A. J. Gordon, D.D.
Part I. Chapter II.
TARRYING WITHIN THE VEIL.
Centuries have passed since our great High Priest disappeared behind the cloud-curtain of the heavenly sanctuary; and His Church, like the people of old who waited for Zacharias, has “marveled that He tarrieth so long in the temple.” Pondering the sacred promises of His return, which are written for our hope, we find warnings of startling immediateness, but also mysterious suggestions of possible long delay. In the post-ascension gospel of Revelation, the word is constantly sounding out, “Behold, I come quickly;” while in the parables of the kingdom, contained in the closing chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew, we read, “While the Bridegroom tarried;” and “After a long time, the Lord of those servants cometh and reckoneth with them.” Yet both of these gospels have the same keynote: “Watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh,” (Matt. 25:I3); and “Blessed is he that watcheth and keepeth his garments,” (Rev. 16:5). Hence we conclude that these texts are parts of a complex system of prophecy, wherein incitements to hope and checks to impatience are so perfectly balanced as to keep the Church ever expectant, while restraining her from being ever despondent. For nothing can be plainer to the unprejudiced reader of the New Testament than that it is the purpose of the ascended Bridegroom to have his Bride constantly, soberly, and, busily waiting for His return, until the appointed time of His detention in the heavens shall have expired. Hence “He has harmonized with consummate skill every part of His revelation to produce this general result; now speaking as if a few seasons more were to herald the new earth, now as if His days were thousands of years; at one moment whispering into the ear of His disciple, at another retreating into the depth of infinite ages. It is His purpose thus to live in our faith and hope, remote yet near, pledged to no moment, possible at any; worshipped, not with the consternation of a near, or the indifference of a distant, certainty, but with the anxious vigilance that awaits a contingency ever at hand. This, the deep devotion of watchfulness, humility, and awe, He who knows us best knows to be the fittest posture of our spirits; therefore does He preserve the salutary suspense that ensures it, and therefore will He determine His advent to no definite day in the calendar of eternity,” (Archer Butler).
How could revelation be so adjusted as to secure this end—the perpetual watchfulness of the Church for the Redeemer’s second coming—without, in the event of long delay, subjecting the Lord to the imputation of having deceived His flock, or the inspired apostles to the charge of being mistaken in the hopes which they cherished for themselves, and which they nourished in those to whom they wrote? We shall find the true answer to these questions by searching the Scripture to learn how God has actually affected this result.
Observe, in the first place, the union of the known and the unknown in this great problem of the advent consummation; a union exactly fitted to inspire the Church with sacred curiosity to search diligently and constantly for its solution. For just as there is in revelation a dogmatic certainty as to the fact of Christ’s return, “The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout,” so there is a dogmatic uncertainty as to the time of His return: “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” By this combination of the revealed and the unrevealed, perennial interest and inspiring search are ensured, which were utterly impossible if either one of these elements were wanting. Take away the certainty as to the fact of Christ’s coming, and tell us that He may never return, and at once the wing of hope is paralyzed, and the eye of vigilance closed; take away the uncertainty as to the time of Christ’s coming, and tell us that a definite thousand years of millennial blessedness stands between us and the advent; or have told the early disciples that at least eighteen centuries must elapse before their Lord should comes back, —and looking for His immediate return were utterly impossible, so that the watchman’s vigil must cease and the virgin’s lamp be quenched. Therefore, by a wise combining of the known and the unknown factors in the construction of prophecy, there have been secured the most powerful stimulant to watchfulness, and the most salutary check to presumption.
