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Chapter II.


Chapter II.

James Dodson


We have seen that Christ’s second coming is the Church’s “blessed hope.” Its place in the Christian system, and in the Church’s view, is over against his first coming, as its proper counterpart. As “once in the end of the world he hath appeared to put away sin, by the sacrifice of himself,” so, “to them that look for him, shall he appear the second time, without sin, unto salvation.” As the grace of the one coming is received by faith, so the glory of the other is apprehended by hope; and thus, between the Cross and the Crown, the believer finds all his salvation and all his desire. With reference to the former, his attitude is that of broken-hearted sweet recumbency; with reference to the latter, that of glad yet humble expectancy. On the one hand, he determines to “know nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified;” on the other, he is found in the ranks of “all them that love his appearing.”

Very good, says the premillennialist; but the question is, With which theory of the second advent does all this accord? When a man believes that Christ’s second coming may take place at any time—that he may come just now, for aught that we know, quite as readily as a hundred or a thousand years hence—one can understand how he should set himself to “look” and “wait” and “watch” for him, “not knowing when the Master of the house may come, at even, or at midnight, or at cock-crowing, or in the morning.” But will the Church be brought up to this expectant attitude by telling her that a whole millennium, not yet begun, must run its course ere Christ appear? And does not this blunt the edge of such texts as the following:—“The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night”—“The Judge standeth at the door”—“Behold, I come quickly?”

“Our ignorance,” says Mr. Bickersteth, “of the day and hour when Christ comes, seems inconsistent with any certain intervening period of a thousand years.”[1] To the same purpose, Mr. Dalton,[2] the Duke of Manchester,[3] Mr. Wood,[4] and most other writers on the same side. Dr. H. Bonar admits the possibility of longing, of waiting, and even of looking for Christ’s coming, on the common view of it, but strenuously denies the possibility of watching for it, on that view.[5]

That this is plausible, I freely admit. In fact, if there be plausibility in the system at all, it lies here. I have felt it necessary, therefore, to weigh it again and again; but at every fresh examination, I have found it more specious than solid. That it is entirely fallacious, may be shown by a variety of considerations.

Two remarks, however, I must request the reader to bear in mind throughout the whole of this discussion. First, I attach no importance, in this argument, to the precise period of a thousand years. It occurs nowhere in Scripture but in one solitary passage. There are reasons for taking it definitely and literally; but, to some these reasons appear slender. They think it means just a long indefinite period; agreeing with us, however, as to its being yet to come. Be it so. Wherever I speak of the millennium, or “thousand years,” let them understand their own “indefinite period,” or bright “latter day,” to precede the coming of Christ; and my argument will remain the same. Again, let no one suppose I expect that the beginning and end of this period will be so clearly discernible as to leave no room for doubt or uncertainty upon any mind. On the contrary, I think there can hardly be a doubt that it will follow the law of all Scripture dates in this respect—of Daniel’s “seventy weeks,” and of the “twelve hundred and sixty days” of Antichristian rule. The beginning and end of the former of these periods, though a long past one, is even yet a matter of some controversy, while the beginning and end of the latter period is confessedly unsettled. Why, then, should we suppose that it must be otherwise with the millennial period? If the first stages of it should be marked only by the rising beams of the Sun of Righteousness over the darkness and disease, the disorder and confusion, the wretchedness and ruin, which they are destined to chase away; and, if its last stages should be characterised by nothing but the waning brightness and decaying spirituality of its religious character—all being outwardly unchanged, and nothing wanting but the animating spirit—like “the glory of the Lord,” which took its gradual departure from the first temple, hovering over the threshold of the house, then going up from the midst of the city and resting for a moment on the Mount of Olives, as if to take a last lingering look of its wonted abode, and finally disappearing from the scene, to make way for the judgments of an incensed God:—if, I say, the commencement and the close of the latter day should be thus intentionally shrouded in obscurity, and the same uncertainty overhang this as all the great periods of the divine economy, would it not be worthy of Him who, in his ways as in Himself, is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever?

With this explanation, I proceed to examine this new theory of “watching” for Christ’s coming, as incompatible with the ordinary view of the second advent. And,

1. Can any thing be more arbitrary than the distinction attempted to be drawn between longing, waiting, and looking for Christ, on the one hand, and watching for him, on the other? Doubtless, these terms express distinct shades of thought and feeling; but the state of the soul in them all is so nearly the same, that it is scarcely conceivable how any doctrine that destroys one of them should admit of the exercise of the other three. Beyond question, all scriptural exercises of heart towards a coming Redeemer must stand or fall together.

2. This alleged impossibility of watching for Christ’s coming, on the ordinary view of it, involves a serious charge against the major part of the Christian Church, almost from the age of the apostles downwards. An extract or two from the fathers of the Scottish Church, for which I am indebted to Mr A. Bonar,[6] will sufficiently illustrate this remark. “Few in Scotland,” Mr Bonar truly observes, “held the premillennial view, but they loved the Lord’s appearing.”

“Why,” says Principal Rollock, “should not the hope of Christ’s returning comfort our souls, and make them rejoice? How happy is that man who earnestly looks and waits for the blessed and glorious coming again of the Lord to judgment; for that hope shall comfort and uphold him in all his troubles and distresses.”

