A FRUITFUL cause both of skepticism and of error is ignorance of what may be described as the ground plan and main purpose of the Old Testament Scriptures. "The whole Scriptures are a testimony to Christ: the whole history of the chosen people, with its types and its law and its prophecies, is a shewing forth of Him."1 This, however, is the spiritual teaching of the Bible, which of course unspiritual men ignore, and I am here referring to what any intelligent reader ought to recognize. The book relates in the main to the Hebrew race. A brief preface of eleven chapters tells us all that we are concerned to know about "the earth and man," prior to the call of Abraham. We are there told of the creation and fall of Adam: that the human family sprang from a first man, but not as he came from the hand of God; for our first progenitor was a sinner and an outcast. In that same preface are briefly recorded certain great crises in human history, the most notable being the judgment of the flood. A new era was then inaugurated with the family of Noah. In course of time, however, abounding iniquity brought about another crisis, and God once more made a new beginning with a single family; though in fulfillment of His promise to Noah, He did not again destroy the guilty race.
With the call of Abraham begins the main narrative of the Bible, which relates solely to Abraham's descendants, other nations being mentioned only when, and so far as, Israel's interests became in some way identified with theirs. And from that time the continually swelling stream of Messianic promise and prophecy runs in the channel of the national history of Abraham's descendants. In our own days the spade of the explorer has brought to light abundant proofs that, at an earlier period, man had enjoyed a Divine revelation, and that he had utterly perverted and corrupted it. And now the revelation was entrusted to the Covenant people. They were chosen, so to speak, to be the Divine agents upon earth, and "unto them were committed the oracles of God."
Now in commerce an agent is appointed, not to restrict, but to facilitate, the supply of goods to the public; and also to ensure that they shall reach the public pure and unadulterated. And the Divine purpose in giving that position to the Covenant people, and "committing to them the oracles of God," was that the truth of God in its purity, and the blessings which accompany the knowledge of it, might be accessible to all mankind. We know what an employer would do if his agent acted as though the wares entrusted to him were his own, ignoring the interests of his principal, and treating the public with contempt. And this was precisely the case with Israel. The house of God, designed to be "a house of prayer for all nations," they treated as their own, and ended by making it "a den of thieves." And the Gentiles whom it was their duty to serve, they repelled with scorn.
This agency parable explains the Lord's words, "Salvation is of the Jews." "For Christ was a Minister of the circumcision for the truth of God"; (Romans 15:8) and during His ministry on earth He recognized the divinely accorded position of the Covenant people. But to resume my parable, if the principal dismisses his agent, he begins to deal directly with all who apply to him for supplies, and the dismissed agent must take his place as one of the public. And so was it with reference to Israel's "fall," "the setting-aside of them being the reconciling of the world." (Romans 11:15) Thus deprived of their stewardship, they are relegated to the position of other men. And the purpose and effect of their fall are stated in the words, "God hath concluded them all in unbelief that He might have mercy upon all." (Romans 11:32)
Thus it was that the way was opened up for the revelation of the great "mystery" truth of grace enthroned. For, as we have seen, that truth is absolutely incompatible with the recognition of special privileges, or of any vantage-ground of favour. Language could not be more explicit "All the world is brought under the judgment of God"; (Romans 3:19) There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek." (Romans 10:12) But the very same Scripture which teaches this declares with equal clearness and emphasis that "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance"; that "God has not cast away His people"; that "they are beloved for the fathers, sakes," and that they are yet to be restored to the favoured position which they have now lost through unbelief.
But Israel's restoration must involve as definite a change in God's dealings with the world as did that which marked the inauguration of the Christian dispensation. In fact that future dispensation must differ as essentially from the present, as the present differs from the past. For just as we aver that "God cannot lie," we may assert that He cannot act at the same time upon two wholly different and incompatible principles. Most certain it is, therefore, that some great crisis must occur in the spiritual sphere before the now pent-up stream of unfulfilled prophecy relating to Israel can again begin to flow. Does Holy Scripture foretell any crisis of the kind? Many students of prophecy believe that the Jews will regain possession of their land, and rebuild their temple, while still in unbelief.2 And in view of recent events in the near East there is nothing improbable in such a forecast. The stage may be thus prepared for the great drama of the prophecies which await fulfillment. But the question here cannot be satisfied by proofs, however striking, of Jewish prosperity and influence on earth -- events that might be due to advancing civilization and the exigencies of international politics. The solution of it must be sought for in Holy Scripture.
