a succession of stewards, or a succession of virgins. Surely there is a reason for this. Our Lord would have our affections so occupied with Himself that the brightest hope of our hearts is His return, and therefore, here, as in the epistles, He holds it out as a hope which may be delayed, but which should always be present. Let us search our own heart, and ask whether the reason why this hope is so dim and unreal to us, is not the coldness of our love towards our absent Lord, leaving room in the heart for worldly objects and worldly affections.
And now, in this and preceding chapters, we have heard the testimony of the Holy Ghost as contained in almost every book of the New Testament. The few exceptions, in which no reference to this subject is made, are the two smaller Epistles of John and the Epistle to Philemon — all short personal letters on matters of immediate interest and not in any way entering into the discussion or statement of doctrinal questions; and the larger and more important Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians. It may be well to inquire the reason for the omission in these last letters. In writing to the Galatians the apostle is occupied exclusively with vindicating the sufficiency of the work of Christ against those who were seeking to bring in Jewish ordinances. It is an argumentative epistle addressed solely to this point, and no reference to higher truths was suitable to the low condition into which the Galatian Churches had fallen. In the Epistle to the Ephesians the reason is different. The believer is there regarded according to God's purposes, as having a common standing with Christ, quickened with Him, raised with Him, accepted in Him, and seated in heavenly places in Him. In other words, he is seen as having already attained the goal to which the coming of the Lord will eventually bring him. It is not, therefore, presented as a doctrinal truth; and when we come to the practical part of the epistle, we find that here, as elsewhere, it flows out of the doctrinal, that is, the conduct is to be conformed to the relationship in which the believer is set. This relationship is that of union with Christ, membership of His body, part of "the fulness of Him that fills all in all." And it would manifestly mar the beautiful image thus presented, if the coming of the Lord were brought in to complete that which according to God's purpose, as here unfolded, is complete already.
What, then, does the testimony of the Holy Ghost, thus largely scattered over the New Testament Scriptures teach us? It teaches us that our Lord promised to return for His disciples, and held this out as so real and present a hope, that when asked about what should become of one of them, His only direction was, that he should look for His coming. It teaches us that death, as the penalty for sin, no longer exists for believers, and that the apostle in two places, where speaking of saints being changed and taken to Jesus, uses the first person, implying the possibility that those then upon the earth might be among the number. It teaches us that the Lord's return is constantly described as "drawing nigh," as "at hand," as "coming quickly," or by other expressions which import its speedy occurrence, possibly within the lifetime of those addressed; and that believers, instead of being told to wait for death, are constantly exhorted to wait for the Lord's coming, in a way which would be wholly misleading were this event not intended to be held before them as one always imminent. It teaches us that delay is not to cause the disciple to relax his vigilance, and that the attitude of constant expectation leads to faithfulness in service and carefulness in walk. It teaches us that another event, also occupying a large place in Scripture, and described as the appearing or revelation of Christ — an event long preceding the destruction of the globe — will not take place till after the saints have been caught up to be with Jesus in heaven, and that when this event occurs the translated saints will be manifested with Him, the sharers of His glory, and the companions of His rule. Finally, it teaches us that this hope, instead of being regarded as a fanciful theory, was constantly before the minds of the primitive disciples, and that in nearly all their writings the inspired authors of the New Testament alluded to it as familiar to their readers, and as exercising such an influence over them that it could be used as the basis for appeals, for comfort, for exhortation, for purity of walk, for separation from the world, and for heavenly affections.
We would ask believers whether their own hopes and expectations are based on this foundation, and if not, we would solemnly and earnestly inquire, on what do they rest? Does this "blessed hope," held out before the earliest believers, and still given as the bright beacon for the Christian's gaze, agree with the expectation constantly cherished, of the gradual improvement and ultimate conversion of the world by the preaching of Christ? How could believers be told to be waiting in present expectation of an event which could not happen until the world was converted? If they were to expect the taking up of all living believers at any moment, they could not expect the previous conversion of the world. And if they were to anticipate the previous conversion of the world, they could not be in the waiting attitude befitting servants who looked for the coming of their Lord. We shall presently see how utterly destitute of Scripture foundation is the commonly received tradition of the world's conversion to Christianity by the preaching of the gospel. At present I only point out its inconsistency with the immediate hope of the Lord's return, which we have shown to be the teaching of the Word of God, and the expectation of the early believers.
Again I would ask, with all earnestness and affection, whence are your hopes derived? If drawn from God's Word, they may be postponed, but can never be confounded. If from any other source — from reason, from desire, from experience, from tradition — from anything, in fact, but the sure Word of the living God — they are but delusions and snares, from which you can receive nothing but miserable disappointment. God's ways are not as our ways, and if we seek to discover them by the light of our own wisdom, instead of from the unfailing record of His Word, we shall only be "blind leaders of the blind," deceiving ourselves with flattering hopes, and unconsciously misleading others, perhaps to their destruction.
The return of Jesus for believers who have "fallen asleep."
We have now examined the testimony of Scripture with respect to the Lord's return, and have seen that it is held out as a present hope before the living believer, who will, when it occurs, "be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye;" and be caught up "to meet the Lord in the air." But it may be objected that already nearly sixty generations of Christians are in their graves, and that a hope which could only disappoint so vast a majority of believers, could never really have been held out by the Holy Ghost. To this objection there are, however, two simple answers.