“O when,” writes the seraphic Rutherford, “will we meet? O how long is it to the dawning of the marriage-day! O sweet Jesus, take wide steps! O my Lord, come over mountains at one stride! O my Blessed, flee as a roe or young hart upon the mountains of separation. O if he would fold the heavens together like an old cloak, and shovel time and days out of the way, and make ready in haste the Lamb’s wife for her husband!… O heavens, more fast! O time, run, run, and hasten the marriage-day; for love is tormented with delays!… Look to the east: the day-sky is breaking. Think not that Christ loseth time, or lingereth unsuitably.… The Lord’s bride will be up or down, above the water, swimming, or under the water, sinking, until her lordly and mighty Redeemer and Husband set his head through these skies, and come with his fair court to rid all these pleas, and give them the longed-for inheritance.”

And shall it be said of these men, that, though “they loved their Lord’s appearing,” they could not possibly “watch for it?”

But it may be replied—These worthies, though they were not premillennialists, interposed no definite millennium between their own day and the day of Christ’s appearing. Whether they did or not, I know not. There is, probably, little means of knowing what their views were of the latter-day period. But there is not a particle of evidence that they had any such views of the nearness of Christ’s coming as premillennialists assert to be indispensable to watching for it. The contrary, indeed, seems evident enough from Rutherford’s language in the very extract which I have given. What else can be gathered from his passionate wish that the Lord would “take wide steps, come over mountains at one stride, fold the heavens together like an old cloak, and shovel time and days out of the way,” but that he looked upon the actual period of Christ’s coming as identical with the end of time itself? And yet we find him longing, waiting, looking, and watching too, for his Lord’s appearing, as if it had been the very next event which was to happen. And truly, to him, it was the next event; for as “love is tormented with delays”—to use his own expressive language—insomuch that “one day seems as a thousand years,” so hope, which brings near the Beloved Object, makes “a thousand years as one day.” What, to them that love his appearing, are falls of Antichrist, and bright latter days, and whole millenniums of refreshing in his absence? “Holy Lord,” says Bernard somewhere, “dost thou call that ‘a little while’ in which I shall not see thee? O this little is a long little while!”

Thus the heart alternates between two very different and seemingly opposite views of the interval between its own day and the day of Christ’s appearing. Now it seems long, and anon it seems short. “The bridegroom tarried,” says the Lord himself, in the parable of the virgins. (Matt. 25:5.) “Yet a little while,” says his apostle, “and the Coming One will come, and will not tarry.” (Heb. 10:37.) (χρονίζοντος—ὀυ χρονιεῖ.) To faith and hope it seems near, even at the doors; to love and longing desire it seems far, far away: to the one it is but “a day,” and then he will be here; to the other it is “a thousand years”—dreary period! In the one case, “we do with patience wait for it;” in the other, “tormented with delays,” we cry out, with the psalmist, “But thou, O Lord, how long?” Wilt thou not shovel Antichrist, ay, and the millennium too—yea, time and days together—out of the way, and “set thy head through these skies,” that “so we may be ever with the Lord!”[7]

To the above examples of this double way of viewing the Redeemer’s coming, I make no apology for adding that of one but lately removed from the Church below, whose mind seemed to be singularly imbued with the Spirit of Christ, while his pen, on devotional subjects, flowed almost as the oracles of God. I allude to Robert Wodrow.[8] On the subject of united prayer among Christians, he drew up two Memorials (1841 and 1842), very precious, addressed “To the children of God scattered abroad throughout the world, with earnest desires that grace and mercy may be multiplied to them all through the knowledge of God our Saviour.” On the topics for united prayer, having noticed among other things, in the first Memorial, “The conversion of God’s ancient people as the most remarkable event which is to take place until the coming of Christ, the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh, the destruction of Antichrist, the utter abolition of idolatry, the universal overthrow of Satan’s kingdom, the universal diffusion of the gospel and its blessings,” he then says—

Stretching beyond all these great events connected with the glory of the latter day, believers should look forward to the kingdom of glory itself, and pray for the coming of that day when Christ shall be revealed in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel, and when he shall be glorified in his saints, and admired in all them that believe, as it will be then, and not till then, that the Divine character and government will be vindicated, the Redeemer’s enemies subdued, the number of the elect completed, and their bodies as well as souls redeemed and glorified with himself. Hence we are commanded to be looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God; hence it is the closing prayer of the Church, ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus;’ and hence it should be often the prayer of believers, individually and collectively, ‘Make haste, my Beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of spices.’ ”

In the second Memorial he says—

Habitually desiring the coming of the Lord, we shall be naturally led to abound in prayer for the accomplishment of those objects which we have every reason, from the Word of God, to believe must be fulfilled before that great final event takes place. Glorious things are spoken of the state of the Church in the latter day,” &c.

Now, let the reader bear in mind for what purpose we have extracted these passages. Not, certainly, to determine by human authority whether Christ’s coming is to precede or to follow this latter day, but to meet the bold assertion, that on this last view of the Redeemer’s coming it is not possible to watch for it. Such assertions seem better met by facts than by arguments. And unless it is to be alleged that the gifted and holy men whose language we have quoted did not understand their own exercises, the assertion, I think, must be given up as untenable.

But the heart of the fallacy has yet to be reached. This novel theory of watching is founded, as I proceed to show, on a very narrow induction of Scripture passages, and stands opposed to the spirit of a large and very important class of divine testimonies.

4. It seems to be taken for granted that the New Testament has but one future event to hold up to the Church and to the world, namely, the coming of Christ, and even but one aspect of that event, namely, its nearness, and the corresponding duty of watching for it. But nothing can be a greater mistake. We have seen already for what purposes the New Testament holds forth the coming of Christ, both to saints and to sinners. But other purposes had to be served besides these, which have drawn forth truths of quite another order; and if the one set of passages, taken by themselves, might seem to imply that Christ might come to-morrow, or any day (as the phrase is), even in apostolic times, there are whole classes of passages which clearly show that the reverse of this was the mind of the Spirit.

