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THE PAROUSIA IN THE APOSTLOTIC EPISTLES
THE PAROUSIA IN THE EPISTLES TO THE CORINTHIANS.
The two epistles to the church in Corinth are believed to have been written in the same year (A.D.57). The contents are more varied than those of the Epistles to the Thessalonians, but we find many allusions to the anticipated coming of the Lord. That was the consummation to which, in St. Paul’s view, all things were hastening, and that for which all Christians were eagerly looking. It is represented as the decisive day when all the doubts and difficulties of the present would be resolved and all its wrongs redressed. That this great event was regarded by the apostle as at hand is implied in every allusion to the subject, while in several passages it is expressly affirmed in so many words.
THE FIRST EPISTLE TO THE CORINTHIANS.
ATTITUDE OF THE CHRISTIANS OF CORINTH IN RELATION TO THE PAROUSIA.
The attitude of expectation is which the Corinthians stood is here distinctly indicated, although it is feebly expressed by the rendering ‘waiting.’ The phrase used by the apostle is the same as in Romans viii. 19, where the whole creation is represented as ‘groaning and travailing in pain waiting for the revelation of the sons of God’ [ ]. Conybeare and Howson translate,---‘looking earnestly for the time when our Lord Jesus Christ shall be revealed to sight.’ Such an attitude plainly implies that the object expected was understood to be near; for it is obvious that if it were a great way off, the earnest looking and longing would end only in bitter disappointment. It may be said, Did not the Old Testament saints wait for the day of Christ? Did not Abraham rejoice to see His day, and was not that a distant prospect? True; but the Old Testament saints were nowhere given to understand that the first coming of Christ would take place in their own day, or within the limits of their own generation, nor were they urged and exhorted to be continually on the watch, waiting and looking for His coming. We have no reason whatever to suppose that their minds were constantly on the stretch, and their eyes eagerly straining in expectation of the advent, as was the case with the Christians of the apostolic age. The case of the aged Simeon is the proper parallel to the early Christians. It was revealed to him that he should not see death till he had seen the Lord’s anointed: he waited therefore ‘for the consolation of Israel.’ In like manner it was revealed to the Christians of the apostolic age that the Parousia would take place in their own day; the Lord had over and over again distinctly assured His disciples of this fact, they therefore cherished the hope of living to see the longed-for-day, and all the more because of the sufferings and persecutions to which they were exposed. Like the Thessalonians they regarded death as a calamity, because it seemed to disappoint the hope of seeing the Lord ‘coming in his kingdom.’ They wished to be ‘alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord.’ Billroth remarks: ‘The [revelation] refers to the visible advent of Christ, an event which Paul and the believers of that day imagined would take place within the term of an ordinary life, so that many of them would be then alive. Paul here commends the Corinthians for expecting or waiting for it.’ The critic evidently regards the opinion as a delusion. But whence did the early Christians derive their expectation? Was it not from the teaching of the apostles and the words of Christ? To say that it was a mistaken opinion is to strike a blow at the authority of the apostles as trustworthy reporters of the sayings of Christ and competent expounders of His doctrine. If they could be so egregiously mistaken as to a simple matter of fact, what confidence can be placed in their teaching on the more difficult questions of doctrine and duty?
The confidence expressed by the apostle that the Christians of Corinth would be confirmed unto the end, and be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, recalls his prayer for the Thessalonians: ‘That he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thess. iii. 13). The two passages are exactly parallel in signification, and refer to the same point of time, ‘the end,’ the ‘Parousia.’ Obviously, by ‘the end’ the apostle does not mean the ‘end of life;’ it is not a general sentiment such as we express when we speak of being ‘true to the last;’ it has a definite meaning, and refers to a particular time. It is ‘the end’ [ ] spoken of by our Lord in His prophetic discourse on the Mount of Olives (Matt. xxiv. 6, 13, 14). It is ‘the end of the age’ [ ] of Matt. xiii. 40, 49. It is ‘the end’ [then cometh the end] (1 Cor. xv. 24. See also Heb. iii. 6, 14, vi. 11, ix. 26; 1 Pet. iv. 7). All these forms of expression [ , , ] refer to the same epoch---viz., the close of the aeon or Jewish age, i.e. the Mosaic dispensation. This is pointed out by Alford in his note on the passage before us: ‘To the end,’ i.e. to the , not merely ‘to the end of your lives.’ It refers, therefore, no to death, which comes to different individuals at a different time, but to one specific event, not far off, the Parousia, or coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
No less definite is the phrase, ‘the day of our Lord,’ etc. The allusions to this period in the apostolic writings are very frequent, and all point to one great crisis which was quickly approaching, the day of redemption and recompense to the suffering people of God, the day of retribution and wrath to their enemies and persecutors.
THE JUDICIAL CHARACTER OF ‘THE DAY OF THE LORD.’
