THE PROGRESS OF THE GOSPEL.
THERE is another issue between Pre-millennialists and Post-millennialists, namely, that in reference to the progress and outcome of the gospel dispensation.
Pre-millennialists teach that the preaching of the Gospel, even with the co-operating power of the omnipotent Spirit of God, was never designed to be the divine means by which the mass of mankind should be brought to the feet of Jesus. Instead of the world being gradually subdued by divine grace and power through the Gospel, and the millennium being ushered in as the grand climax of a progress which, though often halting, has been maintained, the might of evil is to go on gathering force and intensity, until it reaches its climax, and then Christ will come to smite down its reign. The object of the preaching of the Gospel and the work of the Spirit is only for a witness against a world becoming more and more opposed to Christ, and to gather out an elect few.
In opposition to this, Post-millennialists hold that the preaching of the Gospel, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is the one and the only means designed by
God to bring a lost race to salvation. They believe that the Gospel, notwithstanding reactions, has made progress, and is to continue to advance. A time is to come when, through this progress, and, perhaps, some mighty and special energizing of divine power in connection with the work of the Church, the millennial era of righteousness and peace is to dawn upon a weary world. Through this halcyon time, goodness, and truth, and holiness are to prevail as never before. At the close, the elements of evil which existed during this period will again assert themselves, and in the last desperate struggle against the power of the Gospel will be smitten down forever by the descending Judge of quick and dead, as He comes to end this age, and usher in the ages of eternity.
The question is, which of these views is the scriptural one? Is it the teaching of the Bible that the Gospel, in the accompanying power of the Holy Ghost, is God’s one means for the salvation of all who are to be saved; or are we to expect the great era of salvation to be in another age, under changed conditions, through the personal presence of Christ? Does the Bible say that the shadow of sin is to grow darker and darker over the earth from the time Christ came the first time until He is to return? Or does it justify a more hopeful view?
First, then, what do the Scriptures teach us as to God’s purpose through the Gospel with the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit Naturally, we first turn to the great commission. This was our Lord’s last general message for His people down through the ages. We might well expect here, if anywhere, to find our Lord’s own statement of the great purpose of the service of His people through the Gospel. Let us study the pregnant words of Matt. 28:18-20: “All authority hath been given me in heaven and earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the 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 commanded you : and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”
Does “make disciples of all the nations” mean that the servants of Christ, as they go forth in obedience to His last injunction, can hope for nothing more, as the ultimate results of their work, than that an elect few shall be gathered out of the nations until the end of the world? Does it not rather mean that the work of evangelization is to go on until a day shall come, when practically, and in a general sense, “all the nations” shall become disciples of our Lord? If this be not so, then can we escape the conclusion that our Lord commanded His people to do something which He never intended or proposed should be done The words “make disciples,” “teaching to observe all things whatsoever I commanded,” cover all of salvation, and exhaust all the provisions of the Gospel for the souls of men, and “all the nations” leaves none out. What is here commanded, therefore, omits nothing from its all-inclusive scope of God’s purpose as to human salvation in the present life, Dare we assume that it was not His purpose that what our Lord here commanded should be done in the sense in which it was enjoined? It was our Lord’s purpose, then, that His servants should never consider their work done until the world should be brought to His feet through the efficacy of His work and through His power. The question still remains as to the period in which this great design of His, as indicated by His charge, should be fulfilled. And is not this also clearly made known in the introductory and concluding words of this same all-embracing passage, “All authority hath been given me in heaven and earth. Go ye therefore,” and “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” or age It is His presence with them, in the all-embracing authority which has already been bestowed upon Him, that is the ground upon which God’s people are commissioned to accomplish so mighty a task. He is to be with them, in this capacity of their all-sufficient helper, until the end of the age, or until His second personal coming to end the age.
Can there be the shadow of a doubt that this means He is to be with them as long as the work of discipling is to be continued? It is a promise to encourage them in their special work, during all ages, and is therefore an assurance of His presence until this work is done. When He says, “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the age,” He declares that this work is to continue till then, and then it is to end. There seems to be no possible room left for the idea that the chief part of the work of discipling was not to take place until after the end of the age in which He had promised to be with them for the purpose of helping them in this very work. Neither can we think that the chief part of this work was not to be done through the power He had already received from God, and which was to be manifested through the presence of the Spirit of Christ, as the passage plainly intimates; but was to be accomplished in a new age, and in the exercise of another form of power—that of His personal presence, rather than of His Spirit, through whom He is present with His people in the sense here indicated. The great commission covers all God’s purpose of grace to men on earth through the redemptive work of Christ, and this is all to be accomplished through the agency of God’s people, before the end of this age, in the present dispensation of the Spirit. Any millennium, therefore, there is to be, must be within the scope of the great commission, and lie within the limits of the present age. Other passages contain the same teaching.