I refer to those Scriptures which announce the work to be done, and the extensive changes to come over the face of the Church, and of Society, between the two advents.

“All power,” said the Redeemer, as he was leaving the world, “is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach,” or make disciples of, “all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo! I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”[9] (Matt. 28:18–20.)

Now, I ask not what impression this passage would produce upon those who misunderstood it. But supposing its true scope to be even but dimly apprehended, is it conceivable that any primitive Christian should persuade himself that all nations might be thus discipled, baptized, and brought under the discipline of Christ’s laws, in his own lifetime, or within the largest space of time that would admit of his watching (according to this new theory) for the coming of Christ to wind all up?[10]

Again, the parables regarding the gospel kingdom manifestly bear in the same direction. “The field,” which was to be sown both with tares and with wheat, is “the world” (ὁ κόσμος): that is to say, a world-wide kingdom is to be formed, embracing the genuine and the false-hearted subjects of Christ under one visible name; both are to “grow together until the harvest;” and “the harvest is the end of the world,”[11] when “the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The same truth is taught in the parable of the net cast into the sea, that gathered of every kind; and the same period is fixed for the severance of the good from the bad—“the end of the World.” Similar is the import of the parable of the mustard seed, and of the leaven—holding forth the truth as it is in Jesus, in its progressive advancement, till, like a tree, springing from the least of seeds, it ultimately overshadows “the world;” and, like leaven, working its way through the mass of human society, it at length leavens it all.

And could any intelligent Christian in apostolic times—while the gospel had scarce a footing in the world, and its little inch of ground had to be contested even unto blood—rise from any right apprehension of these parables with the persuasion that the whole world might be thus overshadowed, thus leavened, thus externally subjugated to Christ, and the second advent arrive—all in his own lifetime, or even in many lifetimes? The answer given to this is, that the early Christians did not and could not take such comprehensive views of our Lord’s words. It is enough, however, for me that the words meant this, and that they were fitted and intended to convey this. And is it to be said that just in proportion as the real sense of these parables might rise upon the view of the prayerful student of them, his power of watching for Christ’s coming was enervated and destroyed? Absurd.

I might advert here to those passages which announce the judicial transfer of the kingdom of God from the Jews to the Gentiles, the whole tenor of which was fitted to teach even a primitive Christian, that its duration in Gentile hands, ere the Jews should again be brought in, would bear some proportion to its duration in Jewish hands, before the admission of the Gentiles.

“The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” (Matt. 21:43.)

“Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” (Luke 21:24.)

“Blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved.” (Rom. 11:25, 26.)

“They asked of him,” after his resurrection, “saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time (ἐν τῷ χρόνῳ τούτῳ) restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:6–8.)

The spirit of this last passage is worthy of notice. While not discouraging the hope of an eventual restoration of the kingdom to Israel, in some sense at least, he represses all expectation of it in their own day, teaching them that, on his departure, they would have other work on hand, with which it would rather become them to take up their attention.

I might refer also to the frequently-predicted degeneracy to characterize the maturer periods of the Church, or Christianized society.

“In the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” (1 Tim. 4:1–3.)

“In the last days perilous times shall come: For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, truce-breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” (2 Tim. 3:1–5.)

“There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.” (2 Pet. 3:3, 4.)

I do not press this class of passages, because, taken by themselves, I think a primitive Christian, seeing the germs of this degeneracy even then in existence, and “the mystery of iniquity already working,” might not unreasonably imagine that the predicted evils might be developed and burst forth in no long time. But, taken in connection with other passages, such as Christ’s commission to Christianize the world, and his parabolic intimations, that, in point of fact, it would be visibly Christianized before his second coming, I think these announcements of apostasy from the faith, and social degeneracy, and contemptuous disbelief of coming retribution, within the pale of Christianity, were fitted to repress the expectation of such a speedy end of it all as the new theory demands, in order to a possible watching for it.

There is still a class of passages, greatly clearer to the same effect, of which one example may suffice for all:—

“And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” (Acts 3:20, 21.)

Would any Christian in apostolic times, though unable to tell what might be meant by this “restitution of all things,” be encouraged by it to expect the immediate or very speedy return of Christ to the earth? Would it lead him to think that his Lord, though but just gone, might be back again forthwith; that, though scarcely away—though the Spirit who was to supply his place while absent had scarcely made his power to be felt—though his gospel had hardly had time to get a footing in the world—though the heathenism of the empire had scarcely felt the blows of the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands,” and the darkness that covered the earth had in no sensible degree fled before the beams of the Sun of Righteousness—that, in this state of things, altogether so infantile and immature, the Redeemer might nevertheless cut the matter short, and surprise both the Church and the world by his second coming? To me this seems incredible. And who will say that, in proportion as one got light on this point, he would be incapacitated for watching for the coming of Christ—that, just as he discerned the true bearing of such announcements, his power to preserve the watchful attitude would necessarily diminish? What sort of theory of “watching” must that be which can stand only with confused apprehensions of the mind of the Spirit—which required men to mistake the true scope and intent of the Divine intimations regarding Christ’s absence in the heavens, and which, just in proportion as they got their eyes opened to the vast work which it was emphatically declared had to be done ere Christ could return, left them under a helpless inability to look out and watch for their Lord?

