And Jesus spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
The question which naturally suggests itself when we hear these words, is--When were these things to take place?
If we heard one whom we regarded as at least a person of perfect virtue, truthfulness, and earnestness, foretell that the city in which we now stand should be destroyed. If he told us, that when we saw it encompassed with armies, we were to know that its desolation was at hand. If he told us that then those who were in the surrounding country were to flee to the mountains, and those in the city to come out of it. If he pronounced woe in that day on mothers and weak women who could not escape. If he told us, nevertheless, that when these things came to pass we were to rejoice and lift up our heads, for our redemption was drawing nigh. If he told us to look at the trees in spring; for, as surely as their budding was a sign that summer was nigh, so was the coming to pass of these terrible woes a sign that something was nigh, which he called the Kingdom of God. If he told us, with a solemn asseveration, that this generation should not pass away till all had happened. If he went on to warn us against profligacy, frivolity, worldliness, lest that day should come upon us unaware. If he bade us keep awake always, that we might be found worthy to escape all that was coming, and to stand before Him, The Son of Man. If he used throughout his address the second person, speaking to us, but never mentioning our descendants; giving the signs, the warnings, the counsels to us only, should we not, even if he had not solemnly told us that the present generation should not pass away till all was fulfilled--should we not, I say, suppose naturally that he spoke of events which in his opinion our own eyes would see; which would, in his opinion, occur during our lifetime?
Whether he were right in his expectation, or wrong, still it would be clear that such was his expectation; that he considered the danger as imminent, the warning as addressed personally to us who heard him speak.
We should leave his presence with that impression, in fear and anxiety. But if we afterwards discovered that our fear and anxiety were superfluous; that the events of which he spoke--the most awful and wonderful of them at least--were not to occur for many centuries to come; that, even if some calamity were imminent, the immediate future and the very distant future were so intermingled in his discourse, that it would require the labours of commentator after commentator, for many hundred years, to disentangle them, and that their labours would be in vain; that the coming of the Son of Man, and of the Kingdom of God, of which he had spoken, were to be referred to a time thousands of years hence; though we were told in the same breath to look to the fig-tree and all the trees as a sign that it was coming immediately, and that our own generation would not pass away before all had taken place:--would not such a discovery raise in us thoughts and feelings neither wholesome for us nor honourable to the prophet?
I cannot think otherwise. We may be aware of the difficulties which beset this, and any other, interpretation of our Lord's prophecies in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: we may have the deepest respect for those learned and pious divines who from time to time have tried to part the prophecies relating to the fall of Jerusalem from those relating to the end of the world and the day of Judgment. Yet, in the face of such a passage as the text, especially when we cannot agree with those who would make this "generation" mean this "race" or "nation," we may--we have a right to--decline to separate the two sets of passages. We have a right to say,--He who spake as man never spake, and therefore knew the force of words; He who knew what was in man--and therefore what effect His words would produce on His hearers--did deliver a discourse--indeed, many discourses--which asserted, as far as plain words could be understood by plain men, that the Kingdom of God was at hand; and that the coming of the Son of Man would take place before that generation passed away.
And that all His disciples, and St Paul as much as any, put that meaning upon His words, is a matter of fact and of history, to be seen plainly in Holy Scripture.
But, while the text compels us to believe that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans was a coming of the Son of Man--a manifestation of the Kingdom of God--a day of Judgment, in the strictest and most awful sense; yet we are not compelled to limit the meaning of the text to the destruction of Jerusalem.
No prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation. Prophets, apostles--how much more our Lord Himself--do not merely indulge in presages; they lay down laws--laws moral, spiritual, eternal--which have been fulfilling themselves from the beginning; which are fulfilling themselves now; which will go on fulfilling themselves to the end of time.
So said our Lord Jesus of His own prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem. It was but one example--a most awful one--of the laws of His kingdom. Not in Judaea only, but wherever the carcase was, there would the eagles be gathered together. In the moral, as in the physical word, there were beasts of prey--the scavengers of God--ready to devour out of His kingdom nations, institutions, opinions, which had become dead, and decayed, and ready to infect the air. Many a time since the Roman eagles flocked to Jerusalem has that prophecy been fulfilled; and many a time will it be fulfilled once more, and yet once more.