Acts 5:31, “Him did God exalt with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins.” Peter had not yet been led out beyond his Jewish exclusiveness. He only mentions Israel, but the object of our Lord’s exaltation was equally to give repentance and remission to all men. Just as in the great commission, our Lord says—“all authority” is given to Him, here Peter declares He has already taken His exalted seat of power as the dispenser of repentance and remission. It is while thus exalted, and from the seat which He now occupies, that these sovereign powers are to be dispensed to men. While Peter does not declare that it is only from His present mediatorial throne this will be done, the language is altogether out of harmony with the thought that but little, comparatively, of the dispensing of repentance and pardon will be done until He has left His place at God’s right hand. It is in the strictest agreement with the belief that all the dispensing of His grace will be done before He leaves this seat, and when He does leave it, human probation is at an end.
In this connection, we must refer again to Heb. 10:12, 13, “But he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God, from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made the footstool of his feet.”
This passage is in strictest harmony with Acts 5:31, just considered. Our Lord, after offering himself on the cross as the one sacrifice for sins, sat down at God’s right hand as Prince and Saviour, to dispense repentance and forgiveness. From the time that He takes this exalted seat of power, He expects or awaits, as the word really means, until, through the progress of this work of repentance and forgiveness which continues in connection with the preaching of the Gospel, His enemies shall finally become subject to His sway. If we say that this passage refers to the crushing of His enemies by omnipotent power, rather than subduing their hearts by the power of the Gospel, we have to suppose the writer of Hebrews, in referring to the outcome of Christ’s sacrificial work, as He “had offered one sacrifice of sins forever,” and sat down on the right hand of God expecting the outcome, really thought it nothing more than the crushing, by His avenging might, those who continue to hate Him. Surely, if this were the kind of conquest He was seeking He need not have died to make it possible. Nay, the subjection here spoken of is of men’s hearts by grace, not a crushing by might. After having accomplished the work of redemption for men He sat down, expecting—that is, from His seat at the right hand of God He continues to expect— until His expectation shall be realized in His enemies being made the footstool of His feet—until the Gospel has completed its work and had its full triumph.
As an example of attempts to harmonize this passage with pre-millennial views, we quote from Faussett, “Commentary,” in loco: “He is now sitting at rest, v. 12, invisibly reigning and having his foes virtually, by virtue of his death, subject to him. His present sitting on the unseen throne is a necessary preliminary to his coming forth to subject his foes openly. He shall then come forth to a visible manifested Kingdom and conquest of his foes,” etc. Is it necessary to say that the subjection. He sat expecting was not one He virtually had. To expect what we already have is a misuse of language. He was to sit until the “virtual subjection,” whatever that may mean, became actual. While we must not press too far the figurative expressions, “sat down at the right hand of God,” “the footstool of his feet,” the passage cannot mean less than that His enemies are subjected under Him, while exercising the sway, which He assumed when He ascended to the Father. The full results of the atoning work He accomplished, when He offered one sacrifice for sins forever, are finished before He leaves the seat “on the right hand of God.” When He leaves that seat, it will not be to save, but to judge men, and give eternal rewards to His people and punishment to His enemies.
If more evidence to the same effect is needed, we refer the reader to Acts 2:34-36, and all the passages to prove that there is no probation or salvation after Christ comes, as given in chap. 4, where the same teaching, in the most explicit form, is found.
In opposition to all this, and in support of their gloomy view, Pre-millennialists rely chiefly upon two passages.
The first is Matt. 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a testimony unto all nations, and then shall the end come.” If the “end” here spoken of is the end of the world, at our Lord’s second coming, then, during all the ages in which myriads had never heard the Gospel, it was impossible to believe this end or second advent might surprise the world at any moment. The event could not happen before its necessary condition was fulfilled.
To reconcile this passage with the belief in the perpetual imminence of our Lord’s coming, some Pre-millennialists regard the “end” referred to as the end of the “travail” spoken of in v. 8, and which culminated at the destruction of Jerusalem. (See Meyer, Alford, etc.) In that case this passage has no necessary bearing on the general purpose of the Gospel in all the subsequent ages.
But if this verse does refer to the general purpose of the Gospel in all ages, it can support the view that few will be saved through its proclamation, only as preaching for a testimony is for some other purpose than to save men. This is what Pre-millennialists believe. The chief purpose of this preaching is held to be to make it possible for God justly to condemn men, rather than to save them. It is, therefore, inferred that condemnation and not salvation will be the chief end served by the Gospel up to the end, when Christ comes again.