First, The delay, long as it is, has not mocked the hopes of believers. The first generation of Christians doubtless cherished it, but were never authorised by the language of the Holy Ghost to build upon its happening in their time. They were to be waiting for it as a thing that might take place, not counting on it as a thing that must take place. They were to be so living in hope of it, that they would not be surprised if it occurred; not to be so confidently dating it that they would be disappointed if it did not occur. This was the attitude in which believers stood in apostolic days. After apostolic days, the decline in all truth was fearfully rapid and among other things, the present expectation of the Lord's return was altogether lost. The Church became like the unfaithful steward, and then the grace of God was shown in putting off this day, which, from declining affection to the person of Christ, was no longer the object of its hopes. When the hope was once lost, the deferring of its fulfilment was not a disappointment. It would be treading on too sacred ground to speculate how far the unfaithfulness of the Church contributed to the delay which has taken place. But we can at all events see that, when such unfaithfulness has been shown, the Church is not entitled to plead the delay as a reason for discrediting the promise, but is rather bound to take the place of confession that she has so long neglected it, and of thanksgiving that the Lord did not come while she was slumbering in forgetfulness or unbelief.
Secondly, The objection above stated proceeds on the assumption that believers who have fallen asleep have no part in this hope. But this is not the case. For though the immediate character of the hope is most strikingly illustrated by the fact that it is constantly presented to the living, yet the Lord has not left us in ignorance of the blessed lot reserved for the believing dead. We shall find that they have just as much interest and participation in this glorious event as believers "who are alive and remain;" and surely this is another proof of the Lord's goodness, in having so long delayed his return. Being now absent from the body and present with the Lord, the believing dead are doubtless sharers of his hopes, and in the waiting condition which, from the loss of this precious truth, they failed to assume here on earth. Thus, the wisdom of God has brought it about that though the vast majority of believers have been unfaithful in this matter, yet the Lord's return, instead of coming as an unwelcome surprise, will be in fulfilment of the cherished hopes, and in answer to the expectant attitude of most, if not all, of those who have an interest in it. The most careless observer must be aware how widely this "blessed hope" has revived among the Lord's people of late years. And so, whenever the shout is raised, the myriads of believers whose spirits are already with the Lord, and many, perhaps all, of those still on earth, will be longingly expecting His advent.
The love of Jesus beautifully shows itself in his desire to make His chosen ones participators in his own hopes and delights. He loves to have our hearts. He would have us behold the glories which we cannot share, for He counts upon and values our fellowship. "Father, I will that they also whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which Thou hast given Me" (John 17:24). So at the Lord's Supper, He desires believers, not to recall the blessings derived from Him — but to "do this in remembrance of Me." In like manner as to His coming, He has given it as a hope for their hearts, which He would have them cherish in fellowship with Himself, and in grace and love He has delayed this event, until not only the generations which lost it on earth, have regained it in heaven, but also the hope has been revived in living power among the members of his body still dwelling in the world.
We shall proceed, then, to examine the teaching of Scripture as to the effect of the Lord's coming on believers who have fallen asleep. "I would not have you ignorant, brethren," says the apostle Paul, "concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 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 (anticipate) them which are asleep. For 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; then 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. Wherefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thess. 4:13-18). There is a peculiar significance in the expression, "This we say unto you by the word of the Lord." The apostle Paul had received special revelations given to no other man. Thus he says, in writing to the Corinthian Church about the Lord's Supper, not that he had learnt the mode of its observance from those present at its institution, but "I have received of the Lord, that which also I delivered unto you" (1 Cor. 11:23.) Again, he writes to the Ephesians, speaking of the mystery which God had entrusted to him, — "By revelation he made known unto me the mystery which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men" (Eph. 3:3-5). It is only on subjects of great importance, subjects worthy of a special revelation of God's mind, that such language is adopted. A passage, therefore, thus prefaced, like the one we are now considering, is, so to speak, emphasised by the Holy Ghost, as demanding more than usual consideration.
What, then, is the truth thus peculiarly commended to our notice? Our Lord's own words had already taught the disciples that He might return at any moment, and that when He did so, living believers would be taken to be with Him. But they were as yet ignorant of what would happen to those who had "fallen asleep in Christ." They looked for a resurrection, and doubted not that believers dying in the Lord would be saved. Like Martha, they thought that the believing dead would "rise again in the resurrection at the last day," and, like her, failed to apprehend the deep meaning hid in those words — "I am the resurrection and the life." The key to these words was now to be furnished by the apostle Paul, speaking in a special manner "by the word of the Lord." He found the Thessalonians sorrowing over the dead as those "not having hope." This does not mean that they had any doubt as to the ultimate salvation of their deceased friends. But having no revelation as to what would become of dead believers at the Lord's return, they feared that by death they had lost the special hope of being taken up by the Lord to be with Himself and to share the glories of his appearing. This apprehension it was that filled the survivors with grief. The yet unrevealed truth of what should happen to the dead saints at Christ's coming was, therefore, the important communication given "by the word of the Lord" to the apostle Paul to make known to these mourners. It is the completion of the hope held out by the Lord himself while here on earth.
Its tenor was simple. The Thessalonians had supposed that while they would be taken to be with Jesus at His coming, their deceased relatives would be left in the grave till "the resurrection at the last day." The apostle declares to them "by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent" (the old word for anticipate) "them which are asleep." On the contrary, these dead should be raised first. "For 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: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thess. 4:16-17). The whole scene is momentary, but its order is, first the raising of the sleeping believers, and next the catching up of the living and the raised saints together to meet the Lord.
