Lecture 3 of 11 on "The Hopes of the Church of God"

Acts 1.

The Second Coming of Christ.

J. N. Darby.

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This evening I am going to speak of the coming of Christ. Many questions link themselves with this great one, as for instance, the reign of Antichrist. But I shall limit myself this evening to the event itself - namely, the coming of the Lord.

I began by reading Acts 1 because the promise of the Lord's return is there set forth as the alone hope of the church, as the first object which would of necessity fix the attention of the disciples, when they were vainly following with their eyes the ascending Saviour, who was going to be hidden in God. In this chapter, just as the Lord was about to leave them, three remarkable features appear. The first is, that the disciples desired to know when and how God would restore the kingdom of Israel. Now Jesus did not say that this was never to happen; He only said, that the time of this restoration is not revealed. It belonged to times and seasons which the Father has put in His own power. The second is, that the Holy Ghost was about to come; and the third, that during the time the disciples were looking towards heaven, two angels said to them, "Why stand ye here 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."

291 They were, then, to expect the return of Christ.

If we study the history of the church, we shall find it to have declined in spirituality exactly in proportion as this doctrine of the expectation of the Saviour's return had been lost sight of. In forgetting this truth it has become weak and worldly. Not, however, wishing to quit the sphere of the word, let us see therein how the feeling of the return of Christ ruled the intelligence, sustained the hope, inspired the conduct, of the apostles. We have only to this end to look through a few passages of the New Testament.

Acts 3:19-21. "Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out when the times of refreshing shall come [or "so that the times of refreshing may come"] from the presence of the Lord … ." The Holy Spirit is come; He has remained with the church; but the times of refreshing will come "from the presence of the Lord when he shall send Jesus." It is impossible to apply this passage to the Holy Ghost, because He was already, at that time, come down, and had said by the mouth of the apostle, "Whom the heaven must receive till the times of restitution of all things." And, in truth, the Holy Spirit has not restored all things. He who is to come, according to this passage, is not to come to judge the dead, nor that the world may be burnt up and destroyed; but it is specially for "the restitution of all things which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets."

I cite these passages to make you comprehend what I understand by the coming of the Saviour. It is not the judgment of the dead; it is not the great white throne; but it is the return of Jesus Christ in Person, when He shall be sent from heaven. If you compare these verses with what is written in Revelation 20 you will see that the coming of Jesus Christ, and the judgment of the dead, are two distinct events; that when the judgment of the dead takes place, there is not a word about Christ returning from heaven upon the earth; for it is said, "From whose face the earth and the heavens fled away," v. 11.

292 The Lord will return to the earth.

Let us now see how Himself first, then the Holy Ghost by the apostles, have constantly directed our attention to His personal return.

Matthew 24:27-33. "Then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory." Certainly the expedition of Titus against Jerusalem was not the coming of the Saviour in the clouds of heaven. Neither is this a description of the judgment of the dead before the tribunal of the great white throne. At that time the earth is no more, whilst in the passage just cited the nations of the earth are brought before us, and it is a question of an event in which the earth is concerned. "Then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn." It is not a millennium brought about by the exercise of the power of the Holy Ghost. The world has never seen the Holy Ghost. We are told that the tribes of the earth shall lament when they see the Lord Jesus (v. 33). "So likewise ye, when ye see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors."

Verses 42-51. The faithfulness of the church is made to hinge on its watchfulness as regards this truth of the return of Christ. From the moment that it was said, "My lord delays his coming," "then the servant began to smite his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken." "Therefore be ye also ready," said Jesus, "for the Son of man [not death] comes."

Matthew 25:1-13. The expectation of the return of Christ is the exact measure (the thermometer, so to speak) of the life of the church. As the servant became unfaithful the moment he had said, "My lord delays his coming," so it was with the ten virgins, for it is said, they all slept. It was not death, nor the Holy Spirit, that the ten virgins were told to expect; for neither death nor the Holy Spirit is the Bridegroom. All the virgins were found in the same state; the wise ones (the true saints) as well as the foolish ones, who wanted the oil of the Holy Spirit, slept and forgot the immediate return of Christ, as, on the other hand, what wakes them up is the midnight cry that He is coming.