But is this the true explanation of the expression, “preaching for a testimony”? Cremer, than whom there is scarcely a higher authority, after a comparison of all the places where “for a testimony” occurs, concludes that the preaching for a witness signifies the proclamation of the New Testament facts to men “that they may thus hear of Christ the Messiah.” Even Dr. Pierson (“The Coming of the Lord,” p. 34), in speaking of the witnessing of the Church, says: “This witnessing includes everything that tends to put before human souls the grandeur, dignity and power of Christ as Saviour and Lord.” It is not for a testimony against any, except as they reject Christ about whom the testimony is given. There is nothing in the expression itself to determine whether the testimony thus given by the Gospel is for condemnation or salvation. It covers the immediate object of the preaching of the Gospel—to make known, or to testify to, if you will—the facts and truths about Christ. It is a making known of Christ in His true relation to human salvation. Whether this will result in condemnation or salvation is not declared. It leaves room for either the salvation or the condemnation of the great bulk of mankind.
At the same time, the view which would make the great purpose of the preaching of the Gospel to be as a witness against men to assure their righteous condemnation, is inconsistent with the very meaning of the word “gospel”—“glad tidings”—and with such passages as John 3:17: “For God sent not his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” His coming and the preaching of the Gospel, like all things else which are provided in mercy, if rejected, results in deeper condemnation; but the Gospel is sent forth with a view to salvation. The condemnation comes through the refusal of men to yield to God’s manifest intent.
The other passage relied on by Pre-millennialists in support of their pessimistic views of the object of the preaching of the Gospel in the present dispensation, is Acts 15:14: “Brethren, hearken unto me: Symeon hath rehearsed how first God did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.”
Very large use is made of this verse. In tracts and from pulpits we often see and hear it said, “God did visit the Gentiles, not to save them all, but to take out of them an elect few, to be a people for his name.” This verse is thought an all-sufficient proof of their gloomy views of the future work of the Church. It does not require much thought to perceive how little this verse avails to this end.
James is referring to the specified instance which Peter had rehearsed—the conversion of Cornelius and his household (see vs. 7-9 and compare Acts 10:44). It is more than probable that James, when he said, “God did first visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for his name,” referred only to the Gentile converts already gathered into the churches. These already constituted a people for God’s name.
But if the general purpose in the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles is here declared, it is in nowise in conflict with the belief that a long period is yet to come, in which the great mass of the Gentiles shall be converted. The expression must refer, in this case, to the purpose and result of the preaching of the Gospel throughout the ages to the end. For ages past but comparatively few of the Gentiles have been saved. We do not know how long this shall continue to be true. Even though the great body of the Gentiles continue to be converted for a thousand years before the end, still, of all the innumerable myriads who shall have lived during the Christian era, those of them who are saved would be a people taken out of this vast mass. The expression, “To take out of the Gentiles a people for his name,” does not necessarily imply that those “taken out” are but a small proportion of the whole number. So long as all do not become the people of the Lord, it is hard to see how any other form of language could be used. If nine-tenths or ninety-nine one-hundredths were to be chosen by God, it would still be taking them out from the whole number of the Gentiles. But the evident meaning of the whole passage (Acts 15:14-19) makes plain, not only that it gives no aid to the pessimistic view of our pre-millennial brethren as to the outcome of the gospel dispensation, but that it is all aglow with the most radiant promise. In vs. 16, 17 James proceeds to show that this “taking out of the Gentiles a people for his name" is in harmony with Old Testament prophecy, and quotes Amos 9:11, 12, in a free way from the Septuagint, in proof, where “all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called” are spoken of as seeking the Lord. Now, if the statement of James in v. 14—“taking out of the Gentiles a people for his name”—included only the gathering out from the Gentiles a very few converts in the time preceding the second advent, while the prophecy refers exclusively to the gathering in of all the Gentiles after that grand event, as pre-millennial controversialists declare, then the prophecy does not even include the first reception of the Gentiles into the blessings of the gospel dispensation; it is not pertinent to the matter before the Council, and the apostle seems guilty of a misapplication of prophecy. It is only as the prophecy includes the very gathering “out of the Gentiles a people for his name,” of which James speaks, that there can be the agreement between them which would justify the reference to the prophecy in support of what had been done, or what it was proposed to do. It would be strange consistency, also, for James to quote in support of a statement that only a few Gentiles were to be saved in the Christian dispensation, a prophecy which declares the salvation of them all. Notice, also, the similarity of James’s language, “a people for his name,” and that of the prophecy, “the Gentiles upon whom my name is called.”