There is a very close correspondence between the truth here announced and the mystery made known to the Corinthians. "Behold 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. 15:51-52). This is manifestly "the redemption of the body," and the transformation "into the likeness of Christ's glorious body" of which we have already spoken as the hope of living believers. It is also the same event as that described in the Epistle to the Thessalonians. In both the trumpet sounds; in both the dead saints are raised; in both, at the same moment, God's power is manifested towards the living saints — in the Corinthians fashioning them into the likeness of Christ, in the Thessalonians catching them up to be with Christ. But these two actions are simultaneous — as John says, "We shall be like him, for we shall see Him as he is" (1 John 3:2).
These passages are usually understood as referring to a general resurrection at the end of the world. Against this view there are, however, several conclusive objections.
First, The resurrection here spoken of is at the same time as the coming of the Lord for believers. The text in Thessalonians proves that the living saints are to be caught up together with those who are raised; and the passage in 1 Corinthians shows that the changing of the living saints and the raising of the dead will all be "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye." But the Scriptures set forth the return of the Lord for His living saints as a present hope, for which they are bidden to be continually waiting. And here we see that the hope is exactly the same for the dead. In order, then, that its present character might not be lost sight of, even with respect to the dead, the Holy Ghost with the accuracy always marking Scripture language, has taken care that in both passages where the resurrection of the dead and the rapture of the living saints are named together, the living saints should be spoken of in the first person, so as to show that the event was one which might be looked for in their own day.
Secondly, The account given of this resurrection is quite different from the resurrection at the end of the world, which is thus depicted by the apostle John — "And 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, And 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. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hades delivered up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every man according to their works. And death and hades were cast into the lake of fire; this is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:11-15). This solemn scene is at the end of the world, but it is entirely different in every point from the resurrection previously spoken of. In the one, the living are caught up; in the other, only the dead are mentioned, and no living person could be there, for the earth has fled away. Paul names no judgment whatever; John says that "they were judged every man according to their works." The dead described in the epistles go to be "for ever with the Lord;" the only doom spoken of with respect to the dead named in the Apocalypse is, that they were "cast into the lake of fire." The two accounts, then, are evidently not two different descriptions of the same scene, but descriptions of two different scenes, bearing no resemblance either in character or detail.
Thirdly, The Word of God never speaks of one general resurrection at the end of the world, but expressly declares that there are two distinct resurrections, one at the end of the world, and one a thousand years before it. The difference already noted between the resurrection of believers mentioned by Paul, and the resurrection at the final judgment described in the Revelation, will have prepared the way for this statement. But as it is in opposition to traditional creeds, and forms an important branch of the subject we are examining, it will be well to inquire into the matter somewhat more fully in another chapter.
"The first resurrection."
We have seen that the saints will return with Jesus when He comes forth to destroy His enemies. After judgment has been executed, and Satan cast into the bottomless pit, the reign of Christ, and of certain others, begins. "And I saw thrones;" says the apostle, "and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them; and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and [of those] which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection; on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Rev. 20:4-6).
It seems incredible that the zeal for traditional belief should have led men so far to pervert Scripture, as to maintain that this "first resurrection" is not a resurrection of persons at all, but of principles — principles "beheaded for the witness of Jesus!" — principles which refuse to worship the beast! — principles, with foreheads and hands on which they decline to receive a mark! — principles, on which "the second death has no power," but which "shall be priests of God and of Christ!" According to the same system, "the rest of the dead" must be principles too; so that we have no resurrection of persons at all!
What, then, does this passage, intelligently looked at, teach us? First, it shows a resurrection which takes place before the thousand years of Christ's reign; and next, it enables us to learn who are the persons then raised. Three classes are named; the first are called "they" — "I saw thrones and they sat on them." With the others we are not at present concerned. Who, then, are these in this first class? They are "blessed and holy;" so they must be saints. But what saints? The persons last named are the armies of heaven, who came forth with Jesus to make war. They are the partners of His triumph, and as victors we should expect to see them sharing His dominion. They are the only persons mentioned in the context, moreover, to whom the description could refer. But these armies of heaven are, as we saw, the saints who have before been taken to be with Jesus. The Scriptures, before examined, have shown us, that the saints living when the Lord comes, will be changed into His likeness and caught up into His presence, after which they will issue forth with Him to judge the world. This scripture shows us that the dead saints also, who are raised when the living are translated, will come in Christ's train and rule in His company.
The passages quoted in our former chapters fully bear out this conclusion. None of these make the glory of the believer to depend on his living till the Lord's return. The apostles were to "sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel;" yet Peter, whose question drew forth this announcement, was warned that he himself should suffer death. Believers are made joint-heirs with Christ; saints are told that they shall judge the world; sufferers with Christ are promised that they shall reign with Him, irrespective of their being alive or in the tomb at His return. The promise to the saints at Thyatira — "he that overcomes, and keeps My words unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations" — could not be fulfilled to them, unless the dead shared this hope with the living. Indeed the passage so often referred to, seems written to prove the absolute identity between the lot of believers, whether quick or dead, when Christ comes for His saints. "Them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him" (1 Thess. 4:14). Bring where, and for what? Bring forth as the sharers of His glory; for which purpose He will first raise them from their sleep, and take them, with the living believers, to be with Him in heaven.
Our Lord names two kinds of resurrection, though He says nothing of their being separate in time. "The hour is coming in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28-29). Does not the resurrection of life correspond exactly with the resurrection in which they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years? And is not the resurrection of judgment the same as that in which the dead are "judged out of those things which were written in the books"? If so — and surely it would be impossible to call it in question — they are not only distinct in character, but in time; the one being the resurrection of the "dead in Christ" when He comes for His saints, the other the resurrection of "the rest of the dead;" which takes place at the end of the world.