In this passage, again, there is a distinct allusion to the ‘day of the Lord’ as a day of discrimination between good and evil, between the precious and the vile. The apostle likens himself and his fellow-labourers in the service of God to workmen employed in the erection of a great building. That building is God’s church, the only foundation of which is Jesus Christ, that foundation which he (the apostle) had laid in Corinth. He then warns every labourer to look well what kind of material he built up on that one foundation: that is to say, what sort of characters he introduced into the fellowship of God’s church. A day was coming which would test the quality of every man’s work: it must pass through a fiery ordeal; and in that scorching scrutiny the flimsy and worthless must perish, while the good and true remained unscathed. The unwise builder indeed might escape, but his work would be destroyed, and he would forfeit the reward which, if he had builded with better materials, he would have enjoyed.
There can be no doubt what day is here referred to. It is the day of Christ, the Parousia. This is said to be revealed ‘with fire,’ and the question arises, Is the expression literal or metaphorical? The whole passage, it will be perceived, is figurative: the building, the builders, the materials; we may therefore conclude that the fire is figurative also. Moral qualities are not tested in the same way as material substances. The apostle teaches that a judicial scrutiny of the life-work of the Christian labourer is at hand. He ‘who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire’ is coming to ‘search the reins and hearts, and to give every man according to his work’ (Rev. ii. 18, 23). How clearly these representations of ‘the day of the Lord’ connect themselves with the prophetic words of Malachi, ‘Who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire.’ ‘For, behold, the day cometh that shall burn as a furnace, and all the proud, yea and all that do wickedly, shall be as stubble’ (Mal. iii. 2, 3; iv. 1). In like manner John the Baptist represents the day of Christ’s coming as ‘revealed with fire,’ ‘He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’ (Matt. iii. 12). See also 2 Thess. i. 7, 8, etc.
Yet, if any should be disposed to maintain that the fire here is not wholly metaphorical, a not improbable case might easily be made out. In the central spot where that revelation took place, the city and the temple of Jerusalem, the Parousia was accompanied with very literal fire. In that glowing furnace in which perished all that was most venerable and sacred in Judaism, men might well see the fulfilment of the apostle’s words, ‘that day will be revealed in fire.’
Since, then, the Parousia coincides in point of time with the destruction of Jerusalem, it follows that the period of sifting and trial here alluded to,---the day which shall be revealed in fire---is also contemporaneous with that event. Otherwise, on the hypothesis that this day has not yet come, we are led to the conclusions that ‘the proving of every man’s work’ has not yet taken place: that no judgment has yet been pronounced on the work of Apollos, or Cephas, or Paul, or their fellow-labourers; it has still to be ascertained with what sort of material every man built up the temple of God; that the labourers have not yet received their reward. For the great proving day has not yet come, and the fire has not tried every man’s work of what sort it is. But this is a reductio ad absurdum, and shows that such a hypothesis is untenable.
THE JUDICIAL CHARACTER OF THE DAY OF THE LORD.
In both these passages the Parousia is represented as a time of judicial investigation and decision. It is the time when characters and motives shall be disclosed, and every man receive his appropriate meed of praise or blame. The apostle deprecates hasty and ill-informed judgments, apparently not without some personal reason, and exhorts them to wait ‘till the Lord come,’ etc. Does not this manifestly imply that he thought they would not have long to wait? Where would be the reasonableness of his exhortation if there were no prospect of vindication or retribution for ages to come? It is the very consideration that the day is at hand that constitutes the reason for patience and forbearance now.
In like manner the case of the offending member of the Corinthian church points to a speedily approaching time of retribution. St. Paul argues that the effect of present discipline exercised by the church may prove the salvation of the offender ‘in the day of the Lord Jesus.’ That day, therefore, is the period when the condemnation or salvation of men is decided. But on the supposition that the day of the Lord Jesus is not yet come, it follows that the day of salvation has not come either for the apostle himself or for the Christians of Corinth, or for the offender whom he calls upon the church to censure. All this clearly shows that the apostle believed and taught the speedy coming of the day of the Lord.
NEARNESS OF THE APPROACHING CONSUMMATION.
No words could more distinctly show the deep impression on the mind of the apostle that a great crisis was near, which would powerfully affect all the relations of life, and all the possessions of this world. There is a significance in this language, as spoken at that time, very different from that which it has in these days. These are not the ordinary platitudes about the brevity of time and the vanity of the world, the stock common-places of moralists and divines. Time is always short, and the world always vain; but there is an emphasis and an urgency in the declaration of the apostle which imply a speciality in the time then present: he knew that they were on the verge of a great catastrophe, and that all earthly interests and possessions were held by a slight and uncertain tenure. It is not necessary to ask what that expected catastrophe was. It was the coming of the day of the Lord already alluded to, and the near approach of which is implied in all his exhortations. Alford correctly expresses the force of the expression, ‘the time is shortened henceforth, i.e. the interval between now and the coming of the Lord has arrived at an extremely contracted period.’ But, unhappily, he goes on to treat the opinion of St. Paul as a mistaken one: ‘Since he wrote, the unfolding of God’s providence has taught us more of the interval before the coming of the Lord than it was given even to an inspired apostle to see.’ What the private opinion of St. Paul might be respecting the date of the Parousia, or what would take plae when it did arrive, we do not know, and it would be useless to speculate; but we have a right to conclude that in his official teaching (save when he expressly states that he speaks his private opinion) he was the organ of a higher intelligence than his own. We are really not competent to say how far the shock of the tremendous convulsion that took place at ‘the end of the age’ may have extended, but every one can see that the exhortations of the apostle would have been peculiarly appropriate within the bounds of Palestine. As we pursue this investigation, the area affected by the Parousia seems to grow and expand: it is more than a national, it becomes an ecumenical, crisis. Certainly we must infer from the representation of the apostles, as well as from the sayings of the Master, that the Parousia had a significance for Christians everywhere, whether within or without the boundaries of Judea. It is more seemly to inquire into the true import of the doctrine of the apostles on this subject than to assume that they were mistaken, and invent apologies for their error. If it be an error, it is common to the whole teaching of the New Testament, and will meet us in the writings of St. Peter and St. John, for they, no less than St. Paul, declare that ‘the end of all things is at hand,’ and that ‘the world is passing away, and the lust thereof’ (1 Pet. iv. 7; 1 John ii. 17).
