WE have seen how the Parousia, or coming of Christ, pervades the Gospels from beginning to end. We find it distinctly announced by John the Baptist at the very commencement of his ministry, and it is the last utterance of Jesus recorded by St. John. Between these two points we find continual references to the event in various forms and on various occasions. We have seen also that the Parousia is generally associated with judgment, —that is, the judgment of Israel and the destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem. The reason of this association of the coming of Christ with the judgment of Israel is very apparent. The Parousia was the culminating event in what may be called Messianic history, or the Theocratic government of the Jewish people. The incarnation and mission of the Son of God, though they had a general relation to the whole human race, had at the same time an especial and peculiar relation to the covenant nation, the children of Abraham. Christ was indeed the ‘second Adam,’ the new Head and Representative of the race, but before that, He was the Son of David and the King of Israel. His own declared view of His mission was, that it was first of all special to the chosen people, —‘I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24) The very title which He claimed, ‘Christ,’ the Messiah, or Anointed One, was indicative of His relation to Judaism and the Theocracy, for it recognised Him as the rightful King, come in the fulness of time ‘to His own,’ to take possession of the throne of His father David. This special Judaic character of the mission of the Lord Jesus is constantly recognised in the New Testament, though it is often ignored by theologians and almost forgotten by Christians in general. St. Paul lays great stress upon it.
‘Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers’; (Rom. 15:8) and we might well add, ‘to fulfil the threatenings’ as well. The phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ is distinctly a Messianic and Theocratic idea, and has a special and unique reference to Israel, over whom the Lord was King in a sense peculiar to that nation alone. (Deut. 7:6 Amos 3:2) We shall see that ‘the kingdom of God’ is represented as arriving at its consummation at the period of the destruction of Jerusalem.
That event marks the denouement of the great scheme of divine providence, or economy, as it is called, which began with the call of Abraham and ran a course of two thousand years. We may regard that scheme, the Jewish dispensation, not only as an important factor in the education of the world, but also as an experiment, on a large scale and under the most favourable circumstances, whether it were possible to form a people for the service, and fear, and love of God; a model nation, the moral influence of which might bless the world. In some respects, no doubt, it was a failure, and its end was tragic and terrible; but what is important for us to notice, in connection with this inquiry, is that the relation of Christ, the Son of David and King of Israel, to the Jewish nation explains the prominence given in the Gospels to the Parousia, and the events which accompanied it, as having a special bearing upon that people. Inattention to this has misled many theologians and commentators:—they have read ‘the earth,’ when only ‘the land’ was meant; ‘the human race,’ when only ‘Israel’ was intended; ‘the end of the world,’ when ‘the close of the age, or dispensation,’ was alluded to. At the same time it would be a serious mistake to undervalue the importance and magnitude of the event which took place at the Parousia. It was a great era in the divine government of the world: the close of an economy which had endured for two thousand years; the termination of one aeon and the commencement of another; the abrogation of the ‘old order’ and the inauguration of the new. It is, however, its special relation to Judaism which gives to the Parousia its chief significance and import.
Passing from the Gospels to the Epistles we find that the Parousia occupies a conspicuous place in the teaching and writings of the apostles. It is natural and reasonable that it should be so. If their Master taught them in His lifetime that He was soon to come again; that some of themselves would live to see Him return; if in His farewell conversation with them at the Paschal supper He dwelt upon the shortness of the interval of His absence, and called it ‘a little while;’ and if at His ascension divine messengers had assured them that He would come again even as they had seen Him go; it would be strange indeed if they could have forgotten or lost sight of the inspiring hope of a speedy reunion with the Lord. They certainly often express their expectation of His coming. That hope was the day-star and dawn that cheered them in the gloomy night of tribulation through which they had to pass: they comforted one another with the familiar watchword, ‘The Lord is at hand.’ They felt that at any moment their hope might become a reality. They waited for it, looked for it, longed for it, and exhorted one another to watchfulness and prayer. So the Lord had commanded them, and so they did. Could they be mistaken? Is it possible that they cherished illusions on this subject? May they not have misunderstood the teachings of the Lord? If this were possible, it would shake the foundations of our faith. If the apostles could have been in error respecting a matter of fact about which they had the most ample means of information, and on which they professed to speak with authority as the organs of a divine inspiration, what confidence could be reposed in them on other subjects, in their nature obscure, abstruse, and mysterious? No one who has any faith in the assurance which the Saviour gave His disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit to ‘guide them into all the truth,’ to ‘teach them all things,’ and to ‘bring all things to their remembrance that he had said unto them,’ can doubt that the authority with which the apostles speak concerning the Parousia is equal to that of our Lord Himself. The hypothesis that a distinction may be made between what they believed and taught on this subject, and what they believed and taught on other subjects, will not bear a moment’s examination. The whole of their teaching rests upon the same foundation, and that foundation the same on which rests the doctrine of Christ Himself.