Paul, in his defence before Felix, declares "that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust" (Acts 24:15). Why speak of the two classes? If he had been disputing with one who admitted the resurrection of the just, but denied that of the unjust, it could easily have been explained. But this was not the case; and the division of the two classes, therefore, cannot be readily accounted for, except that the apostle was regarding their resurrection, not as parts of one event but as two separate transactions. Still less could we understand our Lord's declaration to the Pharisee, that he should "be recompensed at the resurrection of the just" (Luke 14:14), if the just had not a distinct resurrection from the unjust. The expression "resurrection of the just" could scarcely have been used if the two rose together. But its force is at once recognised if we bow to the truth of "the first resurrection" so plainly taught in the book of Revelation.
Though it seems unnecessary to accumulate evidence upon a point so clear, we would call in aid an expression of Scripture often heedlessly uttered. That a "resurrection from the dead" differs from a "resurrection of the dead" is, owing to our constant confusion of the phrases, little understood. Everybody would see the difference between speaking of "the departure of a company" and the "departure from a company." The first implies the departure of the whole assembly; the second of one or more persons out of the assembly. This is just the difference between a "resurrection of the dead," and a "resurrection from the dead." "The dead" is the whole company of dead persons. A "resurrection of the dead" simply means that dead persons are raised. But a "resurrection from the dead" means that one or more persons are raised from amongst this company of "the dead." So the phrase is invariably used in Scripture. Most frequently it is applied to the resurrection of Jesus. It is used also, however, of the resurrection of Lazarus (John 12:1, 9) the suspected resurrection of John the Baptist (Mark 6:16); the resurrection of the poor beggar, which the rich man entreated for (Luke 16:31); and the resurrection of Isaac, which Abraham believed that God was able to accomplish (Heb. 11:19) — all resurrections of a single person from among the mass of the dead. The phrase can grammatically mean nothing but an exclusive resurrection. In nearly all cases where it is used, an exclusive resurrection is evidently intended. Surely, then, we may infer that in the one or two passages where this exclusiveness is not obvious from the connection, the expression still has the same form.
One of these passages is Christ's answer to the Sadducees when they sought to perplex Him about the resurrection. He replies (the answer in Mark is similar), "They which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that age (not world), and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; neither can they die any more, for they are equal unto the angels, and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection" (Luke 20:35, 36). Here the expression used is resurrection from the dead, and does the passage imply a general or an exclusive resurrection? It cannot be a general resurrection, for all those who have part in it are like the angels, are the children of God, are counted worthy to obtain it, and die no more. It must be an exclusive resurrection, then, and observe how it corresponds morally with the "first resurrection," about which it is said that those who have part in it are "blessed and holy," beyond the power of "the second death," and priests of God and of Christ. What, then, is the "age" which these "children of the resurrection" are counted worthy to obtain? Here, again, we see the accuracy of Scripture, for surely this age can only be the period of a thousand years during which they live and reign with Christ.
Again, we read that the Sadducees were grieved that the apostles "preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead" (Acts 4:2). The expression is "in Jesus," and no doubt the resurrection of Jesus Himself was the great subject of the apostles' testimony. But the expression implies something more than the resurrection of Jesus Himself. The apostles preached "through (or in) Jesus the resurrection from among the dead." A few weeks before, the Sadducees had asked Jesus a question meant to turn the resurrection into ridicule, and had been silenced by the answer we looked at in our last paragraph, an answer revealing not only the fact of a resurrection, but also an exclusive resurrection of those who should be counted worthy to obtain it. This is the doctrine which the apostles were now proclaiming, with the further truth that this resurrection was through, or in, that same Jesus whom these Sadducees had rejected. They might have been grieved at their preaching "the resurrection of the dead," but could hardly have laid hands on them, inasmuch as the Pharisees, a far more numerous sect than themselves, held the same faith. It was the exclusive resurrection, announced by Jesus, and now proclaimed through Him, that aroused their fury and persecution. In like manner Paul speaks of Jesus as "the first-born from the dead" (Col. 1:18), that is, as the first of those who were taken from amongst the dead. If the resurrection of all the other dead was to be simultaneous, he would not be the first, but the only one, "born from among the dead," the rest having no part in a resurrection "from the dead," but merely in a resurrection "of the dead." Nor is this expression an isolated one. In speaking before Festus and Agrippa, the apostle declares the testimony of the prophets to be, "that the Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead" (Acts 26:23). Of course the propriety of the phrase is easily seen as respects Jesus Himself but here Jesus is declared to be only the earliest of a number to whom the same description is applicable. It is, moreover, as "the first-begotten of the dead," or rather as "the first-begotten from amongst the dead" (Rev. 1:5), that Jesus Christ is presented in the opening verses of the Apocalypse.
Even the very heresies which arose during the apostles' time testify to the fact that an exclusive resurrection was then taught. How could the false teaching of Hymenæus and Philetus have originated, "who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is passed already" (2 Tim. 2:18), or how could such false teaching "overthrow the faith of some," if the apostle had taught, and the early Christians had believed in, a general resurrection at the end of the world? whereas, on the other hand, one can readily perceive how the truth of an exclusive resurrection might be perversely wrested by the authors of the heresy, and become a serious stumbling-block to the faith of the less-established saints.
