By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached December 12, 1852
"And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ."-2 Thess. iii. 5.
The two Epistles to the Thessalonians contain, more expressly than any other, St. Paul's views respecting the second Advent of Christ. The first epistle was written to correct certain enthusiastic views respecting that coming. But the second epistle tells us that the effort had failed. For in the mean while, another epistle had been forged in St. Paul's name, asserting that the day was near, and so opening the floodgates of fanaticism. To counteract this, he tells them not to be shaken in mind by any word or letter as from him, as that the day of Christ was at hand. And, contrary to his usual practice, he writes the salutation at the close with his own hand, making it a test hereafter of the genuineness of his epistles.
Let us try to paint a picture of the state of the Thessalonian Church. Such phenomena had appeared as might have been expected to arise from a belief that the end of the world was near. Men forsook their stated employments; the poor would not work, but expected to be maintained by their richer brethren. Men, being idle, spent their time in useless discussions, neglected their own affairs, gossipped, and indulged a prying curiosity into the affairs of others. Hence arose the necessity for the admonition-"Study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your hands, as we commanded you;" and so the apostle had said, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you."
Moreover, two opposite lines of conduct were adopted by persons of different temperament. Some greedily received every wild tale and mysterious prediction of the Advent, and listened eagerly to every fanatic who could work upon the vulgar credulity. Others, perceiving that there was so much imposture, concluded that it was safest to believe nothing; and accordingly were skeptical of every claim to inspiration. In admonition of the first class, St. Paul says, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." In admonition of the second, "Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings."
The opposite tendencies of skepticism and credulity will be found very near together in all ages. Some men refusing to believe that God speaks in the signs of the times; others running after every book on prophecy, seeking after signs, believing in miracles and imposture, mesmerisms, electro-biologies, winking pictures-any thing provided it be marvellous-it is the same state of mind exactly!
To meet the evil of this feverish, disturbed state of the Thessalonian Church, St. Paul takes two grounds. He first points out the signs which will precede the second Advent: Self-idolatry, excluding the worship of God. Sinful humanity, "the man of sin," in the temple of God. And this self-worship deceiving by a show of godliness, and a power apparently miraculous (such as our present self-laudations, philanthropies, marvellous triumphs as with Divine power, over the material world). Besides this, punishment of falsehood on the rejection of the true. These signs worked then and now. St. Paul discerned the general law of Christ's kingdom and its development as applicable to all epochs down to the last. But next, St. Paul called the Church away from this feverishness to the real preparation for the Advent. The Church was on the tip-toe of expectation, and prepared in the way above described. St. Paul summons them to a real but not excited preparation. And this in two things: -1. The love of God. 2. Patience of the saints. We consider-
I. Preparation for the Redeemer's coming: the love of God.
1. The love of God is the love of goodness. The old Saxon word God is identical with Good. God the Good One-personified goodness. There is in that derivation not a mere lay of words-there is a deep truth. None loves God but he who loves good. To love God is to love what God is. God is pure, and he who loves purity can love God. God is true. God is just; and he who loves these things out of God may love them in God; and God for them, because He is good, and true, and pure, and just.
No other love is real; none else lasts. For example, love based on a belief of personal favors will not endure. You may be very happy, and believe that God has made you happy. While that happiness lasts you will love God. But a time comes when happiness goes. You will not be always young and prosperous. A time may come when misfortunes will accumulate on you as on Job. At last, Job had nothing left but life. The natural feeling would be, "Curse God and die." Job said, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." Plainly Job had some other reason for his love than personal favors. God, the all-pure, all-just, all-holy, adorable, because all-holy. Or again, you believe that Christ's sufferings have purchased heaven for you. Well, you are grateful. But suppose your evidence of personal salvation fades, what then?
Here, however, let me make a remark. The love of goodness only becomes real by doing good. Without this it remains merely a sickly sentiment. It gets body and reality by acting. For example, we have been prating since the Great Duke's death, of duty. Know we not that by merely talking of duty our profession of admiration for duty will become a cant? This is a truth a minister of Christ feels deeply. It is his business to be talking to others of self-sacrifice and devotedness. He of all men feels how little these words mean, unless they are acted out. For an indolent habit of admiring goodness is got easily, and is utterly without profit. Hence Christ says, "Not every man that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven;" and hence, too, "If a man love me, he will keep my commandments, and I will love him." "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them;" "This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments." The love of goodness is real and healthy only when we do it.
2. The love of God is the love of man expanded and purified. It is a deep truth that we can not begin with loving God, we must begin with loving man. It is an awful command, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and mind." It is awful and impossible at first. Interrogate the child's conscience, he does not love God supremely; he loves his mother, and his sister, and his brother more. Now this is God's plan of nature. Our special human affections are given us to expand into a diviner charity. We are learning "by a mortal yearning to ascend." Our affections wrap themselves round beings who are created in God's image; then they expand, widen in their range; become less absorbed, more calm, less passionate, more philanthropic. They become more pure, less selfish. Love was given, encouraged, sanctioned, chiefly for this end- . . . . that self might be annulled. The testimony of St. John is decisive on this point. To him we appeal as to the apostle who knew best what love is. His love to God was unearthly, pure, spiritual; his religion had melted into love. Let us listen to his account. "No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His love is Effected in us;" "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?"