By the succession of prophetic fulfillments the same result is promoted. It is a part of the divine plan to give an onward look to all predestined events; prophecy no sooner becomes history than history in turn becomes prophecy, accomplished facts passing into fore-types of greater facts to come. “A little while and ye shall not see Me,” said Jesus in His last discourse with His disciples, “and again a little while and ye shall see Me,” (John 16:16). After two days of burial they did see Him, coming forth from the grave, and ending the “little while” of their lonely separation in the joy of the resurrection fellowship. But the forty days of risen earthly life soon terminated and He went to the Father, and again they saw Him not. Yet after another “little while” of waiting the day of Pentecost arrived; and then, as the Holy Ghost descended, they beheld Him again spiritually, as He had promised, —ojesqe me. Thus was His word fulfilled: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” But the end of the Master’s gracious prediction had not been reached: the expectation had rather been lifted up and carried on, through what Stier calls “the typico-prophetical perspective” of this prediction, to that still further coming in which these others were to find their consummation. Therefore the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, addressing those who had “tasted the heavenly gift “and been made “partakers of the Holy Ghost,” takes up the promise yet once more, and repeats it with exquisite pathos: “For yet a little while—how little, how little—and He that is coming shall come, and shall not tarry” (10:37). Can it be that nineteen centuries were to be included in our Lord’s “little while,” or has He forgotten His word, we ask? And the apostle Peter answers: “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise," (2 Pet. 3:8-9). If those to whom these words were written could not comprehend them, we can do so in the light of accomplished time. Christ’s resurrection is the miniature of that of His Church, both in circumstance and in time. It is written in the prophet Hosea: “After two days will He revive us; in the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live in His sight,” (6:2). Our Lord’s two days in the tomb are but a brief of the Church’s two millenniums under humiliation and mortality; as also an epitome of Israel’s two millenniums of rejection and cutting-off. But with Him we expect that, on the third day, God will raise us both up, and we shall live in His sight. Thus the “little while” that covered the two days of our Savior’s burial stretches across the two millennial days of the Church’s militant state. But, measured on the scale of eternity, “how little, how little,” is the time of waiting until we see Him again! This is an illustration of the prophetic perspective which belongs to many portions of Scripture, and it shows how God has provided for the raising and carrying forward of our vision to the one coming in which all others culminate.
Other examples equally striking might be cited; as, for instance, that prediction and transaction: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. And after six days He was transfigured before them,” (Matt. 16:28). A miniature rehearsal of His glorious coming was here exhibited, enacted upon a miniature scale of chronology, —“after six days,” —and presenting in vivid epitome that sabbatic glory which is to dawn when the world’s weary working days are over. And the scene remains for all time, not as a type simply, but as an actual first installment, as St. Peter interprets it, “of the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (2 Pet. 1:6).
If we note the events that were predicted to precede and herald the second advent—the appearance of Antichrist and the widespread preaching of the gospel—we find the same successive fulfillments, and the same consequent quickening of expectation. “Little children,” writes John, “it is the last time: as we have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time,” (1 John2:18). These to which he refers were but incipient antichrists, feeble prototypes of that which was to follow; but their presence was enough to bring the end of the age and the return of Christ into vivid expectation. A few centuries later we find the Church, with St. Paul’s Thessalonian prediction in its hands, — “For that day shall not come except there come a falling away first, and that Man of Sin be revealed,” —watching the impending fall of the Roman Empire, and expecting to see that Wicked One emerge from its ruins; since it was an apostolic tradition that the empire was the hindering power that must be taken out of the way before he could be revealed. 2
The anticipation cast a solemn gloom over the imagination of Christians; but it touched and kindled that gloom with the brightest hope, since it was known that, however terrible the monster, his appearance would be the precursor of the appearing of Christ, who would destroy him by the brightness of His coming. Thus was the advent-consummation brought again into vivid relief. The conception gathered from the prophetic Scriptures was that of a single man, the incarnation of diabolical wickedness, raging and reigning for three years and a half, and then destroyed by the lightning-flash of the epiphany. Such an idea was natural, and tended again to draw the parousia into startling proximity to the generation then living. But as centuries of fulfilling history began to throw their interpretation into prophecy, another conception inevitably emerged. Have we seen, over the shops, those curious changeable signs that present one name to the eye as we approach—which gradually dissolves in passing— and another name as we look back and read again? So with this prediction of Antichrist. To the early Church looking forward it seemed to foretell an individual Man of Sin, of three-years-and-six-months’ reign. But when, out of the gloom and blood of the Middle Ages, the students of prophecy looked backward, they began to see what the apostolic Church could have hardly dreamed of, —a corporate Antichrist; the miniature Man of Sin, who had been expected, now magnified into a monstrous pseudo-Christian hierarchy; the Apocalyptic beast bestriding the centuries, red in tooth and claw with the blood of saints; his twelve hundred and sixty days’ dominion expanded into as many years, constituting for the Church an era of unparalleled suffering and travail and tears; and as they saw and bore witness, once more there burst forth from the Church, from her prophets and reformers, such an advent-shout, “Behold He cometh,” as centuries had not witnessed. To say that the earlier interpreters were more likely to be correct in their conception of Antichrist than we, upon whom the end of the age is dawning, is to say that those who gathered from our Lord’s mysterious predictions— “This generation shall not pass until,” and “there be some standing here who shall not taste of death till they see” —the impression that the kingdom of God should immediately appear, more truly understood Him than we who have for our assistance the exegesis of providential events which eighteen centuries have been drawing out. It is enough to observe that, by a marvelous adjustment of prophecy and history, the watchers in the early Church, and in the modern Church alike, have found constant incitement to expectation.