For this reason, all commentators we have been able to consult on this passage, including Meyer, Wordsworth, Canon Cook, Plumptre, Lechler in Lange, Schaff, A. R. Faussett, Olshausen, Cambridge Bible, Abbott, Howson & Spence, Hackett, and Alford, interpret the prophecy quoted as referring to the reception of the Gentiles to the Gospel, and their subsequent salvation and gathering into Christ’s spiritual kingdom in the present dispensation. As Meyer says: “The prophecy has found its Messianic historical fulfilment in the reception of the Gentiles unto Christianity, after that thereby the Davidic dominion, in the higher and antitypical sense of the Son of David, was re-established.” Bishop Wordsworth explains, Amos declares in these words, “that the true restoration of the tabernacle of David is to be found in the reception of the residue of the human family, and in the flowing in of all nations, into the Church of Christ.” They all associate this prophecy with our Lord’s first coming, and make the building again of the tabernacle of David refer to what was to follow this coming of David’s greater Son. James seems to think this prophecy covered all the divine purpose of this first coming in reference to the salvation of the Gentiles. He sees the beginning of the realization of that purpose in the gathering in of the Gentiles, which had already taken place. He saw, in this prophecy, the assurance it was still to go on, in the same dispensation, until “the residue of men may seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called.” Can this mean anything else than that the conversion of the Gentiles, which had already taken place, was to go on until all the Gentiles who were to be saved should be saved?
A reference to Rom. 11:25 supports this interpretation, if it needs any support. “Hardness in part hath befallen Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.” Pre-millennialists refer the fulfilment of this prophecy to the time preceding the second coming. They are therefore required, in order to harmonize this statement with their view that but few comparatively are to be saved before Christ comes again, to make it appear that “fulness" here does not mean the great body of Gentiles, but the full appointed number of the Gentiles. But allow that this is the meaning of “fulness” here, does it even then leave their interpretation free from insuperable difficulty? To say that it signifies the full appointed number who are to be saved before “all Israel shall be saved,” would be to make Paul here state a meaningless truism. He would just declare that all the Gentiles who were to be saved before all Israel shall be saved, should be saved before all Israel shall be saved, which it did not require an inspired man to declare, and which a man of the most ordinary wisdom would not take the trouble to say. If “fulness” here does not mean the great body of the Gentiles, it must mean the full number of the Gentiles who are ever to be saved. But this is just what our pre-millennial friends deny; for they hold that the prophecy is to be fulfilled before the second advent, whereas the great bulk of the Gentiles are not to be saved until after that event. If “fulness” here means the full appointed number, and only covers an elect few, then an elect few are all that will ever be saved, and this brings the passage into direct conflict with James’s interpretation of Amos in Acts 15:16-18. The only tenable interpretation of “fulness” in Rom. 11:25 is to give it its usual meaning of the great body of the Gentiles. And who can doubt that Acts 15:16-18 and Rom. 11:25 refer to the same gathering in of the Gentiles? The first says, “All the Gentiles upon whom my name is called,” the last, “the fulness of the Gentiles.” Can we believe the first refers to the salvation of the great body of the Gentiles, and the last to the salvation of only an elect few? Can we believe what is declared in these two similar forms of expression, which appear to be essentially identical, can really refer to what is in the strongest contrast, the one alluding to a scattered few in the present dispensation, and the other to the great hosts of the Gentiles in a dispensation which is described as its antithesis? The only consistent interpretation of the two passages is to make them both allude to the same gathering of the Gentiles into the kingdom of God in the present dispensation, before Christ comes. To rend them apart, and make one refer to the salvation of an elect few before the Lord’s personal coming, and the other to the conversion of all after His coming, is both to do the greatest violence to the meaning of “fulness” in the connection in which it stands in Rom. 11:25 (comp. 10-12, and observe “in part" and “fulness,” v. 25, and “all,” v. 26) and to put asunder passages which evidently refer to the same great but gradual event.
Let, then, the great commission, in which, if anywhere, we might well look for the statement of the purpose of the preaching of the Gospel; let these other passages which have been quoted, and let the proof that there is no probation after Christ comes, be set over against these two misused passages upon which Pre-millennialists depend almost exclusively for their gloomy view. When it is seen that, in the case of one of these passages, it can serve this view only when interpreted in most obvious disregard of the connection in which it stands, and in case of the other, only by forcing on it a meaning it does not naturally bear, and which it need not convey, may we not well wonder that they could have been used to override the teaching of the very passages which seem expressly given to tell us what the purpose and outcome of the preaching of the Gospel is to be, and which declare it, in no ambiguous terms, to be the very opposite of that which thus seems to be forced from Matt. 24:14 and Acts 15:14?
In support of their view that comparatively few are to be saved before the second advent, and that, therefore, the millennium of the righteous cannot have place until after this event, Pre-millennialists refer to a few other passages which, they allege, describe the future of the Church and of the world in too gloomy terms to include such a period.
