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Church-State Relations and the Book of Revelation
An Introduction to The Parousia: A Careful Look at the New Testament Doctrine of the Lord's Second Coming
by James Stuart Russell (1878) // Written by
Todd Dennis, Curator

Russell's Parousia

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The Parousia

By James Stuart Russell


vii.-The Prophecy on the Mount of Olives.



     We now enter upon the consideration of by far the most full and explicit of our Lord's prophetic utterances respecting His coming, and the solemn events connected therewith. The discourse or conversation on the Mount of Olives is the great prophecy of the New Testament, and may be not unfitly styled the Apocalypse of the Gospels. Upon the interpretation of this prophetic discourse will depend the right understanding of the predictions contained in the apostolic writings; for it may almost be said that there is nothing in the Epistles which is not in the Gospels. This prophecy of our Saviour is the great storehouse from which the prophetic statements of the apostles are chiefly derived.

     The commonly received view of the structure of this discourse, which is almost taken for granted, alike by expositors and by the generality of readers, is, that our Lord, in answering the question of His disciples respecting the destruction of the temple, mixes up with that event the destruction of the world, the universal judgment, and the final consummation of all things. Imperceptibly, it is supposed, the prophecy slides from the city and temple of Jerusalem, and their impending fate in the immediate future, to another and infinitely more tremendous catastrophe in the far distant and indefinite future. So intermingled, however, are the allusions- now to Jerusalem and now to the world at large; now to Israel and now to the human race ; now to events close at hand and now to events indefinitely remote; that to distinguish and allocate the several references and topics, is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

     Perhaps it will be the fairest way of exhibiting the views of those who contend for a double meaning in this predictive discourse, to set forth the scheme or plan of the prophecy proposed by Dr. Lange, and adopted by many expositors of the greatest note.

' In harmony with apocalyptic style, Jesus exhibited the judgments of His coming in a series of cycles, each of which depicts the whole futurity, but in such a manner, that with every new cycle the scene seems to approximate to and more closely resemble the final catastrophe. Thus, the first cycle delineates the whole course of the world down to the end, in its general characteristics (ver. 4-14). The second gives the signs of the approaching destruction of Jerusalem, and paints this destruction itself as a sign and a commencement of the judgment of the world, which from that day onward proceeds in silent and suppressed days of judgment down to the last (ver. 15-28). The third describes the sudden end of the world, and the judgment which ensues (ver. 29-44). Then follows a series of parables and similitudes, in which the Lord paints the judgment itself, which unfolds itself in an organic succession of several acts. In the last act Christ reveals His universal judicial majesty. Chap. xxiv. 45-51 exhibits the judgment upon the servants of Christ, or the clergy. Chap. xxv. 1- 13 (the wise and foolish virgins) exhibits the judgment upon the Church, or the people. Then follows the judgment on the individual members of the Church (ver. 14-30). Finally, ver. 31-46 introduce the universal judgment of the world.' (11)

     Not very dissimilar is the scheme proposed by Stier, who finds three different comings of Christ ' which perspectively cover each other: '

'1. The coming of the Lord to judgment upon Judaism. 2. His coming to judgment upon degenerate anti-Christian Christendom. 3. His coming to judgment upon all heathen nations- the final judgment of the world, all which together are the coming again of Christ, and in respect of their similarity and diversity are most exactly recorded from the mouth of Christ by Matthew.' (12)

     Such is the elaborate and complicated scheme adopted by some expositors; but there are obvious and grave objections to it, which, the more they are considered, will appear the more formidable, if not fatal.