But it may be said, This is expecting too much from the Christians of early times—as if they could have foreseen that, eighteen centuries after his departure, the Redeemer would be found still in the heavens. I answer, No. I suppose them to know nothing of the future but what they were bound to learn even from the Lord’s own words. I know well enough how slow they were to receive the truth on this point. Some may think this was at most an amiable weakness, if not something better. I am not so sure of that; nor will I concede that those who, trembling at the word of the Lord, gathered from it that he would be long away, loved him and his appearing less than those who, in opposition to it, clung to their own dream of an immediate appearing.

That the Lord himself gave no countenance to this notion of a speedy return, is evident from the parable of The Pounds, which the evangelist tells us was spoken expressly for the purpose of putting it down. “He added and spake a parable, because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear. He said, therefore, A certain nobleman went into a far country, to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return.” Then follow’s an account of the trust committed to his professed “servants,” the refusal of his “citizens” to submit to him, and—after full time allowed to the one party to submit to him, and to the other to repent of their rebellion—of his return to try and pass sentence upon both. (Luke 19:11–27.) Now, when I say that all this implies length of time, I only say what the evangelist expressly tells us, that Christ meant by this parable to teach, namely, that the kingdom of God was not (as they dreamt) immediately to appear.[12]

I suppose it will be said that all the Lord meant to correct was the impression that the kingdom was to be set up “forthwith” (παραχρῆμα) on his reaching Jerusalem, at that very Passover. Unfortunately for this view, the corresponding parable of The Talents sets it completely aside, showing that he meant to go much farther than this. There the period between the departure and the return of Christ is expressly called “a long time,” (μετὰ δὲ πολὺν χρόνον, Matt. 25:19.)[13] Nay, the same truth—the very mention of which is regarded by premillennialists with such jealousy, because it breaks down their theory—is expressly taught in the immediately preceding parable of the Virgins: “While the bridegroom tarried (χρονίζοντος) they all (wise as well as foolish) slumbered and slept.” (Matt. 25:5.) Thus the Lord, in parables intended to teach incessant watchfulness, scruples not to warn his disciples against expecting his immediate return—openly tells them that he would be found tarrying—intimates that he would be away a long time. And as the express object of these parables was to teach watchfulness, it is perfectly plain, that, to his view, there was no inconsistency between watching for his return and believing that it was not to occur very soon; and that, though the actual time of it would always be matter of uncertainty before it arrived, it was not to be expected that the interval would be a brief one.[14] But, according to our new theory of watching, these things are perfectly incompatible; insomuch that, unless you can persuade yourself that, for aught you know, the kingdom of glory may “immediately appear,” after no “long time,” and without any “tarrying” at all, you are incapacitated for watching for it.[15]

But I have not done with this point. As if to put the matter beyond all doubt, the parable of The Importunate Widow (Luke 18:1–8) proceeds expressly on the supposition, and carries on its face the warning, that Christ’s return would be so long delayed as not only to embolden the scoffers to ask, “Where is the promise of his coming?” but to wear out the patience of all but “God’s elect,” and to try even them to the uttermost. I am at one with the premillennialists in applying this parable, in its primary historical reference, to the cry of the widowed Church for vengeance against her adversaries.[16] For this she is encouraged to “pray always, and not faint;” for this she is forewarned she will have to “cry” to her Judge “day and night;” and she is expressly taught that he will “bear long with her” ere he come to redress her wrongs. At last he will come and “avenge her speedily: Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith in the earth?” that is, as the connection shows, faith that he will come at all.[17]

Need I ask now, whether the most moderate apprehension of the spirit of such explicit and reiterated announcements would inspire a primitive Christian with the belief that, for aught he knew, Christ might come any day, or within any such very limited period as that to which our theory restricts the possibility of watching for it?

But they did believe this (you say), and the apostle had enough to do to keep the Thessalonians calm in consequence; so lifted were they with the expectation of their Lord’s immediate return. (2 Thess. 2:1, &c.)

True, alas! but is not this just to admit, that that corrupt Jewish element—that the kingdom of God should immediately appear—which the Lord himself had sought to purge out from amongst his half-taught disciples, had nevertheless found its way into the infant Church, and troubled, unhinged, and imperiled it? It took a stirring form in the Thessalonian Church. Their inexperienced minds and warm hearts were plied with the thrilling proclamation, “that the day of Christ was at hand,” or “imminent” (ἐνέστηκεν). And how does the apostle meet their expectation? He fearlessly crushes it; gently insinuating that it had its origin rather in impositions practised upon them by false brethren, than in any spontaneous leanings to it among themselves. He “beseeches them, by” (or rather, concerning[18]) “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” which was dear to all alike, “and” the transporting prospect of “our gathering together unto him,” to give no heed to the insinuation, from whatever quarter it might come, “that the day of Christ was at hand.”