It is generally agreed that this is the earliest of all the apostolic epistles, and its date is assigned to the year A. D. 52, sixteen years after the conversion of St. Paul, 1 and twenty-two Years after the crucifixion of our Lord. It is evident, therefore, that any suggestions of inexperience, or new-born enthusiasm, being visible in this epistle, afterwards toned down by the riper judgment of subsequent years, are quite out of place. We can detect no difference in the faith and hope of ‘Paul the aged’ and that of the ‘weighty and powerful’ writer of this epistle. It is, therefore, most instructive to observe the Sentiments and beliefs which were manifestly current and prevalent in the minds of the early Christians.
Bengel remarks: ‘The Thessalonians were filled with the expectation of Christ’s advent. So praiseworthy was their position, so free and unembarrassed was the rule of Christianity among them, that they were able to look each hour for the coming of the Lord Jesus.’2 This is strange reasoning. It is true the Thessalonians were filled with the expectation of Christ’s speedy coming, but if in this expectation they were deceived, where is the praiseworthiness of labouring under a delusion? If it was an amiable weakness, ‘sancta simplicitas,’ to expect the speedy return of Christ, it seems a poor compliment to praise their credulity at the expense of their understanding.
1 Thess. 1:9, 10—‘Ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.’
This passage is interesting as showing very clearly the place which the expected coming of Christ held in the belief of the apostolic churches. It was in the front rank; it was one of the leading truths of the Gospel. St. Paul describes the new attitude of these Thessalonian converts when they ‘turned from their idols to serve the living and true God;’ it was the attitude of ‘waiting for his Son.’ It is very significant that this particular truth should be selected from among all the great doctrines of the Gospel, and should be made the prominent feature which distinguished the Christian converts of Thessalonica. The whole Christian life is apparently summed up under two heads, the one general, the other particular: the former, the service of the living God; the latter, the expectation of the coming of Christ. It is impossible to resist the inference,
(1) That this latter doctrine constituted an integral part of apostolic teaching.
(2) That the expectation of the speedy return of Christ was the faith of the primitive Christians.3
For, how were they to wait? Not Surely, in their graves; not in Heaven; nor in Hades; plainly while they were alive on the earth. The form of the expression, ‘to wait for his Son from the heavens,’ manifestly implies that they, while on earth, were waiting for the coming of Christ from heaven. Alford observes ‘that the especial aspect of the faith of the Thessalonians was hope; hope of the return of the Son of God from heaven;’ and he adds this singular comment: ‘This hope was evidently entertained by them as pointing to an event more immediate than the church has subsequently believed it to be. Certainly these words would give them an idea of the nearness of the coming of Christ; and perhaps the misunderstanding of them may have contributed to the notion which the apostle corrects, 2 Thess. 2:1.’ This is a suggestion that the Thessalonians were mistaken in expecting the Saviour’s return in their own day. But whence did they derive this expectation? Was it not from the apostle himself? We shall presently see that the Thessalonians erred, not in expecting the Parousia, or in expecting it in their own day, but in supposing that the time had actually arrived.