Emphasis is laid upon 2 Tim. 3:1 sq., 2 Pet 3:3, and two or three kindred passages, in which it is said that in “the last day” there shall be grievous times and a widespread declension from Christian truth and life. But we must not be too sure that all these passages refer to the times immediately preceding the second coming of the Lord. In Acts 2:17 “last days” is used to cover the whole dispensation. In 1 Tim. 4:1 “later times” also refers to all the times subsequent to those in which the apostle lived. It is also to be remarked that he refers to similar conditions, as in 2 Tim. 3:2 sq., and Paul warns Timothy of them, in both letters, in order to prepare him for them as already begun or immediately impending. In James 5:3 also “the last days” are used to designate the times when James wrote his letter. While “the last day” has a single definite reference to the coming of the Lord and the grand events associated with it, the expression “the last days” does not have so fixed a reference to the times immediately preceding this closing act of this age. It is also noticeable that John (1 John 2:18) declares the time when he wrote, the “last time.” Now, if the scripture writers used these expressions to cover the whole period of the Christian dispensation, including the time when they themselves lived, as they do in some instances, it is difficult to prove that they used them in any case exclusively of the time immediately before the end of the world. “Last days” would, according to this interpretation, be in tacit antithesis to the days of the past, The meaning of 2 Tim. 3:1 sq., would then be that Paul saw all he described as to take place in the future, but not necessarily, perhaps not probably, in the remote future: for how, then, could he refer to what was to happen to forewarn Timothy as against what already threatened the early church? But even though Paul and Peter did refer to what was immediately to precede the end, their descriptions would be just in keeping with the great lapse of righteousness and the uprising of wickedness between the millennium and the end, as described in Rev. 20:6-11. Neither does either of the apostles declare that the conditions of things they describe in the passages we have referred to, abide as a permanent feature of the life of this dispensation. If the view be taken that the apostles referred in them to the times immediately preceding the end, as it is in these last days that these departures from the faith and life of the Gospel were to occur, it certainly implies that it was in them only that they should be manifested; or manifested, at least, to the degree they were then to reach. If they refer to the whole period of the Church, beginning with the apostolic age, then it is merely declared that such a state of things would have place: but for how long or how often, nothing is said. In neither case, therefore, can these passages have any decisive bearing upon the question at issue. If, finally, we take the view that the writers of these passages really expected the Lord soon to appear, and thought the times in which they lived the last in the sense of immediately preceding His advent, then the foreshortening of the future which reduced thousands of years to a span, left room, in the stretches of time it proved they left unnoticed, for a millennium of prevalent righteousness. These passages do not prove that the world will grow worse and worse until the second advent. They only prove that there will be a period of relapse.
Reference is also made to such passages as 2 Tim. 3:12, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution”, John 16:33, “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” But in the latter passage, our Lord refers specifically to His disciples to whom He was speaking, as the connection shows. In the first the meaning need be nothing more than that all of those who would live godly, in the times and circumstances prevailing when Paul wrote to Timothy, shall suffer persecution, not that the persecuting might of evil should prevail without break to the end of the world.
It is held that Matt. 24:37, 38 (comp. Luke 17:26, 27) indicates that the time immediately preceding the coming of the Lord will be one of abounding wickedness. But the comparison is not so much between the wickedness of the days before the flood and those days, as between the unexpectedness of the coming of the flood and of our Lord. Just as in the parable of the ten virgins, the cry, “Behold the bridegroom cometh,” caught the virgins all slumbering, and took them by surprise, so here, the coming of the Son of God bursts upon a world as little expecting His appearing as did the antediluvians the flood. If emphasis is to be laid upon the wickedness as well, it is also laid upon the destruction of the wicked as well, and this is just what our pre-millennial brethren deny: for they hold that Christ does not come to destroy “all” the wicked, but to introduce the great era of salvation. If it is here declared that wickedness is to abound, and that the wicked are to be destroyed at the Lord’s coming, it is in exact accord with the post-millennial interpretation of Rev. 20:11 sq., where the final uprising of wickedness after the millennium is crushed out by the coming of the Lord and the tremendous scenes of the general resurrection and judgment.
The pre-millennial interpretation of Luke 18: 8 “Howbeit, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth ?” as declaring that our Lord really doubted whether there should be any believers or saved people on the earth at His second coming, proves too much, and contradicts the plainest teaching of other passages. In our Lord’s parables referring to His coming, He speaks of the faithful servants, and in most cases they outnumber the unfaithful. There is wheat as well as tares at His coming, and the tares are among the wheat, suggesting that the great mass of mankind are saved. Pre-millennialists themselves make the judgment of Matt. 25:31 sq., that of the nations which are alive on the earth when our Lord comes, and yet some of these are described as sheep, and enter into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. Their own interpretation of these parables is in conflict with the one they give of Luke 18:8, showing that it is as impossible from their own view as from the plainest teaching of the whole New Testament. Paul speaks of those who are alive when Christ comes, who are to be caught up to meet Him in the air, and the living righteous shall not precede the righteous dead in the glad resurrection day, in meeting the Lord, in their resurrection bodies. Whatever interpretation we accept of this passage, it cannot mean what our pre-millennial friends would make it signify.