1. An objection may be taken, in limine, to the principles involved in this method of interpreting Scripture. Are we to look for double, triple, and multiple meanings, for prophecies within prophecies, and mysteries wrapt in mysteries, where we might reasonably have expected a plain answer to a plain question ? Call any one be sure of understanding the Scriptures if they are thus enigmatical and obscure? Is this the manner in which the Saviour taught His disciples, leaving them to grope their way through intricate labyrinths, irresistibly suggestive of the Ptolemaic astronomy - 'Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb'? Surely so ambiguous and obscure a revelation can hardly be called a revelation at all, and seems far more befitting a Delphic Oracle, or a Cumaean Sibyl than the teaching of Him whom. the common people heard gladly. (13)

2. It will scarcely be pretended that, if the exposition of Lange, and Stier be correct, the disciples who listened to the sayings of Jesus on the Mount of Olives could have comprehended or followed the drift of His discourse. They were at all times slow to understand their Master's words; but it would be to give them credit for astonishing penetration to suppose that they were able to thread their way through such a maze of comings, extending through ' a series of cycles, each of which depicts the whole futurity, but in such a manner that with every new cycle the scene seems to approximate to, and more closely resemble, the final catastrophe.'

     It is not easy for the ordinary reader to follow the ingenious critic through his convoluted scheme; but it is plain that the disciples must have been hopelessly bewildered amidst a rush of crises and catastrophes from the fall of Jerusalem to the end of the world. Perhaps we shall be told, however, that it does not signify whether the disciples understood our Lord's answer or not : it was not to them that He was speaking; it was to future ages, to generations yet unborn, who were destined, however, to find the interpretation of the prophecy as embarrassing to them as it was to the original bearers. There are no words too strong to repudiate such a suggestion. The disciples came to their Master with a plain, straightforward inquiry, and it is incredible that He would mock them with an unintelligible riddle for a reply. It is to be presumed that the Saviour meant His disciples to understand His words, and it is to be presumed that they did understand them.

3. The interpretation which we are considering appears to be founded upon a misapprehension of the question put to our Lord by the disciples, as well as of His answer to their question.

     It is generally assumed that the disciples came to our Lord with three different questions, relating to different events separated from each other by a long interval of time; that the first inquiry, 'When shall these things be?'- had reference to the approaching destruction of the temple; that the second and third question-,, 'What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world ? '- referred to events long posterior to the destruction of Jerusalem, and, in fact, not yet accomplished. It is supposed that our Lord's reply conforms itself to this threefold inquiry, and that this gives the shape to His whole discourse. Now, lot it be considered how utterly improbable it is that the disciples should have had any such scheme of the future mapped out in their minds. We know that they bad just been shocked and stunned by their Master's prediction of the total destruction of the glorious house of God on which they had so recently been gazing with admiration. They had not yet had time to recover from their surprise, when they came to Jesus with the inquiry, 'When shall these things be ?' etc. Is it not reasonable to suppose that one thought possessed them at that moment- the portentous calamity awaiting the magnificent structure, the glory and beauty of Israel ? Was that a time when their minds would be occupied with a distant future? Must not their whole soul have been concentrated on the fate of the temple? and must they not have been eager to know what tokens would be given of the approach of the catastrophe? Whether they connected in their imagination the destruction of the temple with the dissolution of the creation, and the close of human history, it is impossible to say; but we may safely conclude, that the uppermost thought in their mind was the announcement which the Lord had just made, 'Verily I say unto you, there shall not be left here one stone upon another which shall not be thrown down.' They must have gathered from the Saviour's language that this catastrophe was imminent ; and their anxiety was to know the time and the tokens of its arrival. St. Mark and St. Luke make the question of the disciples refer to one event and one time- 'When shall these things be, and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled ? ' It is not only presumable, therefore, but indubitable, that the questions of the disciples only refer to different aspects of the same great event. This harmonises the statements of St. Matthew with those of the other Evangelists, and is plainly required by the circumstances of the case.

4. The interpretation which we are discussing rests also upon an erroneous and misleading conception of the phrase, end of the world' (age) [ton/ ai=w/noj ]. It is not surprising that mere English readers of the New Testament should suppose that this phrase really means the destruction of the material earth; but such an error ought not to receive countenance from men of learning. We have already had occasion to remark that the true signification of
(aion) is not world, but age ; that, like its Latin equivalent aevum, it refers to a period of time : thus, 'the end of the age ' [ton/ ai=w/noj ] means the close of the epoch or Jewish age or dispensation which was drawing nigh, as our Lord frequently intimated. All those passages which speak of 'the end' [to. te,loj ] 'the end of the age,' or, 'the ends of the ages' , refer to the same consummation, and always as nigh at hand. In I Cor. x. 11, St. Paul says The ends of the ages have stretched out to us implying, that he regarded himself and his readers as living near the conclusion of an aeon, or age.