No such entreaty, we may safely affirm, would ever come from a premillennialist—at least of the modern school. He would be afraid of “destroying the possibility of watching.” So much, indeed, is this warning in their way, that they take pains to show that our version conveys an erroneous impression of the apostle’s meaning, and that the Thessalonian notion was, that the coming of Christ was “imminent,” or momentarily to be looked for. Be it so, and what is gained? Let it be conceded that the Thessalonians thought themselves already in the thick of the events which were to usher in the second advent; the question is not what the Thessalonians thought about the day of Christ, but what the apostle says in opposition to their thought. The writers I allude to affirm that the apostle meant only to deny that the day of Christ had begun, or was actually present, while he wrote—that “the streaks of dawn” were to be then discerned—that the moment for his appearing had yet arrived. But what unbiased reader would so understand the passage? Does not the apostle, in the following verses, expressly intimate that a long and complicated series of events had to be developed, the very commencement of which was retarded by an obstacle then in being while he wrote? And is it conceivable that, at the very time when he was announcing this, and announcing it for the very purpose of crushing the expectation of an immediate appearing, he should nevertheless have meant them to expect it any day, or very speedily?[19]

So manifestly does this famous passage in Thessalonians destroy the modern theory of watching for the coming of Christ, that it has been found necessary to qualify the theory to some extent. Events, it is admitted, may be announced as preceding the second advent; but “the interposition of an event is very different from the interposition of a period: the latter seems to be incompatible with watchfulness, but not the former; especially when the event is said to be already in progress, as is done by the apostle when he says, ‘The mystery of iniquity doth already work.’ For this no time is given, and it is the absence of time that is the foundation of watchfulness: It is the presence of time as an element that destroys the possibility of watching; and it is the absence of that element that produces the watchful spirit.”[20]

This distinction, however, between events and periods does nothing to save the new theory; for, as we have seen, the events interposed by the Lord himself and by his apostles before the second advent, are such as no one in the apostolic age, rightly apprehending them, could imagine to be possibly over in his own day. To such, therefore, “the possibility of watching for Christ’s coming” was as effectully “destroyed” by interposed events as by interposed periods.

Besides, are not periods interposed as well as events? So soon as the Apocalypse came into general circulation, the Church knew that Antichrist’s career would extend over a certain definite period—expressed in the three forms of “days,” “months,” and “times.” An attempt is made to blunt the force of this fact, by alleging that symbolical language, and the shortest periods, were purposely selected, to prevent the Church being lulled into security by a plain disclosure of the time. It has not, however, deterred the writer whose argument I am now examining from lifting the veil, and intimating that a definite period of twelve hundred and sixty years was intended by these mystic numbers as the time of Antichrist’s reign. He will, probably, console himself with the thought, that, living in a day when the expiry of this period may be speedily expected, he is in no danger of being lulled by his knowledge of the time, or hindered by it from watching for his Lord’s coming. But did not others arrive at the same conclusion long ago, as to these 1260 years of Antichrist’s reign? As early, at least, as the Reformation, this was becoming the decided judgment of divines; and as the views of the students of prophecy, after that, grew more definite, calculations were ventured on as to “the time of the end,” most of which threw it considerably beyond their own day. This remark applies to some of the most eminent premillennialists, quite as much as to the other students of the prophetic word. Now, my question is, Did these good men and able divines destroy by their calculations the possibility of their watching for Christ? Absurd surely it were to affirm this; and yet if not, how worthless is this whole theory of watching?[21]

It might strengthen these remarks to advert to the view which the early chiliasts took of the dates. They appear, for example, to have adopted universally the Jewish tradition, that, after a six thousand years’ duration of the world, there would be a sabbatical millenary; and, as they identified this with the millennial reign of Christ and his saints, it is not very easy to see how, with all their ignorance of the true chronology of the world, they could look for the second advent quite so soon as the new theory requires.[22] One thing is certain, that Lactantius—a chiliast of the fourth century—did not look for the second advent sooner than about two hundred years; and this, be it observed, he gives as the result of inquiries into the subject by all those most skilled in such matters.[23]

In concluding our investigation of the question of time, as it affects the duty of watching for Christ’s coming, I would fain leave on the reader’s mind the spirit of that apostolic warning to the Thessalonians on which I have been animadverting. The apostle does more than correct the error about the imminency of the day of Christ: he alludes also to the way in which they were solicited on the subject, and the effects which the delusion would produce upon their minds. He warns them against being practised upon, either, first, “by spirit”—a pretended spirit of prophecy, foretelling the nearness of the advent; or, secondly, “by word”—any supposed testimony uttered in favour of this view of the advent by him or other inspired men; or, thirdly, “by letter as from us”—forged letters from the apostle himself, announcing “that the day of Christ was” chronologically “at hand.” Now, if the premillennialists be right, if both their doctrine and their way of urging it be scriptural, is it not strange that designing men, instead of teaching the distance, should have set themselves systematically to urge the nearness of Christ’s coming—that they should have found their interest to lie so much in possessing the Church with the belief of Christ’s nearness, as to lay false prophecy, pretended apostolic discourses, and forged letters all under contribution, to give currency and weight to this view of the advent? It would be an interesting inquiry, what such parties could gain by the reception of that opinion? Perhaps the history of religious delusions would throw some light on this question. I think it would not be difficult to show that some of the prime delusions to which powerful but enthusiastic and feverish minds have given birth, have been associated with the very expectation to which the apostle refers, and have derived from that expectation a pabulum which has rallied them when otherwise languishing, and without which they would neither have had the attractions which invested them while they lived, nor have been kept so long from sinking into the merited oblivion which at length they have found. Whether it was some perception of this that filled the apostle with such alarm at the notion in question, and such anxiety to dislodge it, we shall not affirm. But his beseeching tone, the particularity with which he notices it, the systematic way in which he sets himself to meet it, and the singularly ample detail with which he lays out the scheme of events that would throw the advent into the distant future—all show that he saw some peculiar evils in the womb of that notion, and contemplated with concern and grief its possible progress in the church. Of what sort these evils would be, we have a hint given us in the two pregnant words by which he describes the effects of the notion upon those who give heed to it. He beseeches them not to be “soon,” or quickly, as by sudden impulse, “shaken in mind” (σαλευθῆναι)—agitated—disturbed; or to be “troubled” (θροεῖσθαι—as one is on “hearing of wars and rumours of wars,” Matt. 24:6, Gr.) by the assertion, “that the day of Christ was at hand.” The thing pointed at is such an arrestment of the mind as tends to unnerve it; a feverish excitement, which tends to throw the mind off its balance, and so far unfit it for the duties of life—as in the rumours of wars of which the parallel passage makes mention—the very opposite of that tranquil and bright expectancy which realizes the certainty rather than the chronology of the Lord’s coming. And I would appeal to the whole history of premillennialism, whether this feverish excitability has not been found a prevailing element, and the parent of not a little that is erratic both in doctrine and in practice.