293 In Mark 13 we get nearly the same thing. Verse 26 forbids us to apply the passage to the invasion of the Romans;* and when it is said (v. 22), "It is nigh, even at the doors," there is no thought about the judgment of the dead, nor of the great white throne. At that day, the day of the judgment before the great white throne, there will be no question either of house or household.
{*There may have been, at the time of the taking of Jerusalem by Titus, circumstances in some respects resembling those which will yet take place when the prophecies of Mark 13 and Matthew 24 shall be accomplished, so that the disciples might have been able to use the warnings which they contain (although there is no certainty of the fact). But there are insurmountable obstacles in applying "the abomination of desolation" to the army of Titus, or to the Roman ensigns. For there is a period which dates from this event, of which we see no fulfilment, in counting from the taking of Jerusalem. So that it has been found necessary to transport this part of prophecy to popery, which we know has nothing to do with the invasion of Titus. The passage in Luke would seem to have more to do with the events which took place at the taking of Jerusalem by Titus; but again I say, to attempt to apply the passages which have been occupying us to this event is to lose our time.}

Four passages only are to be found in the New Testament which speak of the joy of the departed soul. The first occasion is when the thief said to the Lord (Luke 23:42-43), "Remember me when thou comest into [in] thy kingdom." It was about the coming of Jesus in glory that his thoughts were occupied - a truth which was familiar to the Jews. The Lord replied to him, "To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise." The second case is that of Stephen, who said (Acts 7:59), "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit"; the third, when Paul said, "To be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8); the fourth, "For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better," Phil. 1:22-23. In truth, it is far better to expect the glory, present with Christ, than to remain here below: not that we go to glory when we depart, but we are quit of sin, out of the reach of it, and we enjoy the Lord apart from it. Yes, it is a state far better, but it is also one of expectation, like that in which Christ is Himself placed, sitting at the right hand of the Father, expecting that which is to come.

Luke 12:32. "Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning." Here we find again (circumstantially different) the parable of the unfaithful servant; only the Lord adds, "That servant which knew his Lord's will, and prepared not himself [what a picture of Christendom!] shall be beaten with many stripes; but he who knew not [the pagans], … shall be beaten with few stripes." All shall be judged; but Christendom is in a state worse than that of the Jews or pagans, inasmuch as it has had more advantages.

294 Luke 17:30. "Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed."

Luke 21:27. "Then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." The fig-tree of which the Saviour speaks on this occasion, is especially the symbol of the Jewish nation. "Watch therefore," He adds, "that ye may stand before the Son of man." These two chapters, namely, Luke 17 and 21, as well as Matthew 24 and Mark 13, relate to the coming of the Lord connected with the Jews - its earthly bearing. To these may be added Luke 19, where the servants who are called, and the enemies who rejected the nobleman, clearly mark the servants of Christ, and the Jewish nation. See particularly verses 12, 13, 27.

John 14:2. "In my Father's house are many mansions … And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to myself." The Lord Himself will come for His church, in order that the church may be there, where He is.

Acts 1:11. "This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner."

Acts 3. This is the preaching of the apostle to the Jews: Repent, and Jesus will return. You have killed the Prince of life; you have denied the Holy One and the Just; God has raised Him from the dead. Repent, be converted, and He will return. But they would not repent. During three years He had vainly sought fruit from His fig-tree. The husbandmen, on the contrary, killed the Son of Him who had placed them in His vineyard. The Son of God, Jesus, asked pardon for them on the cross, whence His voice is all-powerful, in saying, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." The Holy Ghost, by the mouth of the apostle, answers to the intercession of Jesus, "I wot that through ignorance ye did it … Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that the times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord." But we know they continued to resist the Holy Ghost; Acts 7:51.

295 Acts 3:20-21. "And he shall send Jesus Christ … whom the heavens must receive until the times of the restitution of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began."

This is the great end of all the counsels of God. As we have before seen the secret of His will, that God would gather together all things in Christ, we find here what He has spoken of by the mouth of all His holy prophets: that is, the earthly part. How are all these things to be accomplished? Is it by the operation of the Holy Spirit? No, for it is said that "he shall send Jesus." It is, doubtless, true that the Holy Ghost will be shed abroad, and He will be so specially upon the Jews; but in the passage quoted the event is to take place by the presence of Jesus. There cannot be a revelation more explicit, than that it is by the sending of Jesus, that the things spoken of by the prophets will receive their accomplishment. How can the force and simplicity of this declaration be evaded?

We see the fall, the ruin, of man; we see even all creation subjected to corruption. The bride desires that the Bridegroom may appear. It is not the Holy Spirit who will re-establish the creation, and who is the inheritor of all things; it is Jesus. When Jesus appears in His glory, the world will behold Him, whilst it cannot see the Holy Ghost.

