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THE PAROUSIA IN THE APOSTLOTIC EPISTLES
THE PAROUSIA IN THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS.
The allusion to the coming of the Lord in this epistle are not many in number, but they are very important and instructive. It is spoken of as a thing most surely believed and eagerly expected by the Christians of the apostolic age; and the fact of its nearness is either implied or affirmed in every allusion to the event.
THE DAY OF WRATH.
There can be no doubt concerning this ‘day of wrath’ and ‘revelation of the righteous judgment of God.’ It is the same which was predicted by Malachi as ‘the great and dreadful day of the Lord’ (Mal. iv. 5); by John the Baptist as ‘the coming wrath’ (Matt. iii. 7); and by the Lord Jesus Christ as ‘the day of judgment’ (Matt. xi. 22, 24). It was the closing act of the aeon, the . It is scarcely necessary to repeat that this ‘end’ is declared to fall within the period of the existing generation, when the Son of man, the appointed Judge, would render to every man according to his deeds’ (Matt. xvi. 27).
THE ESCHATOLOGY OF ST. PAUL.
There are some things in this passage which are, and must probably remain, obscure from the nature of the subject; but there is also much that is plain and clear. We cannot mistake the exulting anticipation expressed by St. Paul of a coming day of deliverance from the sufferings and miseries of the present; a deliverance which was at hand, and not far off. There was a day of redemption coming which would bring freedom and glory to the sons of God, in the benefits of which the whole creation would participate. The arrival that hoped-for consummation was eagerly expected and desired, not only by those who like the apostle himself had the prospect of an endless and glorious inheritance above, but by the burdened and groaning creation at large, by whom they were surrounded. So exhilarating was the prospect of the coming emancipation that in the view of it the apostle could say, ‘I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which is about to be revealed in us;’ or, as in a similar passage, ‘our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory’ (2 Cor. iv. 17).
We now proceed to examine the whole passage more particularly.
The first point that demands attention is the distinct indication of the nearness of this coming glory. This is entirely lost sight of in our Authorised Version; and it has been similarly ignored by almost all commentators. Even Alford, who is usually so careful in his attention to tenses, passes by this glaring instance without remark, though nothing can be more grammatically emphatic than the indication of the nearness of the expected revelation. Tholuck notices that the apostle speaks of the time as near,---‘In joyful exultation the apostle conceives its commencement at hand,’---but regards him as mistaken, and carried away by his feelings. Conybeare and Howson give the proper force of the language,---‘the glory which is about to be revealed, which shall soon be revealed.’ [ ]. ‘The coming glory’ is the counterpart or antithesis of ‘the coming wrath;’ different aspects of the same great event; for the Parousia, which was the revelation of glory to the sons of God, was the revelation of the day of wrath to His enemies (Rom. ii. 5, 7).
Thus, it will be perceived it is not to death that the apostle looks as the period of deliverance from present evils; still less to some far distant epoch in the future. It would indeed have been cold comfort to men writhing under the anguish their sufferings to tell them of a period in some future age which would bring them compensation for their present distress. The apostle does not so mock them with hope deferred. The day of deliverance was at hand; the glory was just about to be revealed; and so near and so great was that ‘weight of glory’ that it reduced to insignificance the passing inconveniences of the present hour.
The next point that deserves notice is the statement which the apostle proceeds to make respecting the interest felt in that approaching consummation beyond the limits of the suffering people of God. These indeed were to be the chief gainers by the coming redemption, but its benefits were to extend far beyond them.
This is a most important and interesting topic, and requires very careful consideration.
Whatever meaning we attach to the word ‘creature’  it will make no difference to the eager and expectant attitude in which it is represented as waiting for the coming consummation. Lange observes that as the word means to expect with raised head, implies intense expectation, and intense longing, waiting for satisfaction. But this very attitude implies the nearness, or a persuasion of the nearness, of the wished-for deliverance. Taking, then, these two statements together, first, that the glory is ‘soon to be revealed;’ secondly, that the is ‘waiting with intense longing for its manifestation,’ we have as strong demonstration as it is possible to conceive that the event in question is represented by the apostle as nigh at hand.