And what else, if we look at them carefully and reverently, is the meaning of the words in this my text, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away"?
Shall we translate this,--Heaven and earth shall not come true: but My words shall come true? By so doing we may put some little meaning into the latter half of the verse; but none into the former. Surely there is a deeper meaning in the words than that of merely coming true. Surely they mean that His words are eternal, perpetual; for ever present, possible, imminent; for ever coming true. So, indeed, they would not pass away. So they would be like the heavens and the earth, and the laws thereof; like heat, gravitation, electricity, what not--always here, always working, always asserting themselves--with this difference, that when the physical laws of the heavens and the earth, which began in time, in time have perished, the spiritual laws of God's kingdom, of Christ's moral government of moral beings, shall endure for ever and for ever, eternal as that God whose essence they reflect.
Therefore I mean nothing less than that the great and final day of Judgment is past; or that we are not to look for that second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ which, as our forefathers taught us to hope, shall set right all the wrong of this diseased world.
God forbid! For most miserable were the world, most miserable were mankind, if all that our Lord prophesied had happened, once and for all, at the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies. But most miserable, also, would this world be, and most miserable would be mankind, if these words were not to be fulfilled till some future Last Day, and day of Judgment, for which the Church has now been waiting for more than eighteen centuries--and, as far as we can judge, may wait for as many centuries more. Most miserable, if the Son of Man has never come since He ascended into heaven from Olivet. Most miserable, if the kingdom of God has never been at hand, since He gave that one short gleam of hope to men in Judaea long ago. Most miserable, if there be no kingdom of God among us even now: in one word, if God and Christ be not our King; but the devil, as some fancy; or Man himself, as others fancy, be the only king of this world and of its destinies; if there be no order in this mad world, save what man invents; no justice, save what he executes; no law, save what he finds convenient to lay upon himself for the protection of his person and property. Most miserable, if the human race have no guide, save its own instincts and tendencies; no history, save that of its own greed, ignorance and crime, varied only by fruitless struggles after a happiness to which it never attains. Most miserable world, and miserable man, if that be true after all which to the old Hebrew prophet seemed incredible and horrible--if God does look on while men deal treacherously, and does hold His peace when the wicked devours the man who is more righteous than he; and has made men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things that have no ruler over them.
I said--Most miserable, in that case, was the world and man. I did not say that they would consider themselves miserable. I did not say that they would think it a Gospel, and good news, that Christ was their King, and that His Kingdom was always at hand. They never thought that good news. When the prophets told them of it, they stoned them. When the Lord Himself told them, they crucified Him. Worldly men dislike the message now, probably, as much as they ever did. But they escape from it, either by treating it as a self-evident commonplace which no Christian denies, and therefore no Christian need think of; or by smiling at it as an exploded superstition, at least as a "Semitic" form of thought, with which we have nothing to do. They confound it, often I fear purposely, with those fancied miraculous interpositions, those paltry special providences, which fanatics in all ages have believed to be worked for their own special behoof. Altogether they dislike, and express very openly their dislike, of the least allusion to a Divine Providence "interfering," as they strangely term it, with them and their affairs.
And they are wise, doubtless, in their generation. The news that Christ is the King of men and of the world must be unpleasant, even offensive, to too many, both of those who fancy that they are managing this world, and of those who fancy that they could manage the world still better, if they only had their rights. It must be unpleasant to be told that they are not managing the world, and cannot manage it: that it is being managed and ruled by an unseen King, whose ways are far above their ways, and His thoughts above their thoughts.
For then: Prudence might demand of them, that they should find out what are that King's ways, thoughts and laws, and obey them--an enquiry so troublesome, that many very highly educated persons consider it, now-a- days, quite impossible; and tell us that, for practical purposes, God's laws can neither be discovered, nor obeyed.