THE END OF THE AGES ALREADY ARRIVED.
The phrase ‘the end of the ages’ [ ] is equivalent to ‘the end of the age’ [ ], and ‘the end’ [ ]. They all refer to the same period, viz. the close of the Jewish age, or dispensation, which was now at hand. It will be observed that in this chapter St. Paul brings together some of the great historical incidents which took place at the commencement of that dispensation, as affording warning to those who were living near its close. He evidently regards the early history of the dispensation, especially in so far as it was supernatural, as having a typical and educational character. ‘These things happened unto them by way of ensample; and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come.’ This not only affirms the typical character of the Jewish economy, but shows that the apostle regarded it as just about to expire.
Conybeare and Howson have the following note on this passage:---‘The coming of Christ was "the end of the ages," i.e. the commencement of a new period of the world’s existence. So, nearly the same phrase is used Heb. ix. 26. A similar expression occurs five times in St. Matthew, signifying the coming of Christ to judgment.’ This note does not distinguish with accuracy which coming of Christ was the end of the age. It is the Parousia, the second coming which is always so represented. That event was, therefore, believed to be at hand when the end of the age, or ages, was declared to have arrived.
It is sometimes said that the whole period between the incarnation and the end of the world is regarded in the New Testament as ‘the end of the age.’ But this bears a manifest incongruity in its very front. How could the end of a period be a long protracted duration? Especially how could it be longer than the period of which it is the end? More time has already elapsed since the incarnation than from the giving of the law to the first coming of Christ: so that, on this hypothesis, the end of the age is a great deal longer than the age itself. Into such paradoxes interpreters are led by a false theory. But as in a true theory in science every fact fits easily into its place, and lends support to all the rest, so in a true theory of interpretation every passage finds an easy solution, and contributes its quota to support the correctness of the general principle.
EVENTS ACOMPANYING THE PAROUSIA.
The Resurrection of the Dead; the Change of the Living; the Delivering up of the Kingdom.
In entering upon this grand and solemn portion of the Word of God we desire to do so with profound reverence and humility of spirit, dreading to rush in where angels might fear to tread; and anxiously solicitous ‘to bring out of the inspired words what is really in them, and to put nothing into them that is not really there.’
We venture also to bespeak the judicial candour of the reader. A demand may be made upon his forbearance and patience which he may scarcely at first be prepared to meet. Old traditions and preconceived opinions are not patient of contradiction, and even truth may often be in danger of being spurned as foolishness merely because it is novel. Let him be assured that every word is spoken in all honesty, after every effort to discover the true meaning of the text has been exhausted, and in the spirit of loyalty and submission to the supreme authority of Scripture. It is no part of the business of an interpreter to vindicate the sayings of inspiration; his whole care should be to find out what those sayings are.
Although it does not fall within the scope of this investigation to enter into any detailed exposition of passages which do not directly affect the question of the Parousia, yet it seems necessary to refer to the state of opinion in the church of Corinth which gave occasion to the argument and remonstrance of St. Paul.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is one of the great vouchers for the truth of Christianity itself. If this be true, all is true; if this be false, the whole structure falls to the ground. In the brief summary of the fundamental truths of the Gospel given by the apostle in the commencement of this chapter, special stress is laid upon the fact of Christ’s resurrection, and the evidence on which it rested. It was ‘according to the scripture.’ It was attested by the positive testimony of eye-witnesses: ‘He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once,’ most of whom are still living at the writing of the apostle. After that he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. ‘Last of all he was seen of me also.’ The emphasis laid upon the words ‘he was seen’ cannot fail to be remarked. The evidence is irresistible; it is ocular demonstration, testified not by one or two, but by a multitude of witnesses, men who would not lie, and who could not be deceived.
Yet, it appears, there were some among the Corinthians who said, ‘that there is no resurrection of the dead.’ It seems incomprehensible to us how such a denial should be compatible with Christian discipleship. It is not said, however, that they question the fact of Christ’s resurrection, though the apostle shows that their principles led to that conclusion. His argument with them is a reductio ad absurdum. He lands them in a state of blank negation, in which there is no Christ, no Christianity, no apostolic veracity, no future life, no salvation, no hope. They have cut away the ground under their own feet, and they are left, without a Saviour, in darkness and despair.