"At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow." The work of the Holy Spirit is not to re-establish all things here below, but to announce Jesus who will return. Again, it is the Holy Spirit who was in Peter, when he said, "Whom the heavens must receive till the time of the restitution." Receive whom? Not the Holy Ghost (He was descended from heaven already), but Jesus; and all we have to do is to believe.

Let us now turn to the epistles, in order to be shown that the coming of the Lord is the constant and living expectation of the church. We see, on referring to Romans 8:19-22, all creation in suspense until the moment of His appearing. Compare John 14:1, 3; Col. 3:1-4. Again (1 Cor. 1:7), "Ye come behind in no gift, waiting for the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ"; and Ephesians 1:10, on which we have already spoken. Since at the last judgment the earth and the heavens will have passed away, it is before this time that God will gather together in one all things in Christ.

Philippians 3:20-21. "For our conversation (citizenship) is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like to his glorious body."

296 Colossians 3:4. "When Christ who is our life shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory."

The two epistles to the Thessalonians turn entirely on this subject. Everything in the first epistle has reference to the coming of Christ; all that Paul says of his work, or of his joy, belongs to it.

First of all, conversion itself is made to bear upon it (1 Thess. 1:10). The faithful of Thessalonica, who had served as models to those of Macedonia and Achaia, and whose faith was so spread abroad that the apostle had no need to say anything, "had turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come." It is remarkable that this church, one of the most flourishing of those to which the apostles have written, should be precisely that one to which the Lord has chosen to reveal, with most detail, the circumstances of His coming. "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him."

Such was the faith of the Thessalonians, that it was spoken of in all the world. What was it? That they expected the Lord from heaven. And it is for us to have this same faith which the Thessalonians had. We ought, like them, to be expecting the Lord before the thousand years. They were certainly not saying there must be a period of a thousand years ere the Saviour comes (1 Thess. 2:19). "For what is our hope? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?"

1 Thess. 3:13. "To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints." It is evidently the ruling idea influencing the mind of the apostle.

1 Thess. 4:13-18. It is remarkable that the consolation which he gives to those who surrounded the death-bed of a Christian, is their friend's return with Jesus, and their mutual meeting. It is customary to say, "Be content: he is gone to glory." This was not the way with the apostle. The comfort which he proposes to those who are mourning the death of a believer is, "Be content: God will bring them back." What a change must not the habitual feelings of Christians have undergone, since the consolation given by an apostle is counted in this day as foolishness! The believers in Thessalonica were penetrated to such a degree with the hope of the return of Christ, that they did not think of dying before that event; and when one of them departed, his friends were afflicted with the fear that he would not be present at that happy moment. Paul reassures them by asserting that "those who sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." We can understand by this example to what a degree the church has put away the hope which occupied the souls of the first converts; how far distant we are from the apostolic views, which we have replaced by the idea of an intermediate state of happiness (the soul separated from the body), - a condition true, indeed, and by much superior to ours on the earth, but vague, and which at best is a state of waiting. Jesus Himself waits, and the dead saints wait.

297 I by no means desire to weaken the truth of this intermediate state of happiness. Thus the apostle speaks of it in 2 Corinthians 5, "For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not that for we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life … ." After declaring that his hope was in the power of the life of Christ, and that mortality should be swallowed up by it, he adds, "Therefore we are always confident; knowing that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord," etc. That is, if this mortal body is not absorbed in life (is not changed without seeing death), the confidence which I have is not interrupted at death; I have already received the life of Christ in my soul - that cannot fail. It may be that I shall depart, but the life in my soul will not be affected. I have already the life of Christ: if I depart, I shall be with Him.

One more remark on 1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17: "We which are alive [those who shall be alive on the earth at the coming of the Lord] shall not prevent 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 (those who 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."

If the apostle had expected a millennium of the Holy Spirit before the coming of Jesus, how could he ever have said, "We who remain until the coming of Christ"? There was, then, in his soul, a continual expectation of the coming of Christ, of which he knew not the moment, but which he had a right to expect. Was he deceived in that? No, not at all: he was always expecting; his business was to do so; and waiting had this of good in it, that it kept him completely detached from the world. If we were expecting from day to day the coming of the Lord, where would all those plans be as to family, house, etc., to flatter the pride of life and to get rich? It is the nature of the hope which we have that forms our character; and when the Lord comes, Paul will enjoy the fruits of his waiting. The hope which animated him produced its good fruits; it was in the spirit of this hope that he exclaimed, "And I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ," 1 Thess. 5:23.