     So, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find the remarkable expression : 'Now, once, close upon the end of the ages' (erroneously rendered, The end of the world), 'hath be appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself ' (Heb. ix. 26); clearly showing that the writer regarded the incarnation of Christ as taking place near the end of the aeon, or dispensational period. To suppose that he meant that it was close upon the end of the world, or the destruction of the material globe, would be to make him write false history as well as bad grammar. It would not be true in fact; for the world has already lasted longer since the incarnation than the whole duration of the Mosaic economy, from the exodus to the destruction of the temple. It is futile, therefore, to say that the 'end of the age' may mean a lengthened period, extending from the incarnation to our own times, and even far beyond them. That would be an aeon, and not the close of an men. The aeon, of which our Lord was speaking was about to close in a great catastrophe; and a catastrophe is not a protracted process, but a definitive and culminating act. We are compelled, therefore, to conclude that the 'end of the age,' or [ton/ ai=w/noj ] refers solely to the approaching termination of the Jewish age or dispensation.

5. It may indeed be objected, that even admitting the apostles to have been occupied exclusively with the fate of the temple and the events of their own time, there is no reason why the Lord should not overpass the limits of their vision, and extend a prophetic glance into the ages of a distant futurity. No doubt it was competent for Him to do so; but in that case we should expect to find some hint or intimation of the fact; some well-defined line between the immediate future and the indefinitely remote. If the Saviour passes from Jerusalem and its day of doom to the world and its judgment day, it would be only reasonable to look for some phrase such as, 'After many days,' or, ' It shall come to pass after these things,' to mark the transition. But we search in vain for any such indication. The attempts of expositors to draw transition lines in this prophecy, showing where it ceases to speak of Jerusalem and Israel and passes to remote events and unborn generations, are wholly unsatisfactory. Nothing can be more arbitrary than the divisions attempted to be set up; they will not bear a moment's examination, and are incompatible with the express statements of the prophecy itself. Will it be believed that some expositors find a mark of transition at Matt. xxiv. 29, where our Lord's own words make the very idea totally inadmissible by His own note of time 'Immediately'! If, in the face of such authority, so rash a suggestion can be proposed, what may not be expected in less strongly marked cases? But, in fact, all attempts to set up imaginary divisions and transitions in the prophecy signally fail. Let any fair and candid reader judge of the scheme of Dr. Lange, who may be taken as a representative of the school of double-sense expositors, in his distribution of this discourse of our Lord, and say whether it is possible to discern any trace of a natural division where he draws lines of transition. His first section, from ver. 4 to ver. 14, he entitles,

'Signs, and the manifestation of the end of the world in general.

     What! is it conceivable that our Lord, when about to reply to the eager and palpitating hearts, filled with anxiety about the calamities which He told them were impending, should commence by speaking of the 'end of the world in general'? They were thinking of the temple and the immediate future : would He speak of the world and the indefinitely remote? But is there anything in this first section inapplicable to the disciples themselves and their time? Is there anything which did not actually happen in their own day? ' 'Yes'. it will be said ; ' the gospel of the kingdom has not yet been preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations.' But we have this very fact vouched for by St. Paul (Col. i. 5, 6)-'The word of the truth of the gospel, which is come. unto you, as it is in all the world,' etc.; and, again (Col. i. 23)-' The gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven.' There was, then, in the acre of the apostles, such a world- wide diffusion of the gospel as to satisfy the Saviour's predictions - 'The gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the word' (oikemene) .

But the decisive objection to this scheme is, that the whole passage is evidently addressed to the disciples, and speaks of what they shall see, they shall do, they shall suffer ; the whole falls within their own observation and experience, and cannot be spoken of or to an invisible audience in a far distant era of futurity, which even yet has not appeared upon the earth.