To sum up our observations on this point: The long interval of apostasy and trial which lay before the Church ere the advent should arrive was both revealed and concealed in prophecy, —revealed even to the minutest circumstance and detail; yet in such hieroglyphic symbols and chronology that it should remain graciously concealed until history should furnish the Rosetta Stone for its interpretation. The Apocalypse—which was to be the Church’s vade-mecum through the long dark ages—was written in cipher, that it might not be comprehended prematurely, and thereby bring discouragement to the faithful; but events were commissioned to yield up the key to that cipher in due time, that the wise might understand and look up. To the first generation of Christians this guide-book seemed to show the Lord’s coming near at hand; but when His coming was delayed, later generations could see that, according to the sure word of prophecy, it must have been so; and thus, instead of disappointment, there was a confirmation of Scripture that only gave new vigor to hope.
Holding that the Book of Revelation is the prophetic history of the Christian Church from our Lord’s ascension to His return to usher in the millennium, we find that in itself it is a marvelous symbol. As given into the hand of the glorified Lamb to open, it is described as “a book written within and on the back side, sealed with seven seals,” which seals represent the successive chapters of the Church’s suffering and judgment throughout this dispensation.
Now, if by a “book” were meant the same thing which we describe by that word, the reader could turn the leaves through, and look onward at once to the last page to learn the issue. But here is a roll, sealed with seven seals, and only as history slowly unwinds that roll can its successive chapters be read. Hence mark the wondrous plan by which the reader’s expectation is kept alert as it is unfolded. There are seven seals; under the seventh seal seven trumpets, and under the seventh trumpet seven vials. Now, the pondering and expectant Church reads chapter after chapter as the successive seals are loosed; and how anticipation kindles and glows upon the opening of the seventh, which is known to be the last! But, lo! under the seventh seal appear seven trumpets, seven sub-divisions of the seventh chapter, —and so once more the expectation is checked, and then lifted and borne onward. But when angel after angel of judgment has sounded, and the seventh trumpet is ready to blow, what awed and solemn anticipation is once more roused, since it was under this that “the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to His servants the prophets” (Rev. 10:7). But under the seventh trumpet again are seven vials, —seven chapters still of judgment under the last great chapter, —and once more the waiting Church looks onward; not in disappointment, but in hope, made stronger by experience, until the seventh vial is poured out, and the voice from heaven shall cry, “It is done” (Rev. xvi. 17).
As the Apocalypse is the Church’s preordained history, so is this symbolic scroll the facsimile of that history. It is written within and without, just as the secular and sacred stand related to each other in their accomplishment; the history of the world and the history of the Church being the obverse and the reverse sides of the same transaction, the one permitted in the providence of God to shape the other, and the other to interpret the one; and these two moving together as time unwinds the scroll of prearranged events. But what chapters within chapters! What fulfillment opening out of fulfillment, all alluring and on-leading the hope towards that one divine event for which the whole creation groans! We remember sailing over a beautiful lake in Switzerland, journeying to the village that lay at its opposite end. Again and again, as the encircling hills shut in about us, the further shore seemed close at hand, and our destination nearly reached. But, rounding a projecting point, the aspect would change, the mountains would part once more, and another broad expanse of water would lie stretched out before us. Thus, by a singular peculiarity of the landscape, the journey’s end seemed always imminent, and yet constantly receding. It was striking to observe how this feature of the journey affected the voyagers. Not a passenger was found at the ship’s stern gazing backward. Everyone was on the lookout. All eyes were bent forward in eager expectation, till at last the destined harbor was reached. Now all the commands and promises of Christ put us on the outlook, and every great juncture of fulfilling history sets us watching to discern whether the day-dawn is not approaching, whether the eternal hills are not closing in to bring the end of the age. The impulse which inspires us to watch, to expect, to be ready to disembark, however vain it may seem to men, has both the authority of God’s word and the admonitions of all the history of the Church for its support. And, more than this, while none can know the day or the hour of the advent, we carry with us a chart of the Church’s history to tell us approximately where in our stormy and perilous voyage we are. Its weird, mysterious pages contain the whole map and delineation of the Church’s career from the ascension to the return of the Lord; but it was left for time to break the seals of this book and to discover its meaning. This it has been doing; and as, corresponding to this chart, headland after headland of the prophetic history has been descried, these have been recognized by the students who have been searching diligently what and what manner of time the Spirit did signify in penning this prophecy; and, though they have read no announcement of day or hour upon them, they have found them displaying the same cautionary signal with which the Church started: “Behold, I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown,” (Rev. 3:11). It is a warning startling enough to indicate that, though we know not how near the end of the age we may be, yet we are nearing it.