According to him, the thought of the invisible God is intolerable. It would be shorn of its dazzling splendor by being exhibited in our brethren. So we can gaze on the reflected sunlight on the moon. According to him, it is through the visible that we appreciate the invisible-through the love of our brother that we grow into the love of God.
An awful day is coming to us all-the day of Christ. A day of triumph, but of judgment too. Terrible language describes it, "The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood." God shall be felt as He never has been yet. How shall we prepare for that august sight? Not by unnatural, forced efforts at loving Him whom no eye can see and live; but by much persistence in the appointed path of our common affections, our daily intercourse, the talk man holds with man in the hourly walk of the world's intercourse. By being true to our attachments. Let not a humble Christian be over-anxious, if his spiritual affections are not as keen as he would wish. The love of God is the fullblown flower of which the love of man is the bud. To love man is to love God. To do good to man will be recognized hereafter as doing good to Christ. These are the Judge's words: "Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it unto Me."
3. Personal affections.
[Guard what is now said from any appearance of representing it as actually attained by the person who describes it. The love of God is a fearful and a lovely thing; but they who have reached it are the few.]
It is not merely love of goodness, but love of goodness concentrated on the Good One. Not merely the love of man, but the love of man expanded into the love of Him, of whom all that we have seen of gentle and lovely, of true and tender, of honorable and bright in human character, are but the shadows and the broken imperfect lights.
It is here that the Jewish religion is the chief trainer of the world. Revelation began with the personality of God. All the Jew's discipline taught him this: that the law of right was the will of a lawgiver. Deliverance from Egyptian slavery, or Assyrian invasion was always associated with the name of a deliverer. Moses and the prophets were His messengers and mediators. "Thus saith the Lord," is ever the preface of their message.
Consequently, only from Jews, and Christians trained through the Old Testament to know God, do we hear those impassioned expressions of personal love, which give us a sublime conception of the adoration of which human hearts are capable. Let us hear David-"Whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of Thee;" "My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God." And that glorious outburst of St. Paul: "Let God be true and every man a liar," which can be understood only by those who feel that the desertion of all, and the discovery of the falseness of all would be as nothing compared with a single doubt of the faithfulness of God.
II. The other preparation is the patient waiting.
1. What is waited for?-an Advent of Christ. We must extend the ordinary meaning of this expression. There are many comings of Christ.
Christ came in the flesh as a Mediatorial Presence.
Christ came at the destruction of Jerusalem.
Christ came, a Spiritual Presence, when the Holy Ghost was given.
Christ comes now in every signal manifestation of redeeming power.
Any great reformation of morals and religion is a coming of Christ.
A great revolution, like a thunderstorm, violently sweeping the evil away, to make way for the good, is a coming of Christ.
Christ will come at the end of the world, when the Spirit of all these comings will be concentrated.
Thus we may understand in what way Christ is ever coming and ever near. Why it was that St. James said, "Stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh;" and "Behold, the Judge standeth before the door." And we shall also understand how it was that the early Church was not deceived in expecting Christ in their own day. He did come, though not in the way they expected.
2. What is meant by "waiting?"
Now it is remarkable that throughout the apostle's writings, the Christian attitude of soul is represented as an attitude of expectation-as in this passage, "So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ;" and again, "We are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it." Salvation in hope: that was their teaching. Not a perfection attained, but a perfection that is to be.
The golden age lies onward. We are longing for, not the Church of the past, but the Church of the future. Ours is not an antiquated, sentimental yearning for the imaginary perfection of ages gone by, not a conservative stagnation content with things as they are, but hope-for the individual and for the society. By Him we have access by faith, and rejoice in hope of the glory that shall be revealed. A better, wiser, purer age than that of childhood. An age more enlightened and more holy than the world has yet seen. "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God." It is this spirit of expectation which is the preparation for the Advent. Every gift of noble origin is breathed upon by hope's perfect breath.
3. Let us note that it is patient waiting.
Every one who has ardently longed for any spiritual blessing knows the temptation to impatience in expecting it. Good men who, like Elijah, have sickened over the degeneracy and luxury of their times; fathers who have watched the obduracy and wild career of a child whom they have striven in vain to lead to God; such cry out from the deeps of the heart, "Where is the promise of His coming?"
Now the true preparation is, not having correct ideas of how and when He shall come, but being like Him. "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father hath put in His own power;" "Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure."
Application. "The Lord direct you" unto this.
Consider what the Thessalonians must have felt in their perplexity. Would that we had a teacher such as St. Paul, ever at hand to tell us what is truth-to distinguish between fanaticism and genuine enthusiasm-between wild false teaching and truth rejected by the many. "Here," might they have said, "were we bewildered. How shall we hereafter avoid similar bewilderments without an infallible guide?" Instead of which St. Paul says, "The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ."
God has so decreed, that except in childhood, our dependence must be on our own souls. "The way of truth is slow, hard, winding, often turning on itself." Good and evil grow up in the field of the world almost inseparably. The scanning of error is necessary to the comprehension and belief of truth. Therefore it must be done solitarily. Nay, such an infallible guide could not be given to us without danger. Such a one ever near would prove not a guide to us, but a hindrance to the use of our own eyes and souls. Reverence for such a one ever near would soon degenerate into slavishness, passiveness, and prostration of mind.
Hence, St. Paul throws us upon God.