There is, however, another expression used by the apostle Paul still more remarkable. He desires to be made conformable to Christ's death, "If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection from among the dead" (Phil. 3:11). Our translators have merely given "of the dead," because, not knowing anything of the first resurrection, they could not understand the word (exanastasis) invented by the apostle to express his meaning. This word, however, is not the word ordinarily used for resurrection, but a word coined for this passage, never elsewhere found, and literally meaning "resurrection from the midst of." If it merely implied a general resurrection, why should the apostle be at any pains to attain to that to which good and bad alike must come? Or why should he coin a special word to imply exclusiveness when no exclusiveness was meant? But if he meant an exclusive resurrection of persons counted worthy to obtain it, both the force of the expression and the object of the apostle become obvious.
It may be said — If this is the meaning of the phrase "resurrection from the dead," why is it not used with reference to the dead spoken about in the long argument on the resurrection contained in 1 Cor. 15? The reason is very plain. A "resurrection from among the dead" is also a "resurrection of the dead," so that the latter expression may be employed with as much propriety of the first resurrection as of the second. How, then, should we expect to have the two phrases used? Why, surely we should expect that when the object in view was to bring out the exclusive character of the resurrection, the first expression — "resurrection from among the dead" — would be employed. But when the object was to bring out, not the exclusive character of the resurrection, but merely the fact, the latter expression — "resurrection of the dead" — would be more natural. Now the whole argument in the chapter referred to is to show that believers will rise again. This some of the Corinthians were denying. The apostle replies by stating God's plan, partly executed already, about the first resurrection. His teaching has no reference whatever to the resurrection of unbelievers, and the question of exclusive or general resurrection with respect to believers is not, therefore, touched upon. Nothing save the order and character of God's designs concerning the first resurrection is treated of; while these are very fully set forth. Christ is the first fruits; then, "they that are Christ's, at His coming" (v. 23), and at the same time even those believers who have not slept will be changed, and death will be swallowed up in victory (vv. 51-54).
Looked at in this light, the accuracy of the language is very striking. The only dead named or contemplated in the chapter are Jesus Himself and believers in Him. The raising of Jesus, then, being before the others, is described as a "resurrection from among the dead" (vv. 12, 20). The raising of the believers, who comprise the whole of the remaining dead under consideration, is not described as a "resurrection from among the dead," but simply as a "resurrection of the dead" (vv. 21, 42). For in this last case the use of the expression, "resurrection of the dead," was quite sufficient to bring out the truth which the Holy Ghost is teaching; while the other expression, "resurrection from among the dead," would not only have added nothing to the doctrine unfolded, but would have confused it by the introduction of a foreign and incongruous element.
On the other hand, if bad and good are raised together for judgment, how is it that not a word is said about either the wicked dead or the judgment? The omission is surely most powerfully suggestive. But it is not merely omission. Though the chapter does not name the resurrection of the lost, it clearly shows when it will take place. "Every man" shall rise "in his own order; Christ the first-fruits, afterward they that are Christ's, at His coming. Then comes the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign, till He has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is Death" (1 Cor. 15:23-26). After Christ's own resurrection, then, the order is — first, the resurrection of them "that are Christ's at his coming;" second, His reign, closing with the destruction of "the last enemy," Death; third, "the end," when he shall have "put all enemies under his feet," and "delivered up the kingdom to God." But when "the last enemy," Death, is destroyed, "the rest of the dead" are raised and judged also. On the appearance of the great white throne "the dead, small and great, stand before God," and are "judged, every man according to their works, and death and hades" are "cast into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:11-14). This is manifestly the destruction of death, for immediately after are beheld "a new heaven and a new earth" in which "there shall be no more death" (Rev. 21:1, 4). Comparing this, then, with the chapter in Corinthians, we see that the order in the two is just the same — first, the resurrection of the saved; then, the reign of Christ, ending with the destruction of death, and the resurrection and judgment of the lost; and finally, the perfect state, when "there shall be no more death." In a word, the chapter teaches, in harmony with the rest of Scripture, that the resurrection of the just and that of the unjust are two different events, the former preceding Christ's reign, the latter being one of its most solemn closing acts.
A general resurrection and judgment at the end of the world, not taught in scripture.
Conclusive as the passages quoted in our last chapter may appear as to the doctrine of a separate resurrection of believers before the end of the world, it would be a source of confusion to many, so long as there are various other portions of the Word of God which they have always understood as teaching the doctrine which these scriptures seem to overthrow. There are certain passages which have been commonly received as proving the fact of a general resurrection and judgment at the close of the world, and should the ordinary interpretation of these passages be correct, it manifestly clashes with the doctrine we have deduced in our last chapters with reference to an exclusive resurrection of the "dead in Christ." I propose, then, to examine these portions in detail. For there can be no real contradiction in Scripture, and if guided by the Spirit, we shall see either that the passages already quoted have been misunderstood, or that the texts taken to establish the opposite doctrine are in perfect harmony with them.
I. One of these cited as proving a general resurrection is in the prophecies of Daniel. "At that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which stands for the children of thy people; and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever" (Dan. 12:1-3). We need not here discuss the meaning of this passage. It is sufficient to point out that, if it refers to a resurrection of the dead at all, it cannot be a general resurrection. The verses quoted are the conclusion of a communication made to Daniel explaining the events which must happen before the restoration and glory of Daniel's people, that is, the Jews (Dan. 10:19 - 12:4). It relates simply to the Jews, and the time named is not the end of the world, but the deliverance of the nation. The resurrection spoken of therefore, whether literal or figurative, is not at the end of the world, but long before it; is not general, but confined to Daniel's people; and is not applied even to the whole of Daniel's people, but only to "many of them." Anything more unlike a general resurrection at the end of the world, it would be impossible to conceive. Indeed, if accepted as meaning a literal resurrection of the dead at all, it would be one of the most conclusive proofs that the resurrection was partial instead of universal, before the end of the world instead of at the end of the world.