“Let your loins be girded about and your lights burning,” therefore. There is enough of certainty in this subject to feed the lamp of our faith; and enough of uncertainty to make us very careful and solicitous lest when the Bridegroom comes we be found among the foolish virgins, saying, “Our lamps are gone out.”
The chief point is, that this hope have a living and abiding place in our affections and our thoughts. “Thought,” says a Christian father, “is the sleepless lamp of the soul.” It is a lamp, indeed, that burns with varying brightness, —flaming up in moments of intense study and utterance, and dying down in sleep till there is only the pale glimmer that remains in dreams. But it is a lamp that is never really quenched; for however profound the slumber, it only requires a word to wake us, and to bring all our mental powers into instant activity. Thus must it be with the holy lamp of watchfulness, —always trimmed and burning, but not of necessity always shining in full strength. That is to say, we need not be every moment thinking of Christ’s return, talking of it, and preaching it. There should be ever in our hearts the calm certainty and the sober hope that keep us ready for this event at any moment. But this hope should rather minister to us than be ministered to by us. Instead of perpetually dwelling on it and reiterating it, we should be lighted by it in our busy toil of gathering the guests for the marriage feast, and doing the work which our absent Lord has committed to us. Ready always to give to every man that asketh a reason for the hope that is in us, we should yet show the value of our lamp by the holy service into which it guides our feet, and the diligent piety which it makes visible in our lives.
1 “The heaven that gives back Christ gives back all we have loved and lost, solves all doubts, and ends all sorrows. His coming looks in upon the whole life of His Church, as a lofty mountain peak looks in upon every little valley and sequestered home about its base, and belongs to them all alike. Every generation lies under the shadow of it.” —Rev. John Ker.
2 “We are now in the end and consummation of the world, the fatal time of Antichrist is at hand.” —Cyprian, 3d century. “Who is he that letteth? Who but the Roman Empire? the breaking up and dispersion of which among the ten kings shall bring on Antichrist. And then shall be revealed that Wicked One whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the Spirit of His mouth.” —Tertullian, 3d century. “This — the predicted Antichrist—shall come when the time of the Roman Empire shall be fulfilled and the consummation of the world approach.” — Lactaxtius, 4th century.
3 “Antichrist is already known throughout all the world. Wherefore the day is not far off.” — Latimer on 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 1535. “O England, England, beware of Antichrist! Take heed he doth not deceive thee.” — “I trust our Redeemer’s coming is at hand.” — Bradford the Martyr, 1555. “I believe that all the signs which are to precede the last day have already happened. The gospel is preached throughout the world: the Son of perdition is revealed.” — Luther, 1517.
4 The miniature symbols are such as these: A beast for Antichrist, an enthroned harlot for the apostate Church; an exiled bride for the true Church, two candlesticks for faithful witnessing Churches. The miniature chronology accompanying these is the mystical number variously expressed, — “time, times and half a time,” “forty and two months,” “a thousand two hundred and threescore days,” etc. Since the symbols have been proved to stand for age-long realities, it seems incontestable that the chronology must stand for a correspondingly long period. Hence, since it covers the watching-time of the Church’s history, it is always expressed enigmatically, that it might not be understood too early. The millennium, on the contrary, belonging to the time beyond the Lord’s advent and the Church’s waiting, is expressed in plain terms, — “a thousand years.”
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