But, as we have said, they do not seem to have denied the fact of Christ’s resurrection; on the contrary, this is the argument by means of which the apostle convicts them of absurdity. Had they not admitted this, the apostle’s argument would have had no force, neither could they have been regarded as Christian believers at all.
Some light, however, is thrown upon this strange scepticism by the Epistles to the Thessalonians. An opinion not very dissimilar appears to have prevailed at Thessalonica. So at least we may infer from 1 Thess. iv. 13, etc. They had given themselves up to despair on account of the death of some of their friends previous to the coming of the Lord. They appear to have regarded this as a calamity which excluded the departed from a participation in the blessedness which they expected at the revelation of Jesus Christ. The apostle calms their fears and corrects their mistake by declaring that the departed saints would suffer no disadvantage, but would be raised again at the coming of Christ, and enter along with the living in to the presence and joy of the Lord.
This shows that there had been doubts about the resurrection of the dead in the Thessalonian church as well as in the Corinthian; and it is highly probable that they were of the same nature in both. The anxious desire of all Christians was to be alive at the Lord’s coming. Death, therefore, was regarded as a calamity. But it would not have been a calamity had they been aware that there was to be a resurrection of the dead. This was the truth which they either did not know, or did not believe. St. Paul treats the doubt in Thessalonica as ignorance, in Corinth as error; and it is highly probable that, among a people so conceited and pragmatical as the Corinthians, the opinion would assume a more decided and dangerous shape. It may be observed, also, that the apostle meets the case of the Thessalonians with much the same reasoning as that of the Corinthians, viz. by an appeal to the fact of the resurrection of Christ: ‘If we believe that Jesus died and rose again,’ etc. (1 Thess. iv. 14). The two cases, therefore, are very similar, if not precisely parallel. We can easily imagine that to the early Christians, often smarting under bitter persecution, and watching eagerly for the expected coming of the Lord, it must have been a grievous disappointment to be taken away by death before the fulfilment of their hopes. Add to this the difficulty which the idea of the resurrection of the dead would naturally present to the Gentile converts (1 Cor. xv. 35). It was a doctrine at which the philosophers of Athens mocked; which made Festus exclaim, ‘Paul, thou art mad,’ and which the scientific men of the time declared to be preposterous, a thing ‘impossible even to God.’
So much for the probable nature and origin of this error of the Corinthians. The apostle in combating it ascribes the glorious boon of the resurrection to the mediatorial interposition of Christ. It is part of the benefits arising from His redemptive work. As the first Adam brought death, so the second Adam brings life; and, as the pledge of the resurrection of His people, He himself rose from the dead, and became the first-fruits of the great harvest of the grave.
But there is a due order and succession in this new life of the future. As the first-fruits precede and predict the harvest, so the resurrection of Christ precedes and guarantees the resurrection of His people: ‘Christ the first-fruits, afterwards they that are Christ’s AT HIS COMING.’
This is a most important statement, and unambiguously affirms, what is indeed the uniform teaching of the New Testament, that the Parousia was to be immediately followed by the resurrection of the sleeping dead. He comes ‘that he may awake them out of sleep.’ The First Epistle to the Thessalonians supplies the hiatus which the apostle leaves here: ‘For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trump of God: and first, the dead in Christ shall arise: then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up all together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord’ (1 Thess. iv. 16, 17).
In the passage before us the apostle does not enter into those details; he is arguing for the resurrection, and he stops short for the present at that point, adding only the significant words, ‘Then the end’ [ ], as much as to say, ‘That is the end;’ ‘Now it is done;’ ‘The mystery of God is finished.’
But we may venture to ask, What is this ‘end,’ this ; It is no new term, but a familiar phrase which we have often met before, and shall often meet again. If we turn to our Lord’s prophetic discourse we find almost the self-same significant words, ‘Then shall the end come’ [ ] (Matt. xxiv. 14), and they furnish us with the key to their meaning here. Answering the question of the disciples, ‘Tell us, when shall these things be; and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the age?’ our Lord specifies certain signs, such as the persecution and martyrdom of some of the disciples themselves; the defection and apostasy of many; the appearance of false prophets and deceivers; and, lastly, the general proclamation of the Gospel throughout the nations of the Roman Empire; and ‘then,’ he declares, ‘shall come the end.’ Can there be the slightest doubt that the of the prophecy is the of the epistle? Or can there be a doubt that both are identical with the of the disciples? (Matt. xxiv. 3.) But we have seen that the latter phrase refers, not to ‘the end of the world,’ or the destruction of the material earth, but to the close of the age, or dispensation , then about to expire. We conclude, therefore, that ‘the end’ of which St. Paul speaks in 1 Cor. xv. 24 is the same grand epoch so continually and prominently kept in view both in the gospels and the epistles, when the whole civil and ecclesiastical polity of Israel, with their city, their temple, their nationality, and their law, were swept out of existence by on tremendous wave of judgment.
