IT is a fact of great significance that the Coming of the Lord is never mentioned in the Epistles of the New Testament save in an incidental manner - never once as a doctrine that needed to be expounded, but only and always as a truth with which every Christian was supposed to be familiar.
This is strikingly exemplified by the passages already cited. And it explains what to some may seem strange, that there is no notice of the Coming in Ephesians or Colossians. If these were the latest of the Apostle Paul's Epistles, the omission might possibly suggest to some that the hope had been abandoned. But not only does it appear in Philippians, which was also written from his Roman prison; but, as we have seen, one of the fullest and clearest references to it is contained in Titus, which was written at a still later date than "the Captivity Epistles." The Coming is not mentioned in Ephesians and Colossians; but neither is justification by faith. A "Higher Critic" might find in this a proof of different authorship. And a lawyer might think that each book of the New Testament ought to begin with recitals, and with many a "whereas," referring to the contents of earlier writings; but happily the Scriptures are not written in that fashion The fact is clear then, that in Apostolic times the converts were taught to expect the Lord's return. So certain is this indeed, that discussion would be useless with any who deny it.1 But what explanation can be found for the no less salient fact that, although we have reached the twentieth century of the Christian era, the hope appears to be no nearer its fulfillment? Rejecting the infidel taunt that the teaching was erroneous, and the hope which it inspired a delusion, we are shut up to choose between the following alternatives. Either the promise has been cancelled or withdrawn; or else, owing to some cause which came fully into operation after the close of the sacred Canon, its fulfillment has been delayed. But all the promises of God are assured in Christ, (2 Corinthians 1:20) and there is no variableness with Him. The one alternative, therefore, we reject: the other shall be considered in the sequel.
Some indeed would seek to escape from this conclusion by a mistaken reading of First Thessalonians. They take the day of the Lord in chapter 5 to be a synonym for the Coming of the Lord in chapter 4; and they appeal to the Second Epistle in proof that notable events must precede its happening. Even if this were tenable, it would have no bearing upon the Epistles to the other Churches, And that it is quite untenable appears from the fact that the Coming of the Lord is a distinct event, whereas the day of the Lord is an era, the course and character of which are described both by the Hebrew prophets, and by the Lord Himself in the "Second Sermon on the Mount." (Matthew 24)
But it may be asked, Does not that sermon definitely declare that the Lord will come at the close of "the great tribulation"? Yes, truly; but the seeming relevance of this to the present question depends entirely on the prevalent error respecting "the Second Advent." The promise of the Incarnation was so utterly incredible that it may well have staggered faith. But now that He has lived upon earth and gone back to heaven, His coming again seems a natural sequence to His ascension. Indeed if we were left to reason out the matter, we should expect Him to return again and again. And this is precisely what Scripture tells us to look for. Common sense might veto the suggestion that His coming as Avenger and Judge is the event described as "that blessed hope." And it is no less clear that the message received by the disciples on the Mount of the Ascension does not relate to the same Coming as the Apostle's words to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. But the Coming of the Lord as Saviour is now confounded with "the day of the Lord" - the day of wrath. In fact the error which the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians was designed to correct is now in the creed of Christendom!
Are we to believe that the Gentile converts were taught to live in expectation of the Coming, although, ex hypothesi, before that hope could be realized the people of God were doomed to pass through a time of horror unparalleled in all the ages? And yet no Epistle except that to the Thessalonians contained a warning word about that awful time. And the Apostle's words to them, if intended as a warning, could scarcely have been more deceptive. For after speaking of the Coming as a present hope with which to comfort one another, he went on to speak of the day of the Lord as pertaining to the "times and seasons" of Israel's national history. To the world that day would come as a day of wrath, for, "when they shall say peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them." But in contrast with this, the Apostle adds, "God has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain deliverance by our Lord Jesus Christ." What meaning could the Thessalonians put upon these words, save that the appointed deliverance was by the Coming of the Lord? And to make this still more clear he again exhorts them to comfort one another with his words. "Times and seasons" these well-known words come from the Book of Daniel. The Lord made use of them when, on the Mount of the Ascension, the disciples asked Him, "Wilt Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" "It is not for you (He said)to know times or seasons." And this reply confirmed the truth that underlay the question. The word which He had spoken by the mouth of Daniel shall be fulfilled, and the Kingdom shall yet be restored to Israel; but "the times and seasons" are with God.