II. Another passage thought to teach a general resurrection and judgment is the parable of the wheat and the tares. The text supposed to contain this doctrine is as follows: — "Let both (wheat and tares) grow together until the harvest; and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn" (Matt. 13:30). The explanation follows. "He that sows the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; the enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age (not world), and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so shall it be in the end of this age. The Son of man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (vv. 37-43).
That this passage has been supposed to describe a general judgment at the end of the world, is partly the cause and partly the consequence of the unfortunate mistranslation of the word signifying "age," as if it meant "world." The completion of the age is, however, a totally different event from the end of the world, and nothing but error can arise from confounding things so entirely opposed in character. It was a phrase well understood by the Jews, as describing the termination of their subjection to the Gentiles and disowning of God — the time concerning which Daniel's inquiries had been made and his prophecies uttered. It is always so used by the disciples, as when they inquire, "What shall be the sign of Thy coming and of the end of the age?" Nor is there a single instance where it can be properly understood as referring to the end of the world. On the contrary, it is the beginning of another epoch, by far the most blessed and glorious in the world's history.
But it is not merely the phrase used which forbids us to interpret the event here described as happening at the end of the world. If this is the general resurrection, why is nothing said about anybody rising? Surely the omission of this most striking portion of the picture is proof enough that the scene here presented is not the final resurrection and judgment, but some altogether different event. What then, is the event? If we look at what we have seen to be the effect of the Lord's coming, we shall have no difficulty in recognising the perfect agreement between this parable and the things which will happen at that time. The moment had not yet arrived for making known the secret of His coming for His saints before His manifestation to the world. Moreover, the question here is one of outward display to the world, not of dwelling with Christ in the Father's house. Looked at in this light what have we learned about the Lord's coming? That, as far as the wicked are concerned, Christ will come in flaming fire, taking vengeance, and accompanied by the angels of His power; that, as far as believers are concerned, they will be publicly manifested with Him in glory, that He may be "glorified in His saints" and "admired in all them that believe." In the parable, the angels are the ministers of judgment, the righteous shine forth as the sun, and the wicked are cast into a furnace of fire. Can any one fail to perceive the exact correspondence between the parable and the doctrinal statement?
III. Another passage supposed to contain a description of a general resurrection and judgment at the end of the world, is that comprised in the last two sections of our Lord's discourse with his disciples in Matthew 24 and 25. The former (Matt. 25:14-30) shows Jesus as the master who returns after being absent, and demands an account from his servants of certain talents entrusted to them. The second (vv. 31-46) represents Him seated on the throne of His glory, and judging the nations. The question is, whether either or both of these scenes must be taken as figures of a general judgment on those raised from their graves at the end of the world.
The first remark that occurs is, that the two scenes are so different in their character that it is not easy to regard them as representations of the same event. In the first parable, the persons spoken of are dealt with individually; in the second, in two great masses. In the first, the question tried is faithfulness to a certain trust; in the second, it is the conduct pursued towards a set of persons called "these my brethren."
But another remark speedily suggests itself. Why should these events be supposed to happen at a general resurrection and at the end of the world, when not so much as a passing allusion is made either to the dead, or to a resurrection, or to the world having come to its closing hour? The only answer that can be given to this question is, that the ordinary interpretation of Scripture left the interpreters no choice. Assuming that Christ only comes at the end of the world, and that all will then be raised and judged, these scenes must happen at that period, for there is no other time at which they could happen. But those who have already learnt that Christ will come before the end of the world, will hesitate to add so enormous a fact as a general resurrection to a narrative in which Scripture has remained wholly silent about it, and will seek some other explanation demanding no such outrage on the Word of God.
The parable of the talents follows those of the steward and of the virgins. The parable of the steward shows the results of carefulness or carelessness in watching for the Lord's return; that of the virgins the necessity of having oil in the lamp, that is, true spiritual life. The parable of the talents shows the responsibility of those called by the name of Christ to be diligent in His service. As the unwatchful steward is cut off, and the careless virgins are shut out, so here the unprofitable servant is cast into outer darkness, while the diligent ones enter into the joy of their lord. All three parables are fulfilled at the coming of Christ, looked at in both its aspects. The watchful steward, the virgins with oil, and the diligent servants, all receive their reward, while false professors are detected and left behind, or consigned to the dreadful judgments that overtake the world when Christ appears in His glory. While, then, this parable entirely fails as a description of a general resurrection, it perfectly agrees with the rest of Scripture as a picture of what takes place at Christ's second coming.
There is another point of agreement that deserves notice. In Luke, the same parable is related, but a difference is shown in the rewards. The servant who has made ten talents becomes ruler over ten cities; he who has made five, over five (Luke 19:12-27). Do we ever hear of saints being made rulers over cities in heaven? No, but we do hear of saints reigning with Christ over the earth, and to such a state of things the reward in the parable is exactly suited. The picture, then, agrees with other portions of the Word in describing what will happen at the Lord's second coming, believers being first caught up, and afterwards manifested with Christ in power, each rewarded according to the measure of his faithfulness, and unbelievers being cast out and brought to judgment. It may be asked whether, if this is the case, such a dialogue could occur as that related in the parable? But a parable is not a history — only a fictitious narrative meant to illustrate a principle. The dialogue is part of the figure, bringing out man's natural reasoning on one side and God's thoughts on the other. Who would understand literally the entreaty of the foolish virgins, or the reply of the bridegroom? Who supposes it to be a real conversation between the Judge and those on His right hand or those on His left, in the parable immediately following? Who ever imagined that the words put into the mouth of the rich man in torment, or of Abraham, were actually spoken? In the parable before us, as in those to which we have just alluded, the thoughts and desires of the heart are clothed in words, and the scene is not a description of any thing that really takes place, but a story illustrating the principles on which God and man are respectively acting.