     Lange's next division, comprising from ver. 15 to ver. 22, is entitled,

' signs of the end of the world in particular: (a) The Destruction of Jerusalem.

     Without stopping to inquire into the relation of these ideas, it is satisfactory to find Jerusalem at last introduced. But how unnatural the transition from the 'end of the world' back to the invasion of Judea and the siege of Jerusalem ! Could such a sudden and immense leap have possibly been made by the disciples ? Could it have been intelligible to them, or is it intelligible now ? But mark the point of transition, as fixed by Lange, at ver. 15: 'When ye, therefore, shall see the abomination of desolation,' etc. This, surely, is not transition, but continuity: all that precedes leads up to this point; the wars, and famines, and pestilences, and persecutions, and martyrdoms, were all preparatory and introductory to the 'end;' that is, to the final catastrophe which was to overtake the city, and temple, and nation of Israel.

     Next follows a paragraph from ver. 23 to ver. 28, which Lange calls,

' (b) Interval of partial and suppressed judgment.'

     This title is itself an example of fanciful and arbitrary exposition. There is something incongruous and self-contradictory in the very words themselves. A day of judgment implies publicity and manifestation, not silence and suppression. But what can be the meaning of 'silent and suppressed days of judgment,' which go on from the destruction of Jerusalem to the end of the world ? If it be meant that there is a sense in which God is always judging the world, that is a truism which might be affirmed of any period, before as well as after the destruction of Jerusalem. But the most objectionable part of this exposition is the violent treatment of the word ' then' (p. 62) [to,te] (ver. 23). Lange says: 'Then (i.e., in the time intervening between the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world).' Surely, a prodigious then ! It is no longer a point of time, but an aeon - a vast and indefinite period ; and during all that time the statements in the paragraph, ver. 23 to ver. 28, are supposed to be in course of fulfilment. But when we turn to the prophecy itself we find no change of subject, no break in the continuity of the discourse, no hint of any transition from one epoch to another. The note of time, 'then' [to,te], is decisive against any hiatus or transition. Our Saviour is putting the disciples on their guard against the deceivers and impostors who infested the last days of the Jewish commonwealth; and says to them, ' Then' (i.e., at that time, in the agony of the Jewish war) 'if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there, believe it not,' etc. It is Jerusalem, always Jerusalem, and only Jerusalem, of which our Lord here speaks. At length we come to -

' The Actual End of the World' (ver. 24-31).

     Having made the transition from the 'end of the world backwards to the destruction of Jerusalem, the process is now reversed, and there is another transition, from the destruction of Jerusalem to the ' actual end of the world.' This actual end is placed after the appearance of those false Christs and false prophets against whom the disciples were warned. This allusion to 'false Christs ' ought to have saved the critic from the mistake into which be has fallen, and to have distinctly indicated the period to which the prediction refers. But where is there any sign of a division or transition here ? There is no trace or token of any : on the contrary, the express language of our Lord excludes the idea of any interval at all ; for He says : 'Immediately after the tribulation of those days,' etc. This note of time is decisive, and peremptorily forbids the supposition of any break or hiatus in the continuity of His discourse.

     But we have gone far enough in the demonstration of the arbitrary and uncritical treatment which this prophecy has received, and have been betrayed into premature exegesis of some portion of its contents. What we contend for, is the unity and continuity of the whole discourse. From the beginning of the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Matthew to the close of the twenty-fifth, it is one and indivisible. The theme is the approaching consummation of the age, with its attendant and concomitant events ; the woes which were to overtake that 'wicked generation,' comprehending the invasion of the Roman armies, the siege and capture of Jerusalem, the total destruction of the temple, the frightful calamities of the people. Along with this we find the true Parousia, or the coming of the Son of man, the judicial infliction of divine wrath upon the impenitent, and the deliverance and recompense of the faithful. From beginning to end, these two chapters form one continuous, consecutive, and homogeneous discourse. So it must have been regarded by the disciples, to whom it 'was addressed; and so, in the absence of any hint or indication to the contrary in the record, we feel bound to it.