The last clause of the verse is no less important, —‘Jesus, who delivereth us from the coming wrath.’ These words carry us back to the proclamation of John the Baptist, —‘Flee from the coming wrath.’ It would be a mistake to suppose that St. Paul here refers to the retribution which awaits every sinful soul in a future state; it was a particular and predicted catastrophe which he had in view. ‘The coming wrath’ [h orgh h ercomenh] of this passage is identical with the ‘coming wrath’ [orgh mellousa] of the second Elijah; it is identical with ‘the days of vengeance,’ and ‘wrath upon this people,’ predicted by our Lord, Luke 21:23. It is ‘the day of wrath, and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,’ spoken of by St. Paul, Rom. 2:5. That coming ‘dies irae’ always stands out distinct and visible throughout the whole of the New Testament. It was now not far off, and though Judea might be the centre of the storm, yet the cyclone of judgment would sweep over other regions, and affect multitudes who, like the Thessalonians, might have been thought beyond its reach. We know from Josephus how the outbreak of the Jewish war was the signal for massacre and extermination in every city where Jewish inhabitants had settled. It was to this ubiquity of ‘the coming Wrath’ that our Lord referred when He said, ‘Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together’. (Luke 17:37) Here again, as we have so frequently had occasion to remark, the Parousia is associated with the judgment.
1 Thess. 2:16—‘But the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.’
Here the apostle represents the ‘coming wrath’ as already come. Now it is certain that the judgment of Israel, that is, the destruction of Jerusalem and the extinction of the Jewish nationality, had not yet taken place. Bengel seems to think that the apostle alludes to a fearful massacre of Jews that had just occurred at Jerusalem, where ‘an immense multitude of persons (some say more than thirty thousand) were slain.’4 Alford’s explanation is: ‘He looks back on the fact in the divine counsels as a thing in past time, q. d.’ was appointed to come;’ not ‘has come.’ Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon on this text, refers it to the approaching destruction of Jerusalem. ‘The wrath is come,’ i.e. it is just at hand; it is at the door: as it proved with respect to that nation: their terrible destruction by the Romans was soon after the apostle wrote this epistle.’5 Either Bengel’s supposition is correct, or the final catastrophe was, in the apostle’s view, so near and so sure that he spoke of it as an accomplished fact.
1 Thess. 2:19—‘For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming?’
The uniform teaching, of the New Testament is, that the event which was to be so fatal to the enemies of Christ was to be an auspicious one to His friends. Everywhere the most malignant opposers and persecutors of Christianity were the Jews; the annihilation of the Jewish nationality, therefore, removed the most formidable antagonist of the Gospel and brought rest and relief to suffering Christians. Our Lord had said to His disciples, when speaking of this approaching catastrophe, ‘When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh’. (Luke 21:28) But this explanation is far from exhausting the whole meaning of such passages. It cannot be doubted that the Parousia is everywhere represented as the crowning day of Christian hopes and aspirations; when they would ‘inherit the kingdom,’ and ‘enter into the joy of their Lord.’ Such is the plain teaching both of Christ and His apostles, and we find it clearly expressed in the words of St. Paul now before us. The Parousia was to be the consummation of glory and felicity to the faithful, and the apostle looked for ‘his crown’ at the Lord’s ‘coming.’
1 Thess. 3:13—‘To the end that he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy’ [ones].
This passage furnishes another proof that the apostle regarded the period of our Lord’s coming as the consummation of the blessedness of His people. He here represents it as a judicial epoch when the moral condition and character of men would be scrutinised and revealed. This is in accordance with 1 Cor. 4:5: ‘Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God’ Similarly in Col. 1:22 we find an almost identical expression, —‘To present you holy, and unblameable, and unreproveable in his sight,’ words which can only be understood as referring to a judicial investigation and approval.