Perhaps the passage upon which they chiefly rely to prove that the world is to get worse and worse until our Lord comes, is 2 Thess. 2:3-10, “Let no man beguile you in any wise, for it will not be, except the falling away come first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, he that opposeth and exalteth himself against all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he sitteth in the temple of God, setting himself forth as God Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know that which restraineth, to the end that he may be revealed in his own season. For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work : only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall be revealed the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to nought by the manifestation of his coming.”
Our purpose does not require a discussion of the difficulties which beset the interpretation of this passage. Suffice it to say that a few of the best exegetes, and not all of them Post-millennialists, do not regard the “manifestation of his coming” or presence which is to “slay ” and “bring to nought” the “lawless one” or “the man of sin,” as His personal appearing. But allow that it is of our Lord’s personal appearing that the apostle speaks, and still we are not required to believe that evil is to go on with steady and ever-increasing might until the second advent. The apostle is giving the future history of iniquity, and not a general history of the Church and of the world. It is the long-drawn course of evil which presents itself in his vision, and suffices to make the immediate coming of the Lord impossible. His course of thought, therefore, does not require the mention of any long period of prevalent righteousness during the time iniquity is to continue to exist on the earth, even though He was aware that such a period was to have place before evil was to be brought to nought “by the manifestation of his coming.” In an outline of the whole course of evil, extending over two thousand and we know not how many more thousands of years, which is contained in two or three graphic sentences, there is no room for the specification of details. Even though Paul did not have his mind fixed upon the dark history of iniquity, the sweep of the description is far too general to make it anything like certain that he must have mentioned the millennial period, were it within the limits of the time his outline covers. There is also mention made of a restraining power which keeps the working of lawlessness secret, “a mystery,” in contrast to the revelation of the “lawless one,” near the end. During the time of this restraint of evil, in connection with the general nature of the description, there is room for a millennium consistent with the great uprising of wickedness (Rev. 20:7-11) at its close.
Nor is this all. There is a positive and fatal objection to the view that the millennium is to come after the coming of the Lord here spoken of. If the millennium is to come after this great event, so also must the tremendous uprising of wickedness which succeeds it in Rev. 20:7-11. But if anything be plain, Paul in our passage intends to trace the dark history of evil in this world until its complete and final overthrow. The interpretation, which places the millennium after this close of the history of evil is impossible: because we have, after the millennium, and long after the end of its course mentioned here, an outburst described in terms which make it evident that it is to be one of the most terrific that the earth, which has been so long cursed with so many of them, is ever to see. Just as surely as Paul in 2 Thess. 2:3-10 traces the history of iniquity to its close, so certain is it that the coming of the Lord, which is to mark its final destruction, must be after the great uprising of wickedness in Rev. 20:7-10, and, therefore, after the millennium. Instead, therefore, of this passage affording an insuperable objection to the post-millennial view it is to the pre-millennial view it is fatal.
Neither can this passage be made to square with other features of the pre-millennial theory. Evil, in its great representative, is not to be slain and “brought to nought” by the “manifestation of his coming,” meaning His second personal advent, according to this theory. Iniquity, through the conversion of a world almost altogether given up to wickedness at His coming, is to be destroyed by a process of conversion after He has come, and the seeds of evil are to remain for over a thousand years, to spring up at last for a terrible harvest.
Finally, how are 2 Thess. 2:3-10 and Rev. 20:7-10 to be reconciled?
No one who compares the two passages carefully, can fail to be struck by the similarity of their descriptions. The outburst of evil in both covers but a short period. In Thessalonians it seems to have its culmination, its time of power and its overthrow within the lifetime of some prince of evil: in Revelation it is said to be “for a little time.” In each case the bursting forth of the evil might appears to be sudden. In both cases it flares forth after long restraint, apparently the more fierce because of the long repression. In both sudden destruction falls upon the evil power, when at its terrific climax. In both the overthrow of evil seems to be utter and final, from which there is no recovery. If they both describe the final overthrow, they must, of course, be different descriptions of the same event. In one the destruction is said to be by “the manifestation of his coming.” In the other it is said, “fire came down out of heaven and devoured them” (Rev. 20:9). When we read in 2 Thess. 1:7, 8 of the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven—in flaming fire, “rendering vengeance,” we see how the “fire out of heaven” of Rev. 20: 9 might well be the “flaming fire” of the Lord’s coming of 2 Thess. 1:7, 8.
This interpretation would associate the “fire out of heaven” with the coming of the Lord to raise the dead, and to judge all men “out of the things written in the books” as the author immediately proceeds to describe. While there are some points left without full explanation, this interpretation brings the passage in 2 Thess. 2:3-10, into strictest harmony with Rev 20:4-15, and is in agreement with the general teaching of the New Testament that there is no probation after Christ comes.
All the millennium there is, therefore, must be before the coming here spoken of, for there can be no uprising of wickedness after the destruction of evil here alluded to, and after probation ends and judgment has been executed.