Thus have I weighed all that has been advanced to prove the impossibility of watching for Christ’s coming on the common view of it, or rather on any view of it which does not admit of our expecting it almost any moment. I have done so with a minuteness and at a length which, if the intrinsic force of the objection scarcely demanded, the stress laid upon it by the most recent premillennialists and its apparent plausibility may well excuse. I think I have shown it to be entirely fallacious; and not only so, but that it is the very notion which the apostle characterises as feverish, and sets himself to crush, as usurping the place of the tranquil and truly quickening expectation of “our” simultaneous “gathering together unto Him,” at his glorious appearing. It is high time that the immense difference between these two expectations should be brought out and realized. Till that be done, one can scarcely obtain a hearing with some ardent minds. They are so afraid of being thrown off their watch for the coming of Christ, that unless they think every thing ripe and ready for his coming to-morrow, they do not see how they can be kept in the scriptural attitude of “looking for him.” Having exposed the fallacy on which this is founded, we shall no more be borne down by the question, How the common view can possibly stand with the scriptural prominence of the Lord’s coming, and the required watchfulness of the church in the view of it? Holding that to be a settled point, we shall refuse to be again crossed in the open field of scriptural inquiry. In point of chronology, “the day of Christ was” not “at hand” in Paul’s time, and he was positively fearful lest it should be thought that it was. Some day, of course, it will be chronologically at hand; but, as this involves a question of dates and times—as to which men are liable to mistake, and some in the primitive church did mistake, and had to be told explicitly that they were under a delusion—the apostle would have us not mix up with the great and stirring certainties of the Lord’s impending advent any speculations, however lawful or even laudable in their own place, about the chronological nearness of it. If it was “at hand” eighteen centuries ago—if, when the beloved disciple was in rapt communication with him at Patmos, Jesus could greet him with the glad announcement, “Behold, I come quickly”—and no deception—faith can now, precisely as then, echo that disciple’s sweet response, “Amen: Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” For faith lays hold, not on chronological dates or arithmetical calculations—useful though these are in their own place—but on “the Strength of Israel, who will not lie,” as he speaks in the promises of his blessed Word. What faith believes, hope brings near. To the hope of the believer, even as to the Lord himself, “a thousand years are as one day.” Though chronologically far off, if so it should be found—no matter. Faith sees him coming “leaping upon the mountains and skipping upon the hills.” And neither, on the one hand, in the spirit of sloth and carnality, which says, “My Lord delayeth his coming,” nor, on the other hand, in the spirit of fanatical and excited expectation as to a present appearance; but in that sublime state of mind which the apostle calls “the patience of hope,” it is the privilege of faith to say—alike when chronologically far off and chronologically near, and as it were in holy defiance of mere dates, because ready for them all alike—“Make haste, my Beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices!” (Cant. 8:14.)


[1] Guide to the Prophecies, p. 66, seventh edition.

[2] Lent Lectures, for 1843, by English Clergymen, pp. 95, 96, second edition.

[3] Finished Mystery, pp. 277–281.

[4] Last Things, p. 382, &c.

[5] Prophetical Landmarks, p. 88, &c.

[6] Redemption Drawing Nigh, pp. 21, &c.

[7] This is not to “interpolate Rutherford’s language,” as Mr. Wood alleges, (Last Things, p. 387,) but to appropriate it.

[8] Whose Address to the Children of Israel, prepared at the request of the Jews’ Committee of the Church of Scotland, adopted by the General Assembly of that Church, and translated into nearly all the Continental, and some of the Oriental languages, has probably never been surpassed, in point of scriptural character and unction, by any human composition.

[9] It makes no difference to our present argument, whether ἀιών here, be rendered “world,” or “age;” as it is agreed on all hands that the period or state of things denoted by this word terminates with the second coming of Christ.

[10] The reply made to this seems to me somewhat desperate. We have here, it is said, not a word about the actual evangelization of the world. We have merely a commission to do certain things, with a promise of the Master’s gracious presence in the doing of it: of success in the work, the passage says nothing; while another passage tells us positively that “the gospel is to be preached to all nations” only “for a witness, and then shall the end come”—showing that no general Christianization of the world before the coming of Christ was contemplated. (Wood’s Last Things, pp. xxii. 269–271.) Whether this is a natural or a forced construction of the Redeemer’s last commission I may safely leave it to the reader to decide. I shall merely say that the saving conversion of “every member of every nation,” (to use the words of Olshausen, quoted by Mr. Wood), is expected by none before the coming of Christ; and to the unconverted of every nation the preaching of the gospel can only be as “a witness” against them when Christ comes.

[11] See note on preceding page.