This view of ‘the end,’ as having reference to the close of the Jewish economy or age, seems to furnish a satisfactory solution of a problem which has greatly perplexed the commentators, viz. Christ’s delivering up of the kingdom. It is stated twice over by the apostle, as one of the great events attending the Parousia, that the Son, having then put down all rule and all authority and power, ‘shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father’ (vers. 24, 28). What kingdom? No doubt the kingdom which the Christ, the Anointed King, undertook to administer as the representative and vicegerent of His Father: that is to say, the Theocratic kingdom, with the sovereignty of which He was solemnly invested, according to the statement in the second Psalm, ‘Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee’ (Ps. ii. 6, 7). This Messianic sovereignty, or Theocracy, necessarily came to its termination when the people who were its subjects ceased to be the covenant nation; when the covenant was in fact dissolved, and the whole framework and apparatus of the Theocratic administration were abolished. What more reasonable than that the Son should then ‘deliver up the kingdom,’ the purposes of its institution having been answered, and its limited, local, and national character being superseded by a larger and universal system, the ‘ ,’ or new order of a ‘better covenant.’
This surrender of the kingdom to the Father at the Parousia---at the end of the age---is represented as consequent on the subjugation of all things to Christ, the Theocratic King. This cannot refer to the gentle and peaceful conquests of the Gospel, the reconciliation of all things to Him: the language implies a violent and victorious conquest affected over hostile powers,---‘He must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet.’ Who those enemies are may be inferred from the closing history of the Theocracy. Unquestionably the most formidable opposition to the King and the kingdom was found in the heart of the Theocratic nation itself, the chief priests and rulers of the people. The highest authorities and powers of the nation were the bitterest enemies of the Messiah. It was a domestic, and not a foreign, antagonism---a Jewish, and not a Gentile, enmity---that rejected and crucified the King of Israel. The Roman procurator was only the reluctant instrument in the hands of the Sahedrin. It was the Jewish rule, the Jewish authority, the Jewish power that incessantly and systematically pursued the sect of the Nazarenes with the persistent malignity, and this was ‘the rule and authority and power’ which, by the destruction of Jerusalem and the extinction of the Jewish State, was ‘put down’ and annihilated. The terrible scenes of the final war, and especially of the siege and capture of Jerusalem, show us what this subjugation of the enemies of Christ implies. ‘But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me’ (Luke xix. 27).
But what shall we say of the destruction of ‘the last enemy, death?’ Is is not fatal to this interpretation that it requires us to place the abolition of the dominion of death, and the resurrection, in the past, and not the future? Does not this contradict fact and common sense, and consequently expose the fallacy of the whole explanation? Of course, if the language of the apostle can only mean that at the Parousia the dominion of death over all men was everywhere and for ever brought to an end, it follows either that he was in error in making such an assertion, or that the interpretation which makes him say so is an erroneous one. That he does affirm that at the Parousia (the time of which is incontrovertibly defend in the New Testament as contemporaneous with the destruction of Jerusalem) death will be destroyed, is what no one can with any fairness deny; but it does not follow that we are to understand that expression in an absolutely unlimited and universal sense. The human race did not cease to exist in its present earthly conditions at the destruction of Jerusalem; the world did not then come to an end; men continued to be born and to die according to the law of nature. What, then, did take place? We are to conceive of that period as the end of an aeon, or age; the close of a great era; the winding up of a dispensation, and the judgment of those who were placed under that dispensation. The whole of the subjects of that dispensation (the kingdom of heaven), both the living and the dead, were, according to the representation of Christ and His apostles, to be convoked before the Theocratic King seated on the throne of His glory. That was the predicted and appointed period of that great judicial transaction set before us in the parabolic description of the sheep and the goats (Matt. xxv. 31, etc.), the outward and visible signs of which were indelibly stamped on the annals of time by the awful catastrophe which effaced Israel from its place among the nations of the earth. True, the spiritual and invisible accompaniments of that judgment are not recorded by the historian, for they were not such as the human senses could apprehend or verify; yet what Christian can hesitate to believe that, contemporaneously with the outward judgment of the seen, there was a corresponding judgment of the unseen? Such, at least, is the inference fairly deducible from the teachings of the New Testament. That at the great epoch of the Parousia the dead as well as the living---not of the whole human race, but of the subjects of the Theocratic kingdom---were to be assembled before the tribunal of judgment, is distinctly affirmed in the Scriptures; the dead being raised up, and the living undergoing an instantaneous change. In this recall of the dead to life---the resuscitation of those who throughout the duration of the Theocratic kingdom had become the victims and captives of death---we conceive the ‘destruction’ of death referred to by St. Paul to consist. Over them death lost his dominion; ‘the spirits in prison’ were released from the custody of their grim tyrant; and they, being raised from the dead, ‘could not die anymore;’ ‘Death had no more dominion over them.’ That this is in perfect harmony with the teaching of the Scriptures on this mysterious subject, and in fact explains what no other hypothesis can explain, will more fully appear in the sequel. Meantime, it may be observed that much expressions as the ‘destruction’ or ‘abolition’ of death do not always imply the total and final termination of its power. WE read that ‘Jesus Christ had abolished death’ (2 Tim. i. 10). Christ Himself declared, ‘If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death’ (John viii. 51); ‘Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die’ (John xi. 26). We must interpret Scripture according to the analogy of Scripture. All that we are fairly warranted in affirming respecting the ‘destruction of death’ in the passage before us is, that it is co-extensive with all those who at the Parousia were raised from the dead. This seems to be referred to in our Lord’s reply to the Sadducees: ‘They which shall be accounted worthy to attain that period [ ], and the resurrection from among the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; for neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels,’ etc. (Luke xx. 35, 36). For them death is destroyed; for them death is swallowed up in victory. So, the apostle’s argument in the 26th, 54th, and following verses really affirms no more than this,---To those who are raised from the dead there is no more liability to death; their deliverance from his bondage is complete; his sting is taken away; his power is at an end; they can shout, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Even as ‘Christ, being raised from the dead, dieth no more, death hath no more dominion over him,’ so, at the Parousia, His people were emancipated for ever from the prison-house of the grave: ‘the last enemy, death, to them was destroyed.’
