Everybody is aware of the difference prevailing among the Lord's people as to the interpretation of those passages of Scripture which foretell the future in reserve for the Church and the world. The ordinary interpretation is, that the promises contained in the Psalms and Old Testament prophecies refer to the Church, which, as the spiritual Israel, has taken the place, in God's purposes, of the literal Israel, to whom these promises were given. So, the fulfilment of the promises is taken to be spiritual rather than literal, being brought about by the gradual spread of Christianity, and the blessings of peace and prosperity following the universal triumph of the gospel. This world-wide dominion of truth and happiness is presumed to be the period of a thousand years, during which Satan is bound, and the saints reign with Christ. It is supposed that at the close of this time, after another brief outbreak of Satan's craft and human wickedness, the world is destroyed; and that there is then a general resurrection of the dead, both bad and good, to be judged before the great white throne. This is interpreted as the event called "the coming of the Lord," "the appearing of the Lord," "the day of the Lord," "the end of the age" (mis-translated "world"), and "the coming of the Son of man" — names supposed all to refer to the same period, the closing up of the history, and indeed, of the existence, of the habitable globe.
There is, however, another interpretation given to the Scriptures describing these events, which may be briefly stated as follows. The Old Testament prophecies, except where manifestly figurative, are to receive a literal fulfilment. The promises given to Israel are to be made good to Israel, not to the Church. The Old Testament prophecies being thus taken from the Church, the New Testament is found to contain no prediction of the universal spread of Christianity, but, on the contrary, sad forecasts of corruption, leading to judgment, in the body professing the name of Christ. In the midst of this gloom, however, the prospect of the Lord's coming for His saints shines as a bright hope for the hearts of the faithful. This coming, the date of which is purposely left undetermined, instead of being at the end of the world, is preliminary to the judgments awaiting the world, and to the reign of Christ with His saints. When it occurs, the living saints will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and at the same time will take place, in part at least "the first resurrection," when the dead in Christ will be raised. Then follow the woes which usher in "the day of the Lord," when Israel is restored, Old Testament prophecy fulfilled, Satan bound, and the dominion of Christ established on the earth. At its close Satan is loosed, the nations rebel, the world is consumed, and the "rest of the dead" are raised and judged.
I propose to inquire which of these interpretations is correct. The question is not one of mere curiosity, still less an intrusion into regions we are forbidden to tread. The distinction which our Lord draws between the servant and the friend is that "the servant knows not what his Lord does," while He told His disciples, as friends, all things that He had heard of His Father (John 15:15). In the same discourse He promises to send "the Spirit of truth," the Comforter; to show them "things to come" (John 16:13). Indeed, the very thought that the constant references to the future scattered through the sacred writings are not meant to be understood, carries its own refutation. And, as if foreseeing the spirit of unbelief and indifference which characterises the present time, the Holy Ghost has, in the introduction to the Apocalypse, the most distinctively prophetic portion of the New Testament, pronounced a special blessing on those "that hear the words of this prophecy and keep those things which are written therein" (Rev. 1:3).
While, moreover, it is admitted that the interpretation of prophecy may be attempted in a frivolously inquisitive spirit, are not those who turn a deaf ear to its promises and warnings themselves guilty of the same irreverence which they censure in others? For the object of prophecy is to unfold God's purposes with respect to the glory of His Son, whom man has refused, but whom God has exalted, and to whom every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess. In the contemplation of this theme, He invites His chosen ones to share. And who are these chosen ones? Are they mere lookers on? No, thanks be to God, we who believe in Jesus are His fellow-heirs — all things are ours. God invites us to look at the inheritance He has Himself prepared for us in joint possession with the Son of His love. And surely, as in the enjoyment of that inheritance, the "first-born," in whom we have our acceptance, will be the one object of our worship and delight, so in its contemplation now, our brightest thought should be that we are gazing on the portion prepared for Him who alone is worthy "to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing." To study prophecy with any more trivial object is to lose sight of this glorious end. It is like studying the movements of the solar system from the orbits of the more distant planets, without taking account of the central globe round which the whole revolves. But, on the other hand, to neglect it as unprofitable, because it does not contribute to our personal salvation, is a piece of selfishness derogatory to the claims of Christ, and unworthy of the condescending goodness of God in thus taking us into His own counsels. It is a deliberate preference of the position of a servant to that of a friend, a declaration that so long as our own interests are secured, we are indifferent as to what God has told us concerning the glories of Him who loved us and gave himself for us.
Nor can we overlook the great practical importance of the inquiry. For surely there is a vast moral chasm between the two interpretations of coming events just indicated. If God's Word teaches that Christianity, instead of overspreading the world, will only prove, like Judaism, the incurable enmity of man to God, the jubilant and self-congratulatory tone prevalent in Christendom is nothing better than Laodicean self-complacency, saying, "I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing, while really it should be mourning that it is "wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (Rev. 3:17). It is holding out a false and delusive hope, saying, "peace and safety," when "sudden destruction" is approaching. And if the world is hurrying on to judgment, Christians who see it will duly estimate the seductive cry of modern progress, and beware of entangling themselves in affairs over which such a doom is hanging.
While, therefore, the deep solemnity of the subject forbids all idle curiosity, its importance equally condemns all selfish indifference. These things are written for our instruction, and it cannot be a matter of little moment whether the instruction which God has given is received or slighted, understood or misapprehended. Reverence for God's Holy Word, regard for the honour and glory of Christ, as well as the immense practical questions involved in the different schemes of interpretation, all unite in rebuking both the curious spirit in which the subject is too often approached, and the careless spirit in which it is too often avoided. For the sake of clearness the best mode of looking at the subject will be to inquire —
First, What is the immediate prospect placed before the believer? in other words, What is the hope of the Church, according to the Word of God? This will naturally lead us to look,
Secondly, At the promises of blessing and righteousness upon earth contained in the Old Testament Scriptures, and the mode in which these promises are to receive their fulfilment. Having thus distinguished between the hope of the Church and the prospect of blessing before the world, we shall be in a better position to ascertain and understand,
Thirdly, The teaching of the Holy Ghost concerning the position held by the Church in God's dispensational dealings, and the moral relationship in which it stands towards the world, a matter involving the deepest and most practical lessons as to the walk suited to believers in the present age.