But what is meant by the creature or creation ? Some commentators regard it as embracing the whole universe, or the material creation, animate and inanimate, rational and irrational,---the whole frame of nature. They speak of the earthquake, the storm, and the volcano as symptoms of the sore distemper of the natural world. But this seems far too vague and general for the argument of the apostle. It is evident that the can only refer to conscious, voluntary, rational, and moral beings. It has ‘intense longings;’ it has ‘its own will;’ it has ‘hope;’ it is capable of being ‘made subject to vanity;’ of being ‘set free from corruption;’ of participating in ‘the glory of the children of God.’ These characters exclude the inanimate and irrational creation, and include the human race in its totality. Besides, the antithesis in verse 23 between the as a whole, and ‘ourselves who have the first-fruits of the Spirit,’ would be very unnatural and imperfect if it did not differentiate Christians, not from beasts and plants, but from other men. The true contrast lies between those who have the first-fruits of the Spirit and those who have not the first-fruits of the Spirit; and it would be manifestly incongruous to speak of the irrational and inanimate creation as ‘not having the Spirit.’ To make the apostle refer here to universal nature may be admissible perhaps as poetry, but would be quite out of place in a sober and serious argument. We understand, then, by ---the human race, mankind generally; the meaning which the word bears in such passages as Mark xiv. 15, ‘Preach the gospel to every creature’ [ ]; Col. i. 23, ‘Which was preached to every creature which is under heaven’ [ ].
This brings us to the question, Can the human race be said to be in this eager and expectant attitude, groaning and travailing in pain, waiting and longing for deliverance and freedom? Undoubtedly it may; and never more truly so than in the very period when the apostle wrote. It was an age of the deepest social corruption and degradation; humanity might be said to groan under the burden of its misery and bondage; and yet there was a strange and mysterious feeling in the minds of men that, somehow and somewhere, deliverance was at hand. How accurately the description of the apostle suits the moral and social condition of the Jewish people at this period needs no proof. They groaned under the yoke of Roman bondage. They eagerly panted for the promised Deliverer. The case of the Greeks and the Romans was not very dissimilar, as the following passages from Conybeare and Howson strikingly prove; indeed, they might have been written as a commentary on the passage before us:---
So much for the state of the Greeks: the condition of the Roman world is thus described:---
It is certainly remarkable that a description of the social and moral condition of the world in the apostolic age, written apparently without any view to the illustration of the passage now before us, should unwittingly adopt not merely the spirit, but to a great extent the very words, in which St. Paul sets forth the misery, the bondage, the groaning, and the yearning for deliverance of the creation as it appeared to his apprehension. But, it may be said, Was there anything in the immediate future to respond to and satisfy this eager longing of the enslaved and groaning world? What is this ‘terminus ad quem?’ this revelation of the sons of God? And in what sense could it, or did it, bring deliverance and consolation to oppressed humanity?
The answer to this question is found in almost every page of the apostle’s writings. To his view a great event appeared just at hand; the Lord was about to come, according to His promise, to exercise His kingly power, to give recompense and salvation to His people, and to tread His enemies under His feet. But the Parousia was to bring more than this. It marked a great epoch in the divine government of man. It terminated the period of exclusive privilege for Israel. It dissolved the covenant-bond between Jehovah and the Jewish people, and made way for a new and better covenant which embraced all mankind. Christianity is the proclamation of the universal Fatherhood of God, but the new era was not fully inaugurated until the narrow and local theocratic kingdom was superseded, and the Theocratic King resigned His jurisdiction into the Father’s hands. Then the national and exclusive relation between God and one single people was dissolved, or merged in the all-comprehensive and world-wide system in which ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but only Man. Christ had made all men One, ‘that God might be All in all.’
Surely, this was an adequate response to the groans and travail of suffering and down-trodden humanity; the prospect of such a consummation may well be represented as the dawn of a day of redemption. It was nothing less than opening the gates of mercy to mankind; it was the emancipation of the human race from the hopeless despair which was crushing them down into ever deeper corruption and degradation; it was introducing them ‘into the glorious liberty of the children of God;’ investing Gentiles, ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise,’ with the privileges of ‘fellow-citizenship with the saints and membership of the household of God.’
It is this admission of the whole human race into [adoption of sons] which had hitherto been the exclusive privilege of the chosen people, of which the apostle speaks in such glowing language in Rom. viii. 19-21. It was a theme on which he was never weary of expatiating, and which filled his whole soul with wonder and thanksgiving. He speaks of it as ‘the mystery that was hid from ages and from generations’---the manifold wisdom of God’ (Ephes. iii. 10; Col. i. 26). The first three chapters of the Epistle to the Ephesians are occupied with an animated description of the revolution which had been brought about by the redemptive work of Christ in the relation between God and the uncovenanted Gentiles. ‘The dispensation of the fulness of times’ had arrived, in which God meant ‘to gather together in one all things in Christ, making him head over all things,’ breaking down the barriers of separation between Jew and Gentile, making both one; abolishing the ceremonial law, fusing the heterogeneous elements into one homogeneous whole, reconciling the mutual antipathy, and bringing both to unite as one family at the feet of the common Father.