I will offer no conjectures as to what the course of events would have been if the nation had accepted the Divine amnesty proclaimed at Pentecost. Certain it is, however, that none of the words of Christ will fail of their ultimate fulfillment on account of Israel's rejection of the proffered mercy But so long as Israel's national position is in abeyance, the stream of fulfillment is tided back; or to change the figure, the hands upon the dial of prophetic time are motionless. Without this clew to guide us in our study of them, the Scriptures appear to be full of confusion, if not of error. "The times and seasons" rest with Him to whom a thousand years are as one day. And when in Matthew 24, for example, the Lord addressed His hearers as though they themselves would pass through the Great Tribulation, we recognize that this would have proved literally true if the Jews had accepted Him as their Messiah. But with Romans 11 before us, we recognize also that, when Israel was cast aside the clock of prophetic time was stopped, to be set in motion once again at the close of this intercalary "Christian dispensation." And then the Lord's prophetic words shall be fulfilled as though this age of ours had never intervened.
And now, if we will but rise above the mists of controversy, and arguments based on isolated texts, and take note of the prominent landmarks of prophetic interpretation, and the distinctive truths of the Christian revelation, we shall find abundant proof that the fulfillment of Matthew 24. belongs to a future age, and to an economy essentially different from our own.
The last verse of Daniel 9 might almost be paraphrased in the language of modern diplomacy. The "prince" of that prophecy - the last great Kaiser of Christendom - will make a seven years' treaty with the Jews, guaranteeing respect for the ordinances of their religion. But in the middle of that term he will violate the treaty, and defile the Temple by enthroning himself within it. This last particular we learn from 2 Thessalonians 2:4. And the Lord's own words, spoken with express reference to this very prophecy, for the guidance of His Jewish people who will witness its fulfillment, warn them that the defilement of the holy place is to be the signal for immediate flight; "for then shall be great tribulation such as never was since the beginning of the world." (Matthew 24:21) Daniel's prophecy, to which the Lord explicitly refers, describes it as "a time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation," (Daniel 12:1) and other references to it might be quoted from the Hebrew prophets, such for example as the words of Jeremiah, who calls it "the time of Jacob's trouble." (Jeremiah 30:7)
Here is something to disturb the complacency of Christians who are in the habit of treating the Bible as though it were a lottery bag of texts, rejecting what they slightingly call "dispensationalism." The Apocalyptic visions indicate that Christendom will come within the awful persecution of the latter days, whereas these Old Testament prophecies relate only to Judah and Jerusalem, and in the Lord's own teaching there is never a word to suggest that they will have any wider range. How is this to be explained? Not by saying, with the Higher Critics, that the Lord was ignorant, but by recognizing that this "Christian Dispensation" is a New Testament "mystery," unknown to the people of God, and unnoticed in the Word of God, until after Israel had been set aside, and the Apostle to the Gentiles had received his call. Therefore was it that, from the standpoint of the Mount of Olives, the world consisted of Israel and heathendom, and the Lord spoke of the tribulation in relation only to His earthly people; whereas from the standpoint of Patmos, He took account of the new element of Christendom.
But the words He spoke on Olivet were the words of God, and no dispensational change affects their eternal truth. And from them we learn that, when the time of their fulfillment comes, the Covenant people will have regained their normal status as the people of God, and that a believing community of Israelites will be living in their own land and their own "city," with a restored sanctuary accredited as "the Temple of God." Not "Jewish Christians" in the present-day sense,2 but Jews whose faith will be akin to that of the Lord's disciples during His earthly ministry. And the very words which these disciples heard from the Master's lips will reach His disciples in that future age, just as they reach us today, by means of the printed page on which they are recorded.
Once we shake free from the influence of traditional exegesis, we can see with noontide clearness that the entire scene, and all the circumstances, portrayed by the Lord's teaching in the 24th chapter of Matthew, pertain to the future age of a restored Israel. And therefore, prior to their fulfillment this "Christian dispensation" must have been brought to an end. And as it was in the past, so possibly it will be in the future, the change will be unheralded by any portents upon earth. But it will be ushered in by an event of vastly greater solemnity than any sights or sounds in the natural sphere. For then shall come the fulfillment of the word, "the Master of the house is risen up and hath shut to the door." The Lord will have passed from the throne of grace to the throne of judgment; and "the acceptable year of the Lord" will have run its course, and will soon be followed by "the day of vengeance of our God."