THE LIVING (SAINTS) CHANGED AT THE PAROUSIA.
This declaration supplies what was lacking in the statement made at ver. 24, and brings the whole into accordance with 1 Thess. iv. 17. The language of St. Paul implies that he was communicating a revelation which was new, and presumably made to himself. It cannot be siad that it is derived from any recorded utterance of the Saviour, nor do we find any corresponding statement in any other apostolic writing. But the question for us is, To whom does the apostle refer when he says, ‘We shall not all sleep,’ etc.? Is it to some hypothetical persons living in some distant age of time, or is it of the Corinthians and himself that he is thinking? Why should he think of the distant future when it is certain that he considered the Parousia to be imminent? Why should he not refer to himself and the Corinthians when their common hope and expectation was that they should live to witness the Paoursia? There is no conceivable reason, then, why we should depart from the proper grammatical force of the language. When the apostle says ‘we,’ he no doubt means the Christians of Corinth and himself. This conclusion Alford fully endorses: ‘We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord,---in which number the apostle firmly believed that he himself should be. (See 2 Cor. v. 1 ff. And notes).’
The revelation, then, which the apostle here communicates, the secret concerning their future destiny, is this: That they would not all have to pass through the ordeal of death, but that such of them as were privileged to live until the Parousia would undergo a change by which they would be qualified to enter into the kingdom of God, without experiencing the pangs of dissolution. He had just before (ver. 50) been explaining that material and corruptible bodies of flesh and blood could not, in the nature of things, be fit for a spiritual and heavenly state of existence: ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.’ Hence the necessity for a transformation of the material and corruptible into that which is immaterial and incorruptible. Here it is important to observe the representation of the true nature of ‘the kingdom of God.’ It is not ‘the gospel;’ nor ‘the Christian dispensation;’ nor any earthly state of things at all, but a heavenly state, into which flesh and blood are incapable of entering.
The sum of all is, that the apostle evidently contemplates the event of which he is speaking as nigh at hand: it is to come to pass in their own day, before the natural term of life expires. And is not this precisely what we have found in all the references of the New Testament to the time of the Parousia? That event is never spoken of as distant, but always as imminent. It is looked for, watched for, hoped for. Some even leap to the conclusion that it has arrived, but their precipitancy is checked by the apostle, who shows that certain antecedents must first take place. We conclude, therefore, that when St. Paul said, ‘We shall not all sleep,’ he referred to himself and the Christians of Corinth, who, when they received this letter and read these words, could put only one construction upon them, viz. that many, perhaps most, possibly all of them, would live to witness the consummation which he predicted.
But the objection will recur, How could all this take place without notice or record? First, as regards the resurrection of the dead, it is to be considered how little we know of its conditions and characteristics. Must it come with observation? Must it be cognizable by material organs? ‘It is raised a spiritual body.’ Is a spiritual body one which can be seen, touched, handled? We are not certain that the eye can see the spiritual, or the hand can grasp the immaterial. On the contrary, the presumption and the probability are that they cannot. All this resurrection of the dead and transmutation of the living take place in the region of the spiritual, into which earthly spectators and reporters do not enter, and could see nothing if they did. A miracle may be necessary to empower the 'unassisted eye’ to see the invisible. The prophet at Dothan saw the mountain full of ‘chariots of fire, and horses of fire,’ but the prophet’s servant saw nothing until Elisha prayed, ‘Lord, open his eyes, that he may see’ (2 Kings vi. 17). The first Christian martyr, full of the Holy Ghost, ‘saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,’ but none of the multitude that surrounded him beheld the vision (Acts vi. 56). Saul of Tarsus on the way to Damascus saw ‘that Just One,’ but his fellow-travellers saw no man (Acts ix. 7). It is not improbable that traditional and materialistic conceptions of the resurrection,---opening graves and emerging bodies, may bias the imagination on this subject, and make us overlook the fact that our material organs can apprehend only material objects.
Secondly, as regards the change of the living saints, which the apostle speaks of as instantaneous,---‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye;’---it is difficult to understand how so rapid a transition could be the subject of observation. The only thing we know of the change is its inconceivable suddenness. We know nothing of what residuum it leaves behind; what dissipation or resolution of the material substance. For aught we know, it may realise the fancy of the poet,---
‘Oh, the hour when this material
Shall have vanished as a cloud.’