But it may be said, Had not all this been already accomplished by the atoning death of the cross? And is it not a revelation of a future and approaching glory, to which the apostle here alludes? No doubt it is so. Yet the New Testament always speaks of the work of redemption being incomplete till the Parousia. It will be observed that the apostle, in the twenty-third verse, represents himself and his fellow-believers as still waiting for the . Even the sons of God had only received the earnest and first-fruits, and not the full harvest of their sonship. That was not to be completely theirs until the coming of the Lord, when ‘the saints who were alive and remained,’ would exchange the present mortal and corruptible body for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. The Parousia was the public and formal proclamation that the Messianic or Theocratic dispensation had come to an end; and that the new order, in which God was All in all, was inaugurated. Until the judgment of Israel had taken place, all things were not put under Christ the Theocratic King; His enemies even were not yet made His footstool. Until that time the adoption  might still be said, ‘to pertain to Israel.’ When the apostle wrote this epistle Christ was ‘expecting till his enemies should be made his footstool.’ There was still an incompleteness in His work until the whole visible fabric and frame of Judaism were swept away. This fact is clearly brought out in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The writer states that ‘the way into the holy place has not yet been made manifest, so long as the first, or outer, tabernacle is still standing.’ He says that this tabernacle is ‘a figure or parable for the present time’---serving a temporary purpose---‘until a time of reformation,’ that is, the introduction of a new order (Heb. ix. 8, 9). This passage is of very great importance in connection with this discussion, and the following observations of Conybeare and Howson set forth its meaning very clearly:---
There was a fitness and fulness of time at which the old covenant was to be superseded by the new; the old and the new were permitted to subsist for a time together; the goodness and forbearance of God delaying the final stroke of judgment. Although, therefore, the great barriers to the introduction of all men, without distinction, into the privileges of the children of God were virtually removed by the death of Christ upon the cross, yet the formal and final demonstration that ‘the way into the holiest of all’ was not thrown open to all mankind, was not made until the whole framework of the Mosaic economy, with its ritual, and temple, and city, and people, was publicly and solemnly repudiated; and Judaism, with all that pertained to it, was for ever swept away.
There is still one portion of this deeply interesting passage on which much obscurity rests. In the twentieth verse the apostle states that ‘the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who had subjected the same in hope,’ etc. The common interpretation put upon these words is, that ‘the visible creation has been laid under the sentence of decay and dissolution, not by its own choice, but by the act of God, who has not, however, left it without hope.
This no doubt gives a good sense to the passage, though we venture to think not exactly the sense which the apostle intended. It fails to apprehend the nature of the evil to which ‘the creation’ was made subject; and consequently the nature of the deliverance from that evil which is hoped for.
Understanding by [creature] the human race, for the reasons already specified, we observe that it is said to have been made subject to vanity . What is this vanity? The word is a very significant one, especially in the lips of a Jew. To such an one ‘vanity’ was a synonym for idolatry. It is the word which the Septuagint employs to denote the folly of idol-worship. Idols are ‘lying vanities’ (Ps. xxxi. 6; Jonah ii. 8); ‘the stock is a doctrine of vanities;’ idols are ‘vanity, and the work of errors’ (Jer. x. 8, 15). ‘They that make a graven image are all of them vanity’ (Isa. xliv. 9). The word is almost set apart for this special use. The same may be said of the New Testament usage. At Lystra St. Paul besought the people ‘to turn from those vanities  i.e. idolatrous worship, to serve the living God (Acts xiv. 15). In this very epistle (Rom. i. 21) we have a remarkable instance of the use of the word, where St. Paul, accounting for the apostasy of the human race from God, explains it by the fact that ‘they became vain’ in their imaginations ; a passage in which Alford, with Bengel, Locke, and many others, recognises the allusion to idolatrous worship. It is only necessary to look at the passage to see its bearing upon the origin and prevalence of idolatry (see also Ephes. iv. 17). here looks back upon in chap. i. 21, and thus furnishes us with the key to the true interpretation. Idolatry was the ‘vanity’ to which the human race was subjected; idolatry, the religion of the Gentiles, the degradation of man, the dishonour of God.