The preceding pages have dealt with certain "mysteries" of the Christian revelation -- truths which were kept secret until Apostolic times, and of which therefore no trace can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures -- the "mystery" of Israel's present rejection, and of the resulting economy on earth; the "mystery" of the Gospel; the "mystery of God," and the great "mystery of Christ." But there are also other "mysteries," and one of them seems to point to the very crisis about which we are seeking light. I refer to the neglected truth of the Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to take His people home from earth to heaven. "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." (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17)
The Old Testament speaks plainly of His coming to bring deliverance to His earthly people upon the earth, after their restoration to Divine favor; and it contains many prophecies about His coming in judgment. These events, therefore, though specifically mentioned in the New Testament, are not "mystery" truths. But the language of Scripture is explicit respecting the event which will bring the present dispensation to a close. Here are the Apostle's words: Behold, I shew 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 Corinthians 15:51, 52)3 This "Coming" is sometimes called "the first stage of the Second Advent." But the phrase "Second Advent" has no Biblical sanction, (Hebrews 9:28)4 it is the badge of the erroneous traditional belief that the Lord will never again appear until the last great judgment. Though the subject is one that calls for caution and reserve, we may assert with confidence that the numerous Scriptures which speak of the return of Christ cannot all refer to the same appearing.
Compare, for example, the "Coming" of the passages above cited from the Epistles, with that foretold by the heavenly messengers on the Mount of the Ascension. While the Lord was standing with His disciples on the Mount of Olives, "He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight." And as they were gazing heavenward "two men stood by them" and said, "This same Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11) "But surely," some one may exclaim, "this cannot mean that the Lord will ever again stand upon His feet on Mount Olivet" Yes, this is precisely what it means. The words are a confirmation of an Old Testament prophecy relating to times and events that are still future. In Zechariah 14:4 we read, "His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives which is before Jerusalem upon the East." Now save that it is the same Christ in both cases, this "Coming" has nothing in common with that described in the Epistles. The one is strictly local, and it has to do with His earthly people in Jerusalem in the circumstances described by Zechariah; whereas the purpose of the other is to take out of the earth His people of "the heavenly calling," scattered the wide world over. And this will suffice to clear our minds of the error suggested by the phrase "the Second Advent," and thus to open the way for an unprejudiced inquiry as to the scope and meaning of the various Scriptures which speak of His coming again.
On such a subject, I repeat, caution and reserve should mark our thoughts and words; but on a few main points we may speak with definiteness and certainty. It is certain, for example, that before "the times of restitution of all things," the Lord will be manifested to put down all open evil and rebellion against God upon earth. Then again, the reign of righteousness and peace will last not less than a thousand years,5 and not until after that period will be His appearing for the last great judgment. The question arises then, whether the "Coming" described in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians is connected with any of these "Appearings." And here a brief pause for "stock-taking" may expedite the inquiry. We have seen that the Covenant people, though now set aside, are to be again restored to Divine favour, and that "the receiving of them" necessarily implies what is called "a change of dispensation." And we have seen also that "the times of restitution of all things" fall within that future dispensation. Now this obviously creates a presumption that there will be a "Coming" to bring this "Christian dispensation" of ours to an end. It remains to be seen then whether such a presumption is confirmed or vetoed by Scripture. And here, as in the preceding chapters, the appeal shall be neither to authority, nor to prejudice, but only to Holy Scripture itself, and to the intelligence of the reader.
But let us not forget the momentous importance of the issue, for it must decide for us whether the Lord's return is a present hope, or merely an event in the great drama of prophecy to be fulfilled at some future time, when most, if not all, of us shall have finished our course on earth. And this suggests another thought. If such a hope be a mere delusion, it is a delusion which is full of comfort, and has a sanctifying influence upon the life. Why, then, it may well be asked, should any Christian wish to rob us of it? And yet the belief is attacked with untiring zeal, and at times with acrimony, as though it ranked with heresies that dishonour Christ. It is specially to the ephemeral literature on the subject that this reproach attaches; a literature that is generally marked by confusion of thought and neglect of the main landmarks that guide the intelligent interpretation of Scripture. The following, for example, is a typical sentence: "The Lord Jesus Himself warned His disciples against the thought of an immediate coming, and sketched a whole series of events which should happen before His personal return, adding, For all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.' -- Matthew 24:6." Some of us have learned to distinguish between "the coming of the Son of Man" in judgment, "to gather out of His Kingdom all things that offend and them which do iniquity," and the coming of the Lord, as Saviour, to call His people out of earth to heaven. (Matthew 13:41)6
In the very same discourse in which the Lord gave the warning above quoted, He gave another warning still more emphatic and explicit. Here are His words "Watch therefore for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come"; and again, "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh." (Matthew 24:42; 25:13) But as the one warning seems to support the writer's argument, whereas the other entirely refutes it, the one is quoted and the other is ignored. Indeed the system followed by writers of this school is to separate texts from their context, and throwing them into hotchpotch, to pick out any that suit their purpose. And it is not open to them to plead that this particular advent is not the same as that described in the Epistles. For their argument depends on the assumption, thus proved to be false, that there cannot be an unheralded advent of Christ; and in view of this Scripture, that argument collapses like a child's house of cards.
This hotchpotch system of exegesis makes it easy to prove or disprove almost anything. And it leaves the Bible open to infidel attacks; for if it be discredited by contradictions, it cannot be Divine, or even true. But the intelligent Bible student has the clew to the seeming labyrinth. What is needed, as Lord Bacon quaintly puts it, is "that every prophecy of Scripture be sorted with the event fulfilling the same." The task of attempting some "sorting" of this kind is reserved for another chapter.