All we know is that ‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,’ the change is completed; ‘the corruptible puts on incorruption, the mortal puts on immortality, and death is swallowed up in victory.’
What, then, hinders the conclusion that such events might have taken place without observation, and without record? There is nothing unphilosophical, irrational, or impossible in the supposition. Least of all is there anything unscriptural, and this is all we need concern ourselves about. ‘What saith the Scripture?’ Does the language of St. Paul plainly affirm or imply that all this is just about to take place, within the lifetime of himself and those to whom he is writing? No fair and dispassionate mind will deny that it is so. Right or wrong, the apostle is committed to this representation of the coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the transmutation of the living saints, within the natural lifetime of the Corinthians and himself. We are placed therefore in this dilemma,---
THE PAROUSIA AND ‘THE LAST TRUMP.’
There is still one circumstance in this description which requires notice, as bearing upon the question of time. The change which is said to pass upon ‘us who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord’ follows immediately on the signal of ‘the last trump.’ It is remarkable that there are two other passages which connect the great event of the Parousia, and its concomitant transactions, with the sound of a trumpet. ‘He shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect,’ etc. (Matt. xxiv. 31). So also St. Paul in 1 Thess. iv. 16: ‘The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God,’ etc. But the questions arises, Why the last trumpet? This epithet necessarily suggests other preceding trumpets or signals, and we are irresistibly reminded of the apocalyptic vision, in which seven angels are represented as sounding as many trumpets, each of which is the signal for the outpouring of judgments and woes upon the earth. Of course the seventh trumpet is the last, and it becomes an interesting question what connection there may be between the revelation in the Epistle and the vision in the Apocalypse. Alford (in opposition to Olshausen) considers that it is a refining upon the word last to identify it with the seventh trumpet of the Apocalypse; but his own suggestion, that it is the last ‘in a wide and popular sense,’ seems much less satisfactory. We refrain at this stage from entering upon any discussion of the apocalyptic symbols, but content ourselves with the single observation, that the sounding of the seventh trumpet in the Apocalypse is actually connected with the time of the judgment of the dead (Rev. xi. 18). The whole subject will come before us at a subsequent stage of the investigation, and we now pass on, merely taking note of the fact that we here find an undoubted link of connection between the prophetic element in the Epistles and that in the Apocalypse.
THE APOSTOLIC WATCHWORD, MARAN-ATHA,---THE LORD IS AT HAND.
The whole argument for the anticipated near approach of the Parousia is clenched by the last word of the apostle, which comes with the greater weight as written with his own hand, and conveying in one word the concentrated essence of his exhortation,---‘Maran-atha. The Lord is coming.’ This one utterance speaks volumes. It is the watchword which the apostle passes along the line of the Christian host; the rallying cry which inspired courage and hope in every heart. ‘The Lord is coming!’ It would have no meaning if the event to which it refers were distant or doubtful; all its force lies in its certainty and nearness. ‘A weighty watchword,’ says Alford, ‘tending to recall to them the nearness of His coming, and the duty of being found ready for it.’ Hengstenberg sees in it an obvious allusion to Mal. iii. 1: ‘The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple,. . . behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.’ ‘The word Maran-atha, which is so striking in an epistle written in Greek, and to Greeks, is in itself a sufficient indication of an Old Testament foundation. The retention of the Aramean form can only be explained on the supposition that it was a kind of watchword common to all the believers in Israel; and no expression could well have come to be so used if it had not been taken from the Scriptures. There can hardly be any doubt that it was taken from Mal. iii. 1.’ We may add that the occurrence of this Aramaic word in a Greek epistle suggests the existence of a strong Jewish element in the Corinthian church. This was probably true of all Gentile churches: the synagogue was the nucleus of the Christian congregation, and we know that in Corinth especially it was so: Justus, Crispus, and Sosthenes all belonged to the synagogue before they belonged to the church; and this fact explains what might otherwise appear a difficulty,---the direct interest of the church of Corinth in the great catastrophe the seat and centre of which was Judea.
ANTICIPATION OF ‘THE END’ AND ‘THE DAY OF THE LORD.’
‘The end’ (ver. 13) does not mean ‘to the end of my life,’ as Alford says. It is the great consummation which the apostle ever keeps in view, the goal to which they were so rapidly advancing. has a definite and recognised signification in the New Testament, as may be seen by reference to such passages as Matt. xxiv. 6, 14; 1 Cor. xv. 24; Heb. iii. 16; vi. 11, etc.
In ver. 14 we find St. Paul anticipating the coming of the Lord as the time of joyful recompense to the faithful servants of God, and which was so near that, as he had told them in his former epistle, human judgments and censures might well be adjourned till its arrival. (1 Cor. iv. 5.) When that day came, the apostle and his converts would rejoice in each other. Can it be supposed that he could think of that day as otherwise than very near? Have those mutual rejoicings yet to begin? For if the day of the Lord be still future, so also must be the rejoicing.
THE DEAD IN CHRIST TO BE PRESENTED ALONG WITH THE LIVING AT THE PAROUSIA.