But can it be said that man was made subject to this evil by the act of God---(‘by reason of him who hath subjected the same’)? Undoubtedly, such a statement would be in harmony with the Word of God. In the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans the significant fact is thrice stated, ‘God gave them up,’ in reference to this very apostasy (Rom. i. 24, 26, 28). This abandonment can only be regarded as a judicial act. We find a still stronger expression in Rom. xi. 32 ‘God hath concluded  them all in unbelief;’ which Alford makes equivalent to ‘subjected to.’ Indeed, the doctrine that God delivers over the contumacious and rebellious to the fatal consequences of their sin pervades in Scriptures. Thus it may be said that the subjection of the human race to the evil of idolatry was not simply the will of man himself, but the judicial act of divine justice.
Yet it was not a hopeless decree. ‘The preservation of one nation from the universal apostasy had in it a germ of hope for mankind. In the fulness of the time God’s purpose of mercy and redemption for the human race was manifested, and ‘the adoption of sons,’ which had been the exclusive privilege of one people, was now declared to be open to all without distinction. For this high privilege the race is represented as waiting with eager expectation, and now the Gospel, which was the divinely appointed means of rescuing men from the moral corruption and degradation of heathenism, was proclaiming deliverance and salvation ‘to Gentile and Jew, barbarian, Scythian, bond and free.’
In what sense this proclamation of the new era may be said to be made in the most public and formal manner at the Parousia has been already shown.
THE NEARNESS OF THE COMING SALVATION.
It is not possible for words more clearly to express the apostle’s conviction that the great deliverance was at hand. It would be preposterous to regard this language, with Moses Stuart, as referring to the near approach of death and eternity. In that case the apostle would have said, ‘The day is far spent, the night is at hand.’ But this is not the manner of the New Testament; it is never death and the grave, but the Parousia, the ‘blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ,’ to which the apostles look forward. Professor Jowett justly observes that ‘in the New Testament we find no exhortation grounded on the shortness of life. It seems as if the end of life had no practical importance for the first believers, because it would surely be anticipated by the day of the Lord.’ This undoubtedly true; but what then? Either the apostle was in error, or our confidence must be withheld from him as an authoritative expounder of divine truth; or else he was under the guidance of the spirit of God, and what he taught was unerring truth. To this dilemma those expositors are shut up who cannot bring themselves even to imagine the possibility of the Parousia having come to pass according to the teaching of St. Paul. It is curious to see the shifts to which they resort in order to find some way of escape from the inevitable conclusion.
Tholuck frankly admits the expectation of the apostle, but at the sacrifice of his authority:---
Stuart protests against Tholuck’s surrender of the correctness of the apostle’s judgment, but adopts the untenable position that St. Paul is here speaking of---
Alford, on the other hand, admits that---
The American editor of Lange’s Commentary on the Romans has the following note:---
There are some interpreters who evade the difficulty by denying that such terms as near and distant have any reference to time at all. For example, we are told that---
This is a non-natural method of interpretation, which simply evacuates words of all meaning. There is only one way out of the difficulty, and that is to believe that the apostle says what he means, and means what he says. He was the inspired apostle and ambassador of Christ, and the Lord let none of his words fall to the ground. His continual watchword and warning cry to the churches of the primitive age was, ‘The Lord is at hand.’ He believed this; he taught this; and it was the faith and hope of the whole church.
Was he mistaken? Did the whole primitive church live and die in the belief of a lie? Did nothing corresponding to their expectation come to pass? Where is the temple of God? Where is the city of Jerusalem? Where is the law of Moses? Where is the Jewish nationality? But all these things perished at the same moment; and all these were predicted to pass away at the Parousia. The fulfilment of those other events in the region of the spiritual and unseen which were indissolubly connected therewith, but of which, in the nature of things, there can be no record in the pages of human history.
PROSPECT OF SPEEDY DELIVERANCE.
We have here another unmistakeable reference to the near approach of the day of deliverance. The bruising of the serpent’s head is the victory of Christ, and that victory was shortly to be won. Among the enemies who were to be made His footstool was death, and he that had the power of death, that is, the Devil.
In the prospect of His crucifixion, the Lord declared, ‘Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast out,’ and we have already endeavoured to show in what sense and how truly that prediction was fulfilled. In like manner a day was approaching when suffering and persecuted Christians would be delivered by the Parousia from the enemies by whom they were surrounded, and when the malignant instigator and abettor of all that enmity would lie prostrate beneath their feet.
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