Great reserve is needed in attempting to map out the future as revealed in prophecy. But the Book of Daniel (9:27) tells us explicitly that the event predicted in Matthew 24:15 will take place in the middle of the 70th "week" of the prophetic era. And the Lord's words are perfectly explicit that the Tribulation will be followed immediately by the awful signs and portents which are to herald the coming of "the great and terrible day of the Lord" (Joel 2:31). But the 30th verse is commonly misread as though "the Coming of the Son of Man" were contemporaneous with the appearing of "the Sign of the Son of Man in heaven." So far from this being the case, the Lord's words which follow teach unmistakably that the "Coming", will be separated from the "Sign" by an interval sufficiently prolonged to allow the worldling to forget the awful portents of the coming judgments, and to make His people need exhortations to continued watchfulness. When verse 15 is fulfilled, His people will know that a definite period of three years and a half (1260 days) will bring the fulfillment of verse 29; but none save the Father Himself can tell when the Son of Man will come. Hence the significance of the warning, "The day of the Lord shall so come as a thief in the night." For it is "the coming of the Son of Man" that will usher in that awful period of judgment.3 But let us not forget that Matthew 24:25 relate to the Coming of the Son of Man. In our hymnology, and indeed in our Christian literature generally, the Lord's names and titles are used just as the caprice of the writer, or the exigencies of rhythm or rhyme may suggest; but it is far otherwise in Scripture. And never once does the Lord's title of Son of Man occur in the Epistles of the New Testament: never once is it used in Scripture in relation to the Church of God or the people of God of this dispensation. Surely this fact alone might save us from the error of confounding the Coming of the Son of Man for the deliverance of His earthly people and the judgment of living nations upon earth, with the Coming of the Lord to call His heavenly people home, and to bring this "Christian dispensation" to an end.
And yet the question will be asked in unison by many otherwise discordant voices, "Will not the Church pass through the tribulation?" If the question refers to the professing Church on earth, it has been already answered.4 But if to the Church, the Body of Christ, it is unintelligent; for it ignores the great truths of the Christian revelation, noticed in preceding chapters. The Body of Christ is not on earth, nor can it have a corporate existence until the Divine purpose respecting it has been fulfilled. And moreover, as we have seen, the Lord's own teaching is most explicit, that a restored Israel will be, so to speak, the prime objective in that awful persecution; and a restored Israel implies the close of this Christian dispensation of grace.
Most strange it is that any Christian who studies the 24th chapter of Matthew can tolerate the thought that the Lord would tell us to live looking for His Coming, if intervening events barred the fulfillment of His words. For here in His teaching about His Coming as Son of Man, He warns His earthly people to look, not for His Coming, but for "things that must come to pass" before His Coming. And His words, "Watch, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come," relate to a time when every intervening event has actually come to pass, and not a line of prophecy has to be fulfilled before His return.
And in view of all this we may surely ask, Would the Lord be less gracious - less true, I might almost add - in dealing with His heavenly people in this dispensation? We are taught to look for Him, and that a crowning blessing will be theirs "who are alive and remain unto the Coming of the Lord." Are we then to believe that this involves our passing through such times and scenes of terror as would make us "praise the dead that are already dead more than the living that are yet alive!" In his Patmos vision of that awful time the Seer hears a voice from heaven proclaiming, "Blessed are the dead." (Revelation 14:13) And if this Tribulation theory were true, should we not, in the spirit of those words, cry to God with earnest importunity to be allowed to die, rather than to await the Coming of the Lord?
And now we raise again the question, Are we who cling to the belief that the words of Holy Scripture mean what they seem to mean - are we the dupes of a blind delusion? Well, be it so. Some of us at least will cling to the delusion; and even if the "blessed hope" be no more than a happy dream, we shall refuse to change it for the hideous nightmare of "the Tribulation." But is it a delusion? The opening sentence of the present chapter may seem a startling statement. How was it then, some may ask, that all the early saints were led to expect the Lord's return? The answer is not far to seek. Never a week went by, never a Lord's day passed, without their hearing those charter words, "Until He come." And who among them could fail to ask their meaning! Whatever else of Christian truth they lacked, this at least they knew from the day they first took part in the sacred rite - the Lord who died for them would return again, and they were to live looking for His Coming.