By Robert Anderson
FULL well I know that the preceding chapter will give offence and be resented.1 But having regard to the awfully solemn import of the question here at issue, considerations of that kind must be ignored. For what concerns us is whether the lapse of nineteen centuries gives proof that the Lord has been false to His promise, or whether the history of the Professing Church during all the centuries, down to the present hour, does not amply explain why the fulfillment of His promise is delayed. Coupled with the promise are the words in which He expects His people to respond - "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." But there is not one of the Churches of the Reformation that would corporately identify itself with that prayer. And the Church that claims to be the Divine oracle and interpreter of Scripture, displays its enlightenment by an error that might disgrace a schoolboy, for it interprets the Lord's words about "the consummation of the age" to mean the end of the world. The blunder is as crassly ignorant as that of finding in the parable of the tares a warrant for murdering the martyrs. But the Churches of the Reformation, while of course rejecting the heresy which found expression in the fires of Smithfield, have adopted the heresy which relegates the "Second Advent" to the "end of the world"; and as the result (to quote Bengel's words) "the Churches have forgotten the hope of the Church."
And yet the Coming is inseparably linked with the Cross. Much there is in Scripture that the thoughtless can ignore; but not the words, "Ye do shew the Lord's death till He come." The many who dismiss the Coming to the end of all things, would presumably wish us to believe that, at the Lord's Supper, the cup which points back to the blood of our redemption, points forward to the blood of Isaiah's prophecy of "the day of vengeance"; and some who are too enlightened for this would find us a half-way house amid the horrors of the Great Tribulation. But all this betokens either ignorance of Scripture, or a mistaken exegesis. "Till He come"' the words are an implicit renewal of the promise, and an appeal to every heart that has learned by grace to look for "that blessed hope." Doctrines are for the head, but the heart reaches out to a person; and here it is Himself that the Lord brings before His people. "This do in remembrance of ME." - not the Christ of the crucifix, not a dead Christ, but an absent Lord who has promised to come again.
But here the ways divide, and we must choose between the teachings of theologians of repute and the words of Holy Scripture. In the 11th chapter of I Corinthians, the Apostle declares that the Church's charter relative to the Lord's Supper had been specially revealed to him, and he proceeds to deliver to them what he had thus "received of the Lord." And yet here is what a great commentator has to say upon the 26th verse "The words are addressed directly to the Corinthians, not to them and all succeeding Christians; the Apostle regarding the coming of the Lord as near at hand, in his own time."2
Many a page might be filled with quotations from other eminent divines, all testifying to the fact that the Lord's return was a present hope with the early saints, and offering a similar explanation of the seeming falseness of that hope. The momentous question here under consideration is thus disposed of by the assumption that, in regard to this vital truth, the Apostles were in error, and misled the Church entrusted to their care. I repeat, therefore, that here we reach a parting of the ways; for we cannot consent to escape from a difficulty by undermining faith in Holy Scripture. "Gird up the loins of your mind" is a much-needed exhortation, and in no sphere more than in relation to this very truth. For let us face the facts once again. The inspired Apostles taught their converts to expect the Lord's return. And "I am coming quickly" was His own last message to His people, before the era of revelation ended, and the era of a silent heaven set in. But He did not come quickly, nor has He come at all. Were it not for the "slovenly-mindedness" that characterizes thought in the religious sphere, this overwhelming fact would lead to searchings of heart on the part of all spiritual Christians.
Scattered among the various Churches there must surely be very many who cherish the hope, and are troubled at the Lord's continued absence. And is it idle to suggest that they should come together for earnest inquiry and prayer upon this subject? Even in the dark days of Elijah's prophecy, there were 7000 true-hearted seekers after God in Israel; is it possible then that, in this seven-million peopled London, there are not seven thousand Christians who would eagerly devote a day to such a purpose! And let them be of one mind. Opinions may differ as to which phase of His Coming the Lord had in view in His parting message, and as to whether any events must precede the fulfillment of it. But in presence of the fact that we are in the twentieth century of the Christian era, to raise questions of this kind would betoken a spirit of controversy or of mere quibbling. In regard to what Bengel calls "the hope of the Church" let us have an eirenicon. It is sad that truth which ought to unite all spiritual Christians should lead to strife. And the fault is not all on one side. "The secret rapture," "the Coming of the Lord for His Church," "His coming back with His Church" - these and other kindred phrases are used as though they expressed revealed truth, whereas they express mere inferences from Scripture, which may be true or may be false.
The Fourth Gospel closes with an incident which every Bible student ought to study. On receiving the command, "Follow Me," Peter pointed to his companion and asked, "What shall this man do?" And his inquiry brought the Lord's rebuke, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" How natural the inference the disciples drew, "that that disciple should not die"! What other inference would anyone draw? But the Evangelist cites the Lord's words a second time, in order to make it clear that He did not say what the disciples inferred to be His meaning. And the moral is that in all such matters we are not to draw inferences from Divine words, but to accept them with childlike simplicity.