[12] “The preface to this parable,” says Dr. Homes, himself an ardent premillennialist, “is a golden key to open its meaning, that we may not rely upon a mere allegory. Christ spake this parable ‘because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.’ It doth not deny the appearing of the kingdom—Christ is for it; only, he is against the immediate appearance of it. He must before that go away into a far country, viz, to heaven, and leave talents in trust with his servants, giving them time to employ them, and be so long absent that his enemies grow bold enough to send after him with this high affront, ‘that they would not have him to reign over them;’ that is, some seeming professors should, by his long absence, grow quite careless of improving the talents, or gifts of endowment, to his honour; and others, by his delay (as they account it), should become professed enemies against him.”—Resurrection Revealed, &c., by Nathaniel Homes, D.D. 1654. Reprinted 1833. Pp. 265, 266.

[13] “Πολὺν, multum. Non est absolut aceleritas adventûs Domini.” [“The quickness of the Lord’s Advent is not absolute.”]—Bengel, ad Matt 25:19.

[14] In Chrysostom’s Homilies on this subject, we find the same union of these seemingly contradictory things: Χρονίζοντος δὲ τοῦ Νυμφίου ἐνύσταξαν πᾶσαι καὶ ἐκάθευδον: Ἐνταῦθα δείκνυσιν οὐκ ὀλίγον τὸν χρόνον ἐσόμενον πάλιν τὸν μεταξύ· τοὺς μαθητὰς ἀπάγων τοῦ προσδοκᾷν αὐτίκα μάλα φανεῖσθκι τὴν βασιλείαν αὐτοῦ. Καὶ γὰρ τοῦτο ἤλπιζον· διὰ τοῦτο καὶ συνεχῶς αὐτοὺς ἀναχαιτίζει τῆς ἐλπίδος ταύτης—“‘While the Bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.’ Here again he shows that the interval [between his departure and return] would not be a brief period; drawing off the disciples from the expectation that his kingdom would very immediately appear. For this was what they looked for. From this expectation therefore he perpetually beats them off.” He repeats the same sentiment a little farther on.—(Hom. lxxviii.)

But how far the golden-mouthed preacher was from supposing that by such statements about the length of Christ’s absence, he was lulling his hearers into carnal security, may be seen from such passages as the following, in the immediately preceding homily: Ἐυτεῦθεν οὖν μανθάνομεν ὁτι οὐδὲ χρονίζει· αὑτη γὰρ, οὐ τὸ τοῦ Δεσπότου, ἀλλὰ τῆς τοῦ πονηροῦ οἰκέτου γνώμης, ἡ ψῆφος· διό καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἐγκαλεῖται.… Τί οὗν φησί τὰ ἑξῆς; ἐλεύσεται ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ἧ οὐ προσδοκᾷ, καὶ ὥρα ἧ οὐ γινώσκει, καὶ τὰ ἕσχατα αὐτὸν διαθήσει. Ὁρᾷς τῶς πανταχοῦ τοῦτο τίθησι, τὸ τῆς ἀγνοίας δείκνυς χρήσιμον, καὶ ταύτῃ ποιῶν ἐναγώνιους;—“Hence then we learn that he doth not tarry. For this [‘My Lord delayeth his coming’] is not the voice of the Master, but the sentiment of the wicked servant, for which accordingly he is censured. What then says the sequel? ‘He will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour when he is not aware, and will utterly destroy him.’ You see how every where he inculcates this, showing how beneficial it is to be ignorant [of the time when the Lord will come], and thus keeping them always on the stretch.” (Hom. lxxvii.)

[15] “It is worthy of remark,” says Dr. Urwick, “that the only errors mentioned in the New Testament respecting the time of our Lord’s coming, all consist in dating it too early. I shall give several examples: 1st, The case of the servant represented as saying, ‘My Lord delayeth his coming.’ … The servant had taken up a wrong impression of the date when his Master was to be looked for; and as his Master did not show himself according to that false date, the servant, instead of distrusting his own understanding, memory, or calculation, as the case might be, acted on the assumption that his Master would not come as had been promised, and so acted to his ruin.” (Has not this case been repeatedly realized among the expectants of the premillennial advent?) The next case adduced by Dr. Urwick is that of the nobleman, on which we have commented above. “Besides correcting their mistake,” says he, about an immediate appearing, “he intimates that both his second advent and the appearing of the kingdom of God were events then at a considerable distance: and the circumstance of his giving the parable to correct the mistake, shows it not to have been his will that they should look upon those events as at hand.”—Second Advent, pp. 46–48.

[16] “Χήρα, vidua, quæ facile læditur, nec facile defenditur inter homines. Talis ecclesia mundo videtur.” [“Χήρα, a widow, one who is easily exposed to injury, and cannot readily find protection among men. Such doth the Church appear to the world.”]—Bengel.

[17] “Estque Sermo de Adventu ad vindictam, 2 Thess. 1:8, id est de adventu ad novissimum judicium conspicuo; ut appellatio Filii hominis infert: Conf. c. xvii. 24, 20.” [“He is speaking of His coming to avenge His saints: 2 Thess. 1:8: that is to say, He is speaking of His coming visibly for the last judgment; as the appellation, “Son of man,” leads us to infer. Comp. ch. 17:24, 20.”]—Ibid.

[18] Ὑπὲρ τῆς παρουσίας. “So Rom. 9:27, ὑπὲς τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ, concerning Israel. And though the other sense of ὑπὲς be an unquestionable one, yet on a consideration of the whole passage, taken in connection with chap. 4 of the former epistle, I think it less suitable here. He is going to speak to them on a subject concerning which they had been troubled, and the connection of the verses immediately preceding, chap. 1:7–10, is marked by the particle δὲ, but.”—(Hints for an Improved Translation of the New Testament, by the Rev. James Scholefield, Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Cambridge, &c., 3d edition, pp. 115, 116.)