Moreover, their scheme of this world is one which would work--so they fancy--just as well if there was no God. Unpleasant therefore it must be for them to hear, not merely that there is a God, but that He has His own scheme of the world; and that it is working, whether they like or not; that God, and not they, is making history; God, and not they, appointing the bounds and the times of nations; God, and not they, or any man or men, distributing good and evil among mankind.
They do not object, of course, to the existence of a God. They only object to His being what the Hebrew prophets called Him--a living God; a God who executes justice and judgment by His Son Jesus Christ, to whom He has committed all power both in heaven and earth. They are ready sometimes to allow even that, provided they may relegate it into the past, or into the future. They are ready to allow that God and Christ exerted power over men at the first Advent 1800 years ago, and that they will exert power over men at the second Advent--none knows how long hence. But that God and Christ are exerting power now--in an ever-present and perpetual Advent--in this nineteenth century just as much as in any century before or since--that they had rather not believe. Their creed is, that though heaven and earth have not passed away; though the laws of nature are working for ever as at the beginning: yet Christ's words have passed away, and fallen into abeyance for many centuries past, to remain in abeyance for many centuries to come.
In one word--while they believe more or less in a past God, and a future God, yet as to the existence of a present God, in any practical and real sense--they believe--how little, I dare not say.
Whether this generation will awaken out of that sleep of practical Atheism, which is creeping on them more and more, who can tell? That they are uneasy in the sleep, there are many signs. For in their sleep dreams come of another world, of which their five senses tell them nought. Then do some fly to mediaeval superstitions, which give them at least elaborate and agreeable substitutes for a living God. Some fly to impostors, who pretend by juggling tricks to put them in communication with that unseen world which they have so long denied. Some, again, play with unfulfilled prophecy; and fancy that it is for them, though it was not for the apostles, to know the times and seasons which the Father has put in His own power, and the day and hour of which no man knoweth, no not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.
Better that, than that they should believe that there is nothing, and never will be anything, in the world, beyond what their five senses can apprehend.
But whether they awake or not out of their sleep, their blindness does not alter the eternal fact, whether men believe it or not. That is true what the Psalmist said of old: "The Lord is King, be the people never so impatient. He sitteth upon His throne, though the earth be never so unquiet."
The utterances of the old Psalmists and prophets concerning the ever-present kingdom of God are facts, not dreams. Whether men believe it or not, it is true that the power, glory, and righteousness of His kingdom may be known unto men; that His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion endureth throughout all ages; that The Lord upholds all such as fall, and lifts up those that are down; that the eyes of all wait on Him, that He may give them their meat in due season; that He opens His hand, and filleth all things living with plenteousness; that the Lord is righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works; that He is nigh to them that call upon Him, yea to all who call upon Him faithfully. He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that made the eye, shall He not see? He that chastiseth the nations; it is He that teacheth man knowledge: shall He not punish?
Whether men believe it or not, that is true which the Psalmist said--Whither shall I flee from His Spirit, or whither shall I go from His presence? If I climb up to heaven, He is there; if I go down to hell, He is there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there shall His hand lead me, His right hand hold me still.
Whether men believe it or not, that is true which Christ spake on earth--That the Father hath committed all judgment to Him, because He is the Son of man; that to Him is given all power in heaven and earth; and that He is with us, even to the end of the world.
Whether men believe it or not, that is true which S. Paul spake on Mars' hill, saying that the Lord is not far from any one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being; and that He hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness, by that Man whom He hath ordained, and raised from the dead.
Whether men believe it or not, that is true which Christ spake--Heaven and earth shall pass away; but My words shall not pass away; at least till He has put down all rule and all authority and power, and delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father, that God may be all in all.
"That one far-off divine event, toward which the whole creation moves," will be, not the resumption, but the triumph, of Christ's rule; of a rule which began before the world, which has endured through all the ages, which endures now, punishing or rewarding each and every one of us, and of our children's children, as long as there shall be a man upon the earth. For by Christ's will alone the world of man consists; in Christ's laws alone is true life, health, wealth, possible for any man, family or nation; out of His kingdom He casts, sooner or later, all things which offend, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. He said of Himself--Whosoever falleth on this rock shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it shall grind him to powder.