That this prospect was not distant, but, on the contrary, very near, the whole tenor of the apostle’s language implies. Is St. Paul still without his crown of rejoicing? Are his Thessalonian converts Still waiting for the Son of God from heaven? Are they not yet ‘stablished in holiness before God’? not yet presented holy, and unblameable, and unreproveable in His sight? For this was to be their felicity ‘at the coming of the Lord Jesus,’ and not before. If that event therefore has never yet taken place, what becomes of their eager expectation and hope? If they could have known that hundreds and thousands of years must first slowly run their course, could St. Paul and his children in the faith have been thus filled with transport at the thought of the coming glory? But on the supposition that the Parousia was close at hand; that they might all expect to witness its arrival, then how natural and intelligible all this eager anticipation and hope become. That both the apostle and the Thessalonians believed that ‘the coming of the Lord was drawing nigh,’ is so evident that it scarcely requires any argument to prove it. The only question is, were they mistaken, or were they not?
A remark may be added on the concluding word of the passage. ‘Agioi, holy, may refer to angels, or men, or to both. There is nothing in the text to determine the reference. It is true that in 1 Thess. 4:14 we are told that them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him but this seems to refer rather to the raising of the sleeping saints from their graves, than of their coming from heaven with Him. We are therefore precluded from referring agioi to the dead in Christ. The more so that Christ at His coming is always represented as attended by His angels.
‘He shall come with his angels’; (Matt. 16:27) ‘with the holy angels’; (Mark 8:38) ‘with his mighty angels’; (2 Thess. 1:7) ‘all his holy angels with him’. (Matt. 25:31) This is in accordance also with Old Testament usage. The royal state of Jehovah when He came to give the law at Mount Sinai is thus described, —‘He came with ten thousands’ i.e., of saints, angels. (Deut. 33:2) ‘The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels; the Lord is among them as in Sinai’. (Ps. 68:17) ‘Ye received the law by the disposition [at the injunction, —Alford] of angels’. (Acts 7:53) We may therefore take it as probable that the reference in this passage is to the angels.
1 Thess. 4:13-17—‘But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by [in] the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent [come before, take precedence of] them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God: and first the dead in Christ shall rise then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.’
These explanations of St. Paul are evidently intended to meet a state of things which had begun to manifest itself among the Christians of Thessalonica, and which had been reported to him by Timotheus. Eagerly looking for the coming of Christ, they deplored the death of their fellow Christians as excluding them from participation in the triumph and blessedness of the Parousia. ‘They feared that these departed Christians would lose the happiness of witnessing their Lord’s second coming, which they expected soon to behold.’—To6 correct this misapprehension the apostle makes the explanations contained in this passage.
First, he assures them that they had no reason to regret the departure of their friends in Christ, as if they had sustained any disadvantage by dying before the coming of the Lord; for as God had raised up Jesus from the dead, so He would raise up His sleeping disciples from their graves, at His return in glory.
Secondly, he informs them, on the authority of the Lord Jesus, that those of themselves who lived to see His coming would not take precedence of, or have any advantage over, the faithful who had deceased before that event.
Thirdly, he describes the order of the events attending the Parousia:—
The legitimate inference from the words of St. Paul in ver. 15, ‘we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord,’ is that he anticipated it as possible, and even probable, that his readers and himself would be alive at the coming of the Lord. Such is the natural and obvious interpretation of his language. Dean Alford observes, with much force and candour, —
‘Then, beyond question, he himself expected to be alive, together with the majority of those to whom he was writing, at the Lord’s coming. For we cannot for a moment accept the evasion of Theodoret and the majority of ancient commentators (viz. that the apostle does not speak of himself personally, but of those who should be living at the period), but we must take the words in their only plain grammatical meaning, that ‘we which are alive and remain’ [oi zwntev oi perileipomenoi] are a class distinguished from ‘they that sleep’ [oi koimhyentev] by being yet in the flesh when Christ comes, in which class by prefixing ‘we’ he includes his readers and himself. That this was his expectation we know from other passages, especially from 2 Cor. 5’7
But while thus admitting that the apostle held this expectation, Alford treats it as a mistaken one, for he goes on to say:—
‘Nor need it surprise any Christian that the apostles should in this matter of detail have found their personal expectation liable to disappointment respecting a day of which it is so solemnly said that no man knoweth its appointed time, not the angels in heaven, not the Son, but the Father only.’ (Mark 13:32)
In like manner we find the following remarks in Conybeare and Howson (chap. xi.):—
‘The early church, and even the apostles themselves, expected their Lord to come again in that very generation. St. Paul himself shared in that expectation, but, being under the guidance of the Spirit of truth, he did not deduce therefrom any erroneous practical conclusion.’