[19] “It was not possible,” says [Joseph] Mede, the prince of premillennialists, and the most sagacious of the students of chronological prophecy, “the apostles should expect the end of the world to be in their own time, when they knew so many things were to come to pass before it as could not be fulfilled in a short time. As, 1. The desolation of Jerusalem, and that not till the seventy weeks were expired; 2. The Jews to be carried captives over all nations, and Jerusalem to be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles should be fulfilled; 3. That in the mean time the Roman empire must be ruined, and that which hindered be taken out of the way; 4. That, after this was done, the Man of Sin should be revealed, and domineer his time in the temple and Church of God.… 7. That the time should be so long, that in the last days should come scoffers, saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?’ How is it possible they should imagine the day of doom to be so near, when all these things must first come to pass, and not one of them was yet fulfilled?… Notwithstanding all this, I make no question but, even in the apostles’ times, many of the believing Gentiles, mistaking the apostles’ admonitions to the Jews of the end of their state approaching, thought the end of the whole world, and the day of the Lord, had been also near; whom, therefore, St Paul (2 Thess. 2) beseeches to be better informed, because that day should not come until the apostasy came first, and the Man of Sin were revealed.” (Apostasy of the Latter Times, chap. xv. Works, book iii.)

“The apostle’s expression,” says Bishop Horsley—also a premillennialist—speaking of the fourth chapter of 1st Thessalonians, “was so strong, that his meaning was mistaken, or as I rather think, misrepresented. There seems to have been a sect in the apostolic age, in which sect, however, the apostles themselves were not, as some have absurdly maintained, included; but there seems to have been a sect which looked for the resurrection in their own time. Some of these persons seem to have taken advantage of St Paul’s expressions in this passage, to represent him as favouring their opinion. This occasioned the second epistle to the Thessalonians, in which the apostle peremptorily decides against that doctrine, maintaining that the Man of Sin is to be revealed, and a long consequence of events to run out, before the day of judgment can come; and he desires that no expression of his may be understood of its speedy arrival; which proves that whatever he had said of the day of his coming as at hand, was to be understood only of the certainty of that coming.” (Serm. i) In a previous part of the same sermon, the Bishop more fully develops the sense in which he understands the day of Christ to have been “at hand” in the apostles’ days.

[20] Dr H. Bonar (Prophetical Landmarks, p. 91), quoted with approbation by the Duke of Manchester, p. 281.

[21] These remarks on the 1260 years do not apply to those (such as the Duke of Manchester) who take the “days” literally, as denoting just three years and a half. I cannot go into that question here; and am content to leave the matter, as far as they are concerned, to rest upon the events interposed before the second advent, which I think quite sufficient to settle it, independently of the periods.

[22] “This statement,” says Mr. Wood, (p. 398), “exposes unpardonable ignorance on Mr. Brown’s part. Cyprian, who died, a. d. 258, speaks of the six thousand years as nearly run out in his time; and he, I believe, is the first of the fathers who makes use of that tradition to fix the date of the advent.” Those who accuse others of ignorance should take especial care to be well informed themselves. Mr. Wood gives Mr. Elliott as his authority for his historical statements; but his authority is against him. “Among the Christian fathers,” says Mr. Elliott, “that succeeded on the apostolical age, this view of the matter (the tradition of a sabbatical millennium of the world) was universally received and promulgated.”—(Elliott’s Horæ, iv. 229, fourth edition.) So far from Cyprian being the first of the fathers to make use of this tradition, I had read it from Barnabas downwards, long before I saw Mr. Elliott’s extracts. It is with regret that I repeat this note, and only in case this offensive charge should meet the eye of my readers.

[23] “Fortasse nunc quispiam requirat quando ista quæ diximes sint futura: jam superius ostendi. Completis annorum sex millibus, mutationem ipsam fieri oportere? et jam propinquare illum summum conclusionis extremæ diem, de signis, quæ a prophetis dicta sunt, licet noscere. Prædixerunt enim signa, quibus consummatio temporum expectanda sit nobis in singulos dies, atque timenda. Quando tamen compleatur hæo summa, docent ii qui de temporibus scripserunt, colligentes ex literis sanctis, et ex variis historiis, quantus sit numerus annorum ab exordio mundi: qui licet varient, et aliquantulum numeri eorum summa dissentiat, omnis tamen expectatio non amplius quam ducentorum videtur annorum.” [“Perhaps some one may now ask when these things of which we have spoken are about to come to pass? I have already shown above, that when six thousand years shall be completed this change must take place, and that the last day of the extreme conclusion is now drawing near. It is permitted us to know respecting the signs, which are spoken by the prophets, for they foretold signs by which the consummation of the times is to be expected by us from day to day, and to be feared. When, however, this amount will be completed, those teach, who have written respecting the times, collecting them from the sacred writings and from various histories, how great is the number of years from the beginning of the world. And although they vary, and the amount of the number as reckoned by them differs considerably, yet all expectation does not exceed the limit of two hundred years.”] (Div. Instit. lib. vii. c. xxv.)

Mr. Wood charges me with misrepresenting Lactantius in the text. If so, I have at least provided the antidote, by printing his own words. Lactantius’s object and mine being different, there is naturally a difference in the mode of expression. His object was to show how near the end probably was—not extending beyond two hundred years; and it was the specification of this period which alone I wished to mark. Mr. Wood quotes a passage from Dods on the Incarnation, in disparagement of Lactantius. It is no interest of mine to defend him, though I find his aid accepted freely enough by premillennialists when it suits them.