A general study, therefore, of 2 Thess. 2:3-10 does not forbid a millennium consistent with the continued existence of evil during its course, which the uprising of wickedness at its close makes necessary. The character of the destruction dealt with also as it culminates in the “man of sin” and the seeming essential identity of the latter part of this description with Rev. 20:7-10 makes a millennium and a subsequent uprising of wickedness after the “manifestation of his coming” here spoken of, out of the question. So also does all the proof already given that probation ends at the coming of the Lord. We have positive evidence, however, that there is to be a growth in Christ’s kingdom on earth until the world is brought to His feet, instead of the world growing worse and worse until the end.
In Matt., chap. 13, there are two parables, evidently intended by our Lord to describe the future of the kingdom of heaven among men. In vs. 31, 32 He says: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field, which is indeed less than all seeds: but when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the heavens come and lodge in the branches thereof.”
The feature of the kingdom of heaven here spoken of is evident upon the face of the passage. It is to increase from a very small beginning until it becomes great. The mustard plant, however large it grows, is of the same nature as the seed from which it springs. There is no hint in this parable of a people backsliding into evil. It is the kingdom of heaven still, the same in character but grown into greatness. To speak of unclean birds lodging in the branches of the mustard tree, and say that the parable refers to a corrupt church, is to be ruled by fancy, rather than deal in sober exegesis. The kingdom of heaven is not said to be like the birds, be they clean or unclean, but like the mustard tree which must, by virtue of its being a mustard tree, be of the same nature as the seed. It is not said whether the birds are clean or unclean. All that is signified by the birds taking refuge in the branches, if it is added for any other purpose than to show the size of the mustard tree, is to show that the kingdom of heaven is to be a shelter for those who might naturally be expected to take refuge there, just as the birds naturally find shelter in the branches of trees.
According to this parable then, the kingdom of heaven, in comparison with its small beginning, is to become great and mighty.
May we not also believe it was intended to teach that this kingdom was also to reach the fulness of its greatness and strength, not by sudden impulses of power, but by a growth, in the main steady? There is room for the arrest of growth, it may be, as a plant is stricken by drought, etc. There is room for more or less rapid growth. There may be room for temporary decline, just as a plant may become weak through evil conditions. But there is no room in this parable, any more than there is in the facts of the church history, for the view that this kingdom is to have no growth which will impress the world and make it better. There is no room for the idea that the kingdom is not yet established, or that it is to have no growth until a time in the indefinite future, when our Lord is to come; and that then it is to shoot up into fullest growth, and bloom like a century plant in a day. Its increase from the beginning until it reaches its fullest growth, is to be on the same principles, so far as this parable gives us any information. It is not to begin and end its development under such changed principles as those our pre-millennial brethren suppose will prevail before and after our Lord’s second coming.
The second parable follows in v. 33, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened.”
The natural interpretation of this parable is evident. There does not seem to be anything dark or hidden about it. It is to the leaven the kingdom of heaven is like, and it is like it in its pervasive, assimilative power. That which corresponds to the three measures of meal is mankind, among whom the kingdom of heaven is introduced. Corresponding to the woman would be God himself, who established this kingdom among men. The teaching is that, just as the leaven does not cease its pervasive, assimilative influence until all into which it is cast is transformed and made like itself, so also the kingdom of heaven, as it has been introduced among men, is not to cease its work until all mankind, in the general sense in which such comprehensive representations are to be taken, has been reached and transformed by its principles. Like the leaven, it is to begin its work as soon as it is placed in contact with the life of the world. Like the leaven, it is not to cease its work until “all” the great mass of mankind has yielded to its transforming power. The final generality of its assimilative influence is one of the plainest teachings of the parable, just as in the preceding parable it is a progress from the beginning of the kingdom on earth until its close. Fluctuations there may be, but there is a general advance, just as the tide flows on, although there may be receding waves upon the beach during its flood. Instead of evil going on to a great climax, from the time the kingdom was set up by our Lord until He comes again, it is the principles of His kingdom which sweep onward, as the ages go by. From the time when our Lord said “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” instead of evil being on the flow and the principles of this kingdom on the ebb, it was to be the forces of evil which were to ebb and the forces of His kingdom which were to move forward in perpetual flood. The great trend of the ages was to be upward and not downward.
So evident is the teaching of this parable, interpreted in this natural way, fatal to the pessimistic view of our pre-millennial brethren, that they are aware its force must be broken or their theory abandoned.