298 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4. Mark well that this day ought not to overtake the followers of Christ as a thief.

2 Thessalonians 1:9-10; 2:3-12. Instead of a world blessed with a millennium without the presence of Jesus, behold the man of sin growing worse, until he is destroyed by the glorious appearing of Christ - evidence to us that a mere spiritual millennium alone is untrue. For the mystery of iniquity, which was already working in the time of Paul, was to go on until the man of sin was manifested, who will be destroyed by the glorious appearing of Christ Himself, with the Spirit of His mouth. Now, in such a state of things where is the place for such a millennium?*
{*For the meaning of the expression, "spirit of his mouth," see Isaiah 11:4; Isa. 30:33.}

1 Timothy 6:14-16. "Keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which in his times he shall show, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; who only has immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man has seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen."

2 Timothy 4:1.* "I charge thee, therefore, before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead, at his appearing and his kingdom."
{*This passage, compared with 1 Corinthians 15 shows that the appearing of Christ is not at the end; for at the end He has delivered up the kingdom, whereas here, the kingdom takes place at His appearing. Note - the whole period is spoken of, and therefore the judgment of the dead as well as of the quick.}

299 Titus 2 11-13. The grace of God has appeared, teaching us first how to live, and, secondly, the expectation of glory. The appearing of grace is already come, it teaches us to expect the appearing of glory.

Hebrews 9:28. "So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation." As the great High Priest, when He shall have finished His work of intercession, He will go out of the sanctuary; Lev. 9:22-24.

James 5:9. "Behold the judge stands before the door."

2 Peter 1:16-21. "For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty; for he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came to him such a voice from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; and this voice which came from heaven we heard when we were with him in the holy mount. We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation; for the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."

The transfiguration was, then, a specimen - a kind of pattern - of the coming of the Lord in glory.

1 John 3:2-3. "But we know that when he [the Son of God] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." We shall only be like Him when He appears, not before. "And every man that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure." He whose heart is full of this hope conducts himself accordingly - he purifies himself. Knowing that when Jesus shall appear, I shall be like Him, I ought to be as much as possible, even now, such as Jesus. How powerful and efficacious is this truth of the return of Christ, and what practical effect flows out of its expectation! This hope is the measure of holiness to us, as it is the motive.*
{*This passage explains Matthew 16:28; also Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:1-2; and Luke 9:27-28.}

Those also who are in heaven (Rev. 5:10) say in their songs, "We shall reign on the earth." This is the language of the saints who are already on high, surrounding the throne. Their language is, "We shall reign," and not "we reign." They are themselves in a state of expectation, like the Lord Jesus Himself, awaiting that which is to happen; namely, that His enemies be made the footstool for His feet.*
{*Critical editions read "they" instead of "we"; but this only strengthens the doctrine we are occupied with, as pointing to a remnant on the earth when the church is gone.}

300 Study also (Matt. 13:24-43) the parable of the tares and the wheat. The tares - namely, the evil which Satan has done where the good grain has been sown - are to increase until the harvest, which is the end of this dispensation or age. The evil which he has caused by heresies, false doctrines, false religions, all this evil will continue, increase, and ripen: these tares, we say, will increase in the Lord's field, until the harvest. Here, then, is a positive revelation, which gives a formal contradiction to the idea of the millennium by the Holy Spirit, apart from the return of the Lord.

We have now seen that the coming of Christ allies itself to all the thoughts, to all the motives of consolation and joy, and to the holiness of the church, yea, even to the dying bed; and that Christ will bring back with Him those who have previously quitted the body. We have also seen, on the one hand, that it is the coming of the Saviour which will be the means of the restitution of all things; and on the other, that evil is to increase in the Lord's field until the harvest.

May the Lord apply these truths to our hearts, dear friends, on one side, to detach us from the things of the world, and, on the other, to attach us to His coming - to Himself in Person; and we shall purify ourselves even as He is pure. There is nothing more practical, nothing more powerful to disentangle us from a world which is to be judged, and at the same time to knit us to Him who will come to judge it. Certainly, there is nothing that can better serve to show us wherein ought to be our purification; nothing which can so console us, invigorate us, and identify us with Him who has suffered for us, in order that we who suffer might reign with Him, co-heirs in glory. Assuredly, if we were expecting the Lord from day to day, there would be seen in us a self-renunciation which is rarely seen among the Christians of the present age. May none of us be found saying, "My Lord delays his coming!"