The language of Zechariah 14:4 and Acts 1:11 may seem to indicate that the Coming there foretold will be secret, in the sense in which the Ascension was secret - with no attendant angels, no manifestation to the world. But of another Coming it is said, "Every eye shall see Him." And if some sceptic demands how that is possible on this round earth, let him ask the first schoolboy he meets how it is that, day by day, every eye can see the sun! When "the King of Glory passes on his way," then, "From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's furthest coast," "every eye shall see Him." But whether this will be true of the Coming of "that blessed hope" Scripture does not tell us; and we must not corrupt or add to Scripture with our own inferences and "pious opinions."
Scripture teaches explicitly that, after this Christian dispensation ends, Israel will be restored to Divine favour; and the question is sometimes asked, how this will be brought about - "How can they hear without a preacher?" for, ex hypothesi, all Christians will previously have been called away to heaven. And in our day-dreams the thought arises at times whether the devout among His earthly people may not see Him when He comes to call His heavenly people home. But this is a day-dream, nothing more.
Then as regards the Lord's coming for His Church, the phrase is incorrect, not merely on grounds already indicated, but also because it seems to imply that none of the holy dead of former ages will have part in that resurrection; and for this we have no Scriptural warrant. Not that we would dare to assert the contrary. It behooves us to know whatever the Scripture teaches, and to be content not to know where Scripture is silent. And this applies no less to the theory of His coming back with His Church. Here again some of us have day-dreams. May it not be that "the holy ones" of His glorious escort, when He comes to execute vengeance upon earth, will be "the angels of His power," and that the redeemed of this age of grace will have no part in that dread ministry?
Allied with this is that other phrase, "the personal reign of Christ on earth "; as though the Lord of glory is ever to live in a palace in Jerusalem! In our day-dreams here, the redeemed of the heavenly glory are not upon the earth, but with the Lord as He reigns over the earth. Not in a heaven "beyond the stars," but in a heaven as near as it seemed to be in the Patmos visions, or when the martyr Stephen's eyes were opened to behold it. But these again are only dreams; and men who dogmatize on these subjects are quite as silly, though neither as harmless nor as interesting, as a set of babies in the nursery, prattling about things that are beyond their ken.
These criticisms and suggestions are designed merely to eliminate certain elements that tend either to prejudice, or to obscure, the consideration of the question here at issue. We often wonder that the Jews are not startled into repentance by the fact that, though we have reached the twentieth century of the Christian era, their national hope is still unfulfilled. And are we to remain indifferent to the fact that our Christian hope is also unrealized? "Yet a very little while and the Coming One will come and will not tarry": (Hebrews 10:37) such words as these cannot be explained away by the theory of a thousand-years' day. What then should be our action and our attitude in this matter?
Has the past no lesson for us? "The Jewish Church" had a right creed, and the coming of Messiah was a vital part of it. But with the "Church" as a Church it was merely a doctrine. They did not want Him; and when He came they cast Him out. It was only with the few that it was a hope, and a heart-longing hope. They were really looking for Him - "waiting for the consolation of Israel," like the old saint who took the infant Saviour in his arms and said, "Now, Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace...for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation." They had a divinely appointed "Church," with a ritual divinely ordered in every detail. And the Lord took His place within it, as did the disciples under His teaching. But though in it, they were not of it. "The existing communities, the religious tendencies, the spirit of the age, assuredly offered no point of attachment, only absolute and essential contrariety, to the kingdom of heaven."3
And this has its parallel today. Ministers and congregations that cling to "the faith once delivered," reverencing the Scriptures as the Word of God, and cherishing the hope which the Scriptures inspire, find themselves daily more and more out of sympathy with the "organized Christianity" of which they are outwardly a part. In these "latter times," strikingly characterized, as they are, by "departing from the faith," the unity of the Church can be promoted only by giving up the faith, and truckling to rationalism and ritualism. But "to keep the unity of the Spirit" ought to be the aspiration and the aim of all who are true to Christ. And this is the true "Communion of Saints" - "not the common performance of external acts, but a communion of soul with soul, and of the soul with Christ. It is a consequence of the nature which God has given us that an external organization should help our communion with one another...But subtler, deeper, diviner, than anything of which external things can be either the symbol or the bond is that inner reality and essence of union - 'the unity of the Spirit'"4
And no influence can be more fitted to promote this unity than the confession of a common hope, and the longing which the hope inspires. No need here, moreover, for large assemblies or eloquent exhortations. Enthusiasm thus produced is transient. And He Himself it was who spoke of the "two or three" gathered together in His name. Among Christians everywhere there must surely be some "who love His appearing." And if today, for the first time in all the sad history of Christendom, such would come together in every place the wide world over, wherever Christians can be found, we might look up in hope that He who is called "The Coming One"5 would fulfill the promise of His name.