6. In. conclusion, we cannot help adverting to one other consideration, which we are persuaded has had much to do with the erroneous interpretation of this prophecy, viz., the inadequate appreciation of the importance and grandeur of the event which forms its burden- the consummation of the aeon age, and the abrogation of the Jewish dispensation.

     That was an event which formed an epoch in the divine government of the world. The Mosaic economy, which had been ushered in with such pomp and grandeur amidst the thunders and lightenings of Sinai, and had existed for well nigh sixteen centuries, which had been the divinely instituted medium of communication between God and man, and which was intended to realise a kingdom of God upon earth,- had proved a comparative failure through the moral unfitness of the people of Israel, and was doomed to come to an end amid the most terrific demonstration of the justice and wrath of God. The temple of Jerusalem, for ages the glory and crown of Mount Zion,- the sacred shrine, in whose holy place Jehovah was pleased to dwell,- the holy and beautiful house, which was the palladium of the nation's safety, and dearer than life to every son of Abraham,- was about to be desecrated and destroyed, so that not one stone should be left upon another. The chosen people, the children of the Friend of God, the favoured nation, with whom the God of the whole earth deigned to enter into covenant and to be called their King, - were to be overwhelmed by the most terrible calamities that ever befell a nation; were to be expatriated, deprived of their nationality, excluded from their ancient and peculiar relation to God, and driven forth as wanderers on the face of the earth, a byword and hissing among all nations. But along with all this there were to be changes for the better. First, and chiefly, the close of the won would be the inauguration of the reign of God. There were to be honour and glory for the true and faithful servants of God, who would then enter into the full possession of the heavenly inheritance. (This will be more fully unfolded in the sequel of our investigation.) But there was also to be a glorious change in this world. The old made way for the new ; the Law was replaced by the Gospel; Moses was superseded by Christ. The narrow and exclusive system, which embraced only a single people, was succeeded by a new and better covenant, which embraced the whole family of man, and knew no difference between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised. The dispensation of symbols and ceremonies, suited to the childhood of humanity, was merged in an order of things in which religion became a spiritual service, every place a temple, every worshipper a priest, and God the universal Father. This was a revolution greater far than any that bad ever occurred in the history of mankind. It made a new world ; it was the 'world to come,' the [o.ikonge,nh me,llonoa] of Hebrews ii. 5; and the magnitude and importance of the change it is impossible to over-estimate. It is this that gives such significance to the overthrow of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem: these are the outward and visible signs of the abrogation of the old order and the introduction of the new. The story of the siege and capture of the Holy City is not simply a thrilling historical episode, such as the siege of Troy or the fall of Carthage ; it is not merely the closing scene in the annals of an ancient nation;- it has a supernatural and divine significance; it has a relation to God and the human race, and marks one of the most memorable epochs of time. This is the reason why the event is spoken of in the Scripture in terms which to some appear overstrained, or to require some greater catastrophe to account for them. But if it was fitting that the introduction of that economy should be signalised by portents and wonders, earthquakes, lightenings, thunders, and trumpet-blasts, -it was no less fitting that it should go out amid similar phenomena, fearful sights and great signs from heaven.' Had the true significance and grandeur of the event been better apprehended by expositors, they would not have found the language in which it is depicted by our Lord extravagant or overstrained. (14)

     We are now prepared to enter upon the more particular examination of the contents of this prophetic discourse ; which we shall endeavour to do as concisely as possible.


11. Lange, Comm. on Matt. p. 418

12. Stier. Red. Jes. vol. iii. 251.

13. See Note A, Part I., on the Double-sense Theory of Interpretation

14. The termination of the Jewish aion in the first century, and of the Roman in the fifth and sixth, were each marked by the same concurrence of calamities, wars, tumults, pestilences, earthquakes, &c., all marking the time of one of God's peculiar seasons of visitation.' 'For the same belief in the connexion of physical with moral convulsion-, see Niebuhr, Leben's Nachrichten, ii. p. 672 Dr. Arnold : See ' Life by Stanley,' vol. i. p. 311.


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