The last section of the twenty-fifth chapter relates the judgment which Christ will execute on the nations of the earth, when He comes in His kingdom glory, to "break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces, like a potter's vessel." It represents Jesus coming as the minister of judgment. But this judgment is divided into various acts. In the Revelation, we have nothing described but the judgment executed on the beast and false prophet and the armies that followed them. Other acts of judgment are, however, related elsewhere. We read in the prophecies of Joel that the Lord will "bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem," and that He will then "gather all nations and will bring them down unto the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for My people and for My heritage, Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations" (Joel 3:1-2). Without discussing how far this is to be literally or figuratively understood, let us compare it with the scene described in Matthew. "When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory; and before Him shall be gathered all the nations" (Matt. 25:31-32). The article here is important, because it helps materially to determine the real character of the scene enacted. The translators, believing the event to be a general and final judgment, dropped it in order to give a more universal character to the gathering. It is, however, in the original, and the question is, who are meant by "all the nations"?
The word "nations" means "Gentiles," and is ordinarily used to describe them as distinguished from the Jews. Now, in this scene, there are not two classes as generally supposed, but three — the sheep, the goats, and "these my brethren." These persons called Christ's brethren are neither sheep nor goats, nor are they themselves brought into the judgment. It is for their conduct to these "brethren," who have been hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and in prison — a persecuted, despised, forsaken people — that the Gentiles are judged. How exactly this agrees, then, with the prediction of Joel, and, indeed, with the general current of Old Testament prophecy! All Scripture concurs in representing the Jews as forsaken of God for an indefinite period. When this period has elapsed, the Lord will "bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem," and will judge the nations for the cruel oppression with which they have, especially towards the close of this epoch, treated His people. It is true that in this scene described in Matthew, the saints are not mentioned as accompanying Jesus, but, as I have already shown, our Lord purposely left this subject obscure throughout his whole teaching. On the other hand, the angels are named, thus bringing the account into close accordance with the description of Christ's return in judgment given in 2 Thess. 1:7-8. This judgment of the nations then, foretold in Old Testament Scriptures, is the very judgment represented figuratively, no doubt, but with striking vividness, in the passage before us. "These my brethren" are the saved remnant of Israel, who, having received of the Lord's hand double for all their sins, are now delivered from their enemies, and owned by Christ as his people. "All the nations" are the Gentiles, who are now dealt with according to the favour or hostility they have shown to God's chosen race.
The passage shows the simplicity of Scripture when its light is directly received, instead of being refracted through the distorting medium of man's theological systems. As a judgment of the nations on Christ's return for Israel's restoration, the narrative is free from difficulty, but describes a striking fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. As a picture of the traditional resurrection and judgment, it is full of contradictions and absurdities, being an account of a universal judgment in which some are not judged, and of a universal resurrection in which nobody is raised!
IV. But there is another passage which will occur to the minds of some readers. "We must all appear" (or be manifested), says Paul, "before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10). And again, "We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ" (Rom. 14:10). These are deeply solemn words, which our hearts would do well to ponder. The same Saviour who makes Himself known as the loving friend gone to prepare a place for us, and waiting to come again and receive us unto Himself, also reveals Himself as the Judge walking among the candlesticks, with "His eyes as a flame of fire, and His feet like unto fine brass." "Every one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Rom. 14:12) — the lost, when He comes to judge the dead out of the things written in the books — and the saved also, when He reckons with His servants, and dispenses rewards.
But there is not a word about the two classes standing together, or for the same purpose. In the parable of the talents, recorded in Luke, besides the difference between the diligent and slothful servants, there is also a difference between the diligent servants proportioned to their merit. This shows that the saved are variously rewarded according to the measure of their faithfulness. The same principle, of the manifestation of the saved according to their works, is taught by Paul. Thus slaves are exhorted to do their service with good-will, "as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatsoever good thing any man does, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free" (Eph. 6:7-8). In another epistle the same class are told "that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance; for ye serve the Lord Christ; but he that does wrong shall receive for the wrong which he has done" (Col. 3:24-25). The fullest statement of this truth is, however, that contained in the following passage: "Know if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward; if any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire" (1 Cor. 3:12-15). This is the manifestation of believers according to their works, a solemn thing most assuredly, and a deep reality, as true as the judgment of the lost, but at the same time altogether distinct from it, both as to the time and the circumstances of its occurrence.