But the question is, had the apostles sufficient grounds for their expectation? Were they not fully justified in believing as they did? Had not the Lord expressly predicted His own coming within the limit of the existing generation? Had He not connected it with the overthrow of the temple and the subversion of the national polity of Israel? Had He not assured His disciples that in ‘a little while’ they should see Him again? Had He not declared that some of them should live to witness His return? And after all this, is it necessary to find excuses for St. Paul and the early Christians, as if they had laboured under a delusion? If they did, it was not they who were to blame, but their Master. It would have been strange indeed if, after all the exhortations which they had received to be on the alert, to watch, to live in continual expectancy of the Parousia, the apostles had not confidently believed in His speedy coming, and taught others to do the same. But it Would seem that St. Paul rests his explanations to the Thessalonians on the authority of a special divine communication made to himself, ‘This I say unto you by the word of the Lord,’ etc. This can hardly mean that the Lord had so predicted in His prophetic discourse on the Mount of Olives, for no such statement is recorded; it must therefore refer to a revelation Which he had himself received. How, then, could he be at fault in his expectations? It is strange that so great incredulity should exist in this day respecting the plain sense of our Lord’s express declarations on this subject. Fulfilled or unfulfilled, right or wrong, there is no ambiguity or uncertainty in His language. It may be said that we have no evidence of such facts having occurred as are here described, —the Lord descending with a shout, the sounding of the trumpet, the raising of the sleeping dead, the rapture of the living saints. True; but is it certain that these are facts cognisable by the senses? is their place in the region of the material and the visible? As we have already said, we know and are sure that a very large portion of the events predicted by our Lord, and expected by His apostles, did actually come to pass at that very crisis called ‘the end of the age.’ There is no difference of opinion concerning the destruction of the temple, the overthrow of the city, the unparalleled slaughter of the people, the extinction of the nationality, the end of the legal dispensation. But the Parousia is inseparably linked with the destruction of Jerusalem; and, in like manner, the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment of the ‘wicked generation,’ with the Parousia. They are different parts of one great catastrophe; different scenes in one great drama. We accept the facts verified by the historian on the word of man; is it for Christians to hesitate to accept the facts which are vouched by the word of the Lord?
1 Thess. 5:1-10—‘But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall ray, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who axe of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.’
It is manifest that there would be no meaning in these urgent calls to watchfulness unless the apostle believed in the nearness of the coming crisis. Was it to the Thessalonians, or to some unborn generation in the far distant future, that St. Paul was penning these lines? Why urge men in A. D. 52 to watch, and be on the alert, for a catastrophe which was not to take place for hundreds and thousands of years? Every word of this exhortation supposes the crisis to be impending and imminent.
To say that the apostle writes not for any one generation, nor to any persons in particular, is to throw an air of unreality into his exhortations from which reverent criticism revolts. He certainly meant the very persons to whom he wrote, and who read this epistle, and he thought of none others. We cannot accept the Suggestion of Bengel that the ‘we which are alive and remain’ are only imaginary personages, like the names Caius and Titius (John Doe and Richard Roe); for no one can read this epistle without being conscious of the warm personal attachment and affection to individuals which breathe in every line. We conclude, therefore, that the whole had a direct and present bearing upon the actual position and prospects of the persons to whom the epistle is addressed.
1 Thess. 5:23—‘Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly, and may your spirit, and soul, and body, all together be preserved blameless at the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.’8
If any shadow of a doubt still rested on the question whether St. Paul believed and taught the incidence of the Parousia in his own day, this passage would dispel it. No words can more clearly imply this belief than this prayer that the Thessalonian Christians might not die before the appearing of Christ. Death is the dissolution of the union between body, soul, and spirit, and the apostle’s prayer is that spirit, soul, and body might ‘all together’ [oloklhron] be preserved in sanctity till the Lord’s coming. This implies the continuance of their corporeal life until that event.