We now enter upon a most important statement, which deserves special attention. Perhaps its true meaning has been somewhat obscured by regarding it as a general proposition, instead of something personal to the apostle himself. Conybeare and Howson observe:---
We have already seen (1 Thess. iv. 15, and 1 Cor. xv. 51) that the apostle cherished the hope that he himself would be among those ‘who would be alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord.’ In this epistle, however, it would seem as if this hope regarding himself were somewhat shaken. His experience in the interval between the First Epistle and the Second had been such as to lead him to apprehend speedy death. (See chap. i. 8, etc.) His 'trouble in Asia’ had made him despair of life, and he probably felt that he could not calculate on escaping the malignant hostility of his enemies much longer. He had now ‘the sentence of death in himself;’ he bore about ‘in his body the dying of the Lord Jesus,’ and felt that he was ‘always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake.’
But this anticipation did not diminish the confidence with which he looked forward to the future; for even should he die before the Parousia, he would not on that account lose his part in the triumphs and glories of that day. He was assured that ‘he which raised up the Lord Jesus would raise up him also by Jesus, and would present him along with the living saints who might survive to that period. He would not be absent from the great at the coming of the Lord (2 Thess. ii. 1), but would be ‘presented,’ along with his friends at Corinth and elsewhere, ‘before the presence of his glory.’ In fact, the apostle now comforts himself with the same words with which he had comforted the bereaved mourners in Thessalonica. He appears to have relinquished the hope that he would himself live to witness the glorious appearing of the Lord; but not the less was he persuaded that he would suffer no loss by having to die; for, as he had taught the Thessalonians, ‘them also which sleep in Jesus God would bring with him;’ and the living saints would in that day have no advantage above those who slept (1 Thess. iv. 14, 15).
EXPECTATION OF FUTURE BLESSEDNESS AT THE PAROUSIA.
This is the most complete account that we possess of the mysterious transition which the human spirit experiences when it quits its earthly tenement and enters the new organism prepared for its reception in the eternal world. It comes to us vouched by the highest authority,---it is the profession of his faith made by an inspired apostle,---one who could say ‘I know.’ It is the declaration of that hope which sustained St. Paul, and doubtless also the common faith of the whole Christian church. Nevertheless, the passage ought to be studied from the standpoint of the apostle, as his personal expectation and hope.
Observe the form of the statement---it is rather hypothetical than affirmative: "If my earthly tabernacle be dissolved,’ etc. This is not the way in which a Christian now would speak respecting the prospect of dying; there would be no ‘if’ in his utterance, for what more certain than death? He would say, "When this earthly tabernacle shall be taken down;" not, ‘if it should be,’ etc. But not so the apostle; to him death was a problematical event; he believed that many, perhaps most, of the faithful of his day would never suffer the change of dissolution; would not be unclothed, that is disembodied, but would ‘be alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord.’ Perhaps at this time he had begun to have misgivings about his own survival; but what then? Even if the earthly tenement of his body were to be dissolved, he knew that there was provided for him a divinely prepared habitation, or vehicle of the soul; an indestructible and celestial mansion, not made with hands; not a material, but a spiritual body. His present residence in the body of flesh and blood he found to be attended with many sorrows and sufferings, under the burden of which he often groaned, and for deliverance from which he longed, earnestly desiring to be endued with the heavenly vesture which was awaiting him above (ver. 2). The Pagan conception of a disembodied spirit, a naked shivering ghost, was foreign to the ideas of St. Paul; his hope and wish were that he might be found ‘clothed, and not naked;’ ‘not to be unclothed, but clothed upon.’ Conybeare and Howson have, of all commentators, best caught and expressed the idea of the apostle: ‘If indeed I shall be found still clad in my fleshly garment.’ It was not death, but life, that the apostle anticipated and desired; not to be divested of the body, but invested with a more excellent organism, and endued with a nobler life. There is an unmistakable allusion in his language to the hope which he cherished of escaping the doom of mortality, ‘not for that we (I) would be unclothed,’ etc., i.e. ‘not that I wish to put off the body by dying,’ but to merge the mortal in the immortal, ‘that mortality might be swallowed up of life.’
The following comment of Dean Alford well conveys the sentiment of this important passage:---
In the succeeding verses the apostle intimates his full confidence that in either alternative, living or dying, all was well. ‘To be at home in the body was to be absent from the Lord; to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord.’ In either case, whether present or absent, his great concern was to be accepted by the Lord at last; ‘For,’ he adds, ‘we must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ; that every on may receive the things done in the body, according to that which he hath done, whether it be good or bad’ (verses 6-10).
Thus the apostle brings the whole question to a personal and practical issue. All were alike on their way to the judgment seat of Christ, and there they would all meet at last. Some might die before the coming of the Lord, and some might live to witness that event; but there, at the judgment seat, all would be gathered together; and to be accepted and approved there was, after all, a greater matter than living or dying, ‘falling asleep in the Lord,’ or being ‘changed’ without passing through the pangs of dissolution. The judgment seat was the goal before them all, and we have seen how near and imminent that solemn appearing was believed to be. That all this heartfelt faith and hope, cherished and taught by the inspired apostles of Christ, was after all a mere fallacy and delusion appears an intolerable supposition, fatal to the credit and authority of apostolic doctrine.
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