The word translated "judgment seat" means only a step or raised platform, such as a person exercising any authority, or pronouncing a speech, might occupy. It will include "the great white throne," before which the dead are summoned for their final sentence, but it is a word of much wider import, and, by no means necessarily, or indeed primarily, signifies the seat occupied by a judge on a criminal trial. It is used of the dais on which Herod sat, when he received the embassy from Tyre and Sidon (Acts 12:21), and is there rendered by our translators, "throne." The word would be just as applicable to the seat occupied by a judge in a civil suit or by an assessor awarding compensation, as to the seat of a judge trying a case of life and death. And these are really the two different actions described. The lost will appear before the tribunal to be tried on the question of life and death, out of those things which were written in the books (Rev. 20:12). How is this possible with the believer? Can the penitent thief be taken out of paradise to be put on his trial as to whether he shall be saved or lost? Can Paul, after being with Jesus more than eighteen centuries, be summoned before His bar to be tried for his life? Impossible! No, the appearance before the judgment seat in the case of believers is of a different kind, for a different purpose, and at a different season. It is before the reign of Christ, instead of at the end of the world; and it is for the purpose of determining, not whether they shall be saved or lost — a question which can never be raised again for those whom God has justified — but to what reward they are entitled by the measure of their faithfulness here below, whether they have built the "gold, silver, and precious stones," which can endure the searching fire of the Divine scrutiny, or the "wood, hay, and stubble," which shall perish before the judicial test, and leave them to be saved "so as by fire," — or again, whether in the apportionment of dominion among the "fellow-heirs," they should be made rulers over ten cities or over five.
And here we would note, in confirmation of what has been already said, the perfect and Divine accuracy of the language used by the Spirit of God. It is said that all shall "appear" before the judgment seat [or throne] of Christ, the real meaning being that all shall be manifested. In this all are included, saved and lost. The word used, therefore, is merely that they shall "stand" or "be manifested" — not that they shall be "judged." On the other hand, where it speaks only of the unbelieving dead, raised before the great white throne, the expression employed is that they shall be "judged." This is no fanciful or refined distinction. Our Lord Himself, while here on earth, says: "He that hears My word, and believes on Him that sent Me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment" (John 5:24). Almost immediately afterwards He speaks of two resurrections, a "resurrection of life" and a "resurrection of judgment" (v. 29). Surely two passages standing in such close juxtaposition show that judgment, so far as the question of salvation is concerned, is a thing from which the believer has already escaped. Being justified, it is impossible that he shall be judged. Hence the very fact that all those raised in the last scene, after the end of the world, are judged, is conclusive evidence, that the believers in Jesus Christ are not there. When their deeds are inquired into, it is not for the purpose of judging them, but that they may be manifested, and rewarded according to the measure of their faithfulness on earth.
V. It is possible that some persons may be disposed to found an argument in favour of a general resurrection at the end of the world upon the expression, "I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:40, 44, 54), and from the phrase, "at the last trump" (1 Cor. 15:52). But "the last" need not mean the very last thing in the world's history, merely the last event in the process under consideration. In John 6 Jesus is speaking of His care of those given Him by the Father, and says that He will lose nothing, but will raise it up at the last day. The work of guarding the charge committed to Him will then be at an end, the task entrusted to him by the Father will be fully performed, the last day of this class of responsibility will have arrived, and the believer whom He has tended will be perfected. So "the last trump" is the last event of the kind in the scene described. This chapter, as already pointed out, has nothing to do with the resurrection of the lost. It simply relates what will become of the saved. For a time some of them are in the grave, but this ends, and "the last trump" calls them forth to life and glory. The expressions used, as above understood, are familiar in daily talk. A barrister speaks of the last day, meaning the last day of term or assizes — a soldier of the last bugle, meaning the last call in the exercise he is going through. Nobody imagines they mean the last day that will ever dawn, or the last bugle that will ever sound.
We have now examined the passages commonly cited, to prove a general resurrection and judgment at the end of the world, and have found that none of them sustain this theological dogma. Most of them have nothing to do with a resurrection at all. None of them describe events happening to believers at the end of the world. On the other hand, Scripture speaks of two resurrections. One of these is when Christ comes for His saints, and is an event for which believers, whether in the first or third watch, are bidden diligently to wait. The other is at the end of the world. In "the first resurrection" all "those who are Christ's," whether living or dead, will be changed into His likeness, and caught up to be "for ever with the Lord." They will come forth with Him when he appears to break the nations with a rod of iron, and as His fellow-heirs will "reign with him a thousand years."
But now a very important question arises — a question already often alluded to — How is it that a hope, for which believers have from the first been instructed to wait, should have been so long delayed? Is not a promise which has been withheld for so many generations either altogether delusive, or at least so unlikely to receive its fulfilment in our time, that it would be idle still to cherish it as a present hope? We have already said much on this subject which need not now be repeated. But in addition to what has been previously urged, we would reply, — First, that since the Word of God has set the Lord's return before us as a present hope, it is not for us to question His truth because we cannot understand the principle of his acting; secondly, that the hope is given to the heart, not to the head, and where the heart is really true to Jesus and longs for His return, it will not cease from its waiting attitude because of the delay which comes between it and the object of its desire; thirdly, that Jesus expressly warns His disciples, a warning which extends to all ages, against saying in their hearts, "My lord delays his coming," and while intimating that several watches might pass before the hour arrived, still declares that "blessed are those servants, whom the lord, when he comes, shall find" so waiting; fourthly, that the Holy Ghost solemnly predicts and warns us against the spirit which asks, "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?" and reminds us that the word which man disregarded when it foretold the deluge, has spoken of the more fearful judgments yet to come (2 Peter 3:4-7); and fifthly, that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day," so that notwithstanding the apparently long tarrying, "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" (vv. 8, 9). Is it not a deeply solemn thought that men are found, now as ever, to contemn the riches of God's goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering, and to make the very grace in which He is acting, the ground for mocking at His promises and despising His commandments? Yet how many even of the Lord's own children can look into their hearts and say — I am guiltless in this matter?