The attempt to interpret this parable in harmony with their view that the world is growing worse, is one of the most astounding of exegetical performances. They actually attempt to show that leaven is used here as a symbol of pollution and corruption, as in most other cases in the Bible, and that the parable is to show “the progress of corruption and deterioration in the outward visible church,” as Alford states the view to controvert it. Let us see how the parable reads, when the language of reality is substituted for that of symbol, on this understanding. “The kingdom of heaven is like pollution and corruption which Satan introduced into the outward visible church until the whole was corrupted.” Now, the comparison is either between the kingdom of heaven and the leaven, or it is between the progress of the kingdom and the leaven in its transforming work. If we take the first alternative, then the kingdom of heaven is pollution and corruption, which no one will dare affirm. If we take the second, then it is the kingdom of heaven which is to transform and assimilate humanity as the leaven does the meal. That which transforms and assimilates in each case must transform through what it is in itself, and assimilate to its own nature. If we say that something transforms by what is foreign to its own nature, and assimilates to what is the very opposite to itself in nature, we are perverting expressions to a false use. If the kingdom of heaven is to act like leaven in the meal, just as the leaven is said to transform by its own nature to its own nature, so the kingdom must do its work by its own principles bringing the world into harmony with themselves. If the kingdom of heaven, in acting like leaven, pollutes, it must be because its principles, which it infuses, are themselves morally corrupt. This, no man, however much driven by the need of bad exegesis to support a questionable theory, would venture to assert. From whatever standpoint, therefore, we view the parable, this pre-millennial interpretation is impossible.
Neither is it true that leaven is always a symbol of evil in the Bible. In Lev. 7:13, 23:15-17 leavened bread is commanded to be offered to the Lord. Rev. J. Gall, in his excellent treatise on “Wherein Millenarians are Wrong,” argues that when the work of Christ is symbolized, as it was definite and fixed, leaven was forbidden; but where the expansive work of the Spirit was to be set forth, leaven is commanded, as in the instances given above. His argument is strong. But be this as it may, we can scarcely believe that God would command, even in symbol, that what is essentially evil and corrupt should be offered to Him. We are more than doubtful whether leaven is invariably the symbol of evil in the Scriptures.
The pre-millennial interpretation of this parable, even if it were possible on other grounds, is impossible because it proves too much, especially for other features of their own theory. If the kingdom of heaven is to help the spread of corruption until “all” is corrupted, we fail to see why our loving Father in heaven established it on earth. Why be at such tremendous cost to hasten evil on to its universal dominion? For, mark you, this parable gives the final outcome of the existence of the kingdom on earth. Also, if this is to be the future of the work of the kingdom, what becomes of the teaching that the kingdom is not yet established, and that, when it is inaugurated at Christ’s second coming, instead of its being associated with a victorious might of evil, righteousness is to have its grand triumph?
Finally, this interpretation of this parable, and the whole view of the continued progress of evil until Christ comes, in whose interest it is adopted, at so much violence to its plainest meaning, is contradicted by the facts of church history. Is it true that, from the time Christ set up His kingdom—the leaven was put in the meal—the world has been growing worse and worse? The man who would say so must either be ignorant of the festering wickedness of the world at the time of Christ, or he must shut his eyes to the condition of the world to-day.
In addition to these parables which so clearly teach the growth of the kingdom of heaven and the extension of its principles in their pervasive and transforming might, the reader is referred to all the passages adduced in proof that “all the Gentiles,” “the fulness of the Gentiles,” and “all Israel” are to be saved in the present dispensation; and also the proof that there is to be no salvation for any after our Lord’s second coming. If this last position has been sustained, then every glowing description of the progress of truth and righteousness and the gathering of the people of the world into the kingdom of God might be adduced in rebuttal of the interpretation which would draw from the Bible the dark doctrine that it is evil and not good which is advancing with all-conquering might in the present dispensation. We place all this over against the few passages adduced to establish this deplorable position. To conclude: some of the passages depended upon can only help this view as a very forced and unnatural interpretation is given them, an interpretation to which no first-class exegete has ever committed himself. Others are general in their character, and do not necessarily conflict with the alternative view. This interpretation is also in direct conflict with the facts of history, and cannot be reconciled even with other features of the pre-millennial view. Does it seem presumptuous to declare that it is erroneous?
 “Commentary,” in loco.
 Since writing the above my attention has been called to the views of Dr. Stifler. He thinks James’s address was to soothe the Pharisees, not to support Peter in silencing them. “James proposed to show that all scripture which the Pharisees might cite in favor of Jewish superiority and supremacy was relevant, but not relevant at this time, nor relevant in the state of things which God’s spirit had now surely brought about, putting Jew and Gentile on the same level.” The Old Testament, according to Dr. Stifler, makes no reference to the church period, and the passage James quotes must refer to the millennial era after the church period has been brought to a close by the coming of the Lord. Dr. Stifler’s attempt to reconcile James’s address and quotation with the pre-millennial view is ingenious; at the same time, I have no doubt, James’s hearers thought Amos 9:11, 12, relevant at that time and under the circumstances then existing. His view and argument, also, are based upon the belief that the Christian dispensation was a hiatus in Old Testament prophecy, which is hard to believe.