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THE PAROUSIA IN THE APOSTLOTIC EPISTLES
THE PAROUSIA IN THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS.
It does not fall within the scope of this investigation to discuss the question of the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Even if it do not come from the same pen which wrote the Epistle to the Romans, and few who are familiar with the style of St. Paul will affirm that it does, yet its spirit and teaching are essentially Pauline, and we may justly regard it as one of the most precious legacies of the apostolic age. Its value as a key to the meaning of the Levitical economy, and as a contribution to Christian doctrine and living, is inestimable; and whether we ascribe its authorship to Barnabas or Apollos, or any other fellow-labourer with St. Paul, we may unhesitatingly accept it, ‘not as the word of man, but, as it is in truth, the word of God.’
We now enter still more deeply into the dark shadow of the predicted apostasy. It was to combat this formidable antagonist of the Gospel that this epistle was written; and the Judaic character of the anti-Christian movement is apparent from the line of argument which the author adopts. We find ourselves at once in ‘the last days.’
THE LAST DAYS ALREADY COME.
The phrase ‘in these last days,’ or ‘in the end of these days,’ shows that the writer regarded the time of Christ’s incarnation and ministry as the closing period of a dispensation or aeon. We fin a somewhat similar expression in chap. ix. 26, ‘Now, in the end of the ages’ [e p i s u n t e l e i a t w n a i w n w n ], where the reference is to the time of our Saviour’s incarnation and atoning sacrifice. And old era, call it Mosaic, Judaic, or Old Testament, was now running out; many things that had seemed immovable and eternal were about to vanish away; and ‘the end of the age,’ or ‘the last times,’ had arrived.
Much confusion has arisen from the indiscriminate use of the word ‘world’ as the translation of the different Greek words a i w n , k o z m o z , o i k o u m e n h , and g h . The unlearned reader who meets with the phrase ‘the end of the world,’ inevitably thinks of the destruction of the material globe, whereas if he read ‘conclusion of the age, or aeon,’ he would as naturally think of the close of a certain period of time---which is its proper meaning. We have already had occasion to observe that a i w n is properly a designation of time, an age; and it is doubtful whether it ever has any other signification in the New Testament. Its equivalent in Latin is aevum, which is really the Greek a i w n in a Latin dress. The proper word for the earth, or world, is k o s m o z , which is used to designate both the material and the moral world. O i k o u m e n h is properly the inhabited world, ‘the habitable,’ and in the New Testament refers often to the Roman Empire, sometimes to so small a portion of it as Palestine. G h , though it sometimes signifies the earth generally, in the gospels more frequently refers to the land of Israel. Much light is thrown upon many passages by a proper understanding of these words.
It is certain that the Jews in our Saviour’s time were accustomed to make a division of time into two great periods or aeons, the present aeon [o n u n a i w n , o a i w n o u t o z ], and the coming aeon [o a i w n m e l l w n ]. The coming aeon was that of the Messiah, or ‘the kingdom of God.’ The same division is recognised in the New Testament, and we have already seen that, in the view of the writer of this epistle, the close of the present aeon was approaching. (See Stuart’s Comm. on Heb. in loc.; Alford’s Greek Testament; Wahl’s Lexicon, voc. a i w n ).
It may be said, however, that though the word does primarily signify an age, yet in this instance the sense of the passage obviously requires us to translate a i w n a z , worlds. It must be acknowledged that it seems uncouth to our ears to say, ‘God made the ages by Jesus Christ,’ and very simple and natural to say, ‘He made the world;’ yet when we consider that the writer of this epistle had no conception of worlds in the sense in which we now use that expression, it may perhaps modify our opinion. We are very apt to credit the author with our astronomical ideas, and suppose that he is referring to the sun, moon, and stars as so many worlds. But we have no reason to believe that he had any such notion. The heavenly bodies were to him lights, but not worlds. With aeons, however, the author of this epistle, as a man of letters, must have been perfectly familiar. What, then, did he mean by God making the aeons? These were the great eras, or epochs of time, which the Supreme Wisdom had ordained and arranged; world-periods, as we may call them, which constituted acts in the great drama of Providence. There seems to be an allusion to this ordering of the ages, or world-periods, in Acts xvii. 26: ‘Having determined the times before appointed’ [o r i s a z p r o s t e t a g m e n o u z k a i r o u z ]; as also in Ephes. i. 10: ‘The dispensation of the fulness of the times.’ It is strongly in favour of this view that it is substantially that which is adopted by the Greek Fathers.
THE WORLD TO COME, OR THE NEW ORDER.
This passage elucidates the subject still more. We have here one of the aeons---the world to come---i.e. not a material world, but a system or order of things analogous to the Mosaic dispensation. There is an evident comparison or contrast between the Mosaic economy and the new, or Christian, state. The former was placed under the administration of angels; it was ‘the word spoken by angels;’ it was given by ‘the disposition of angels’ (Acts vii. 53); it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator (Gal. iii. 19). But the new aeon, the kingdom of heaven, was administered by one greater than the angels, the Son of God Himself; a proof of the superiority of the Christian over the Jewish dispensation.
It is certainly somewhat singular that we should find the word o i k o u m e n h here, where we should have expected to find a i w n a . Had it been o i k o n o m i a n , as in Ephes. i. 10, it would have been more in accordance with our ideas of the true purport; but there is no warrant for supposing that the one word has been substituted for the other. That the allusion is to the system or order of things inaugurated by Christ there can be no doubt, and the phrase is equivalent to ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ It may be added that it is said to be ‘coming,’ m e l l o u s a , a word which implies nearness, like ‘the coming wrath,’ ‘the coming glory,’ ‘the coming age.’
THE END, i.e. OF THE AGE, OR AEON.
We have already had occasion to remark upon the significant phrase ‘the end,’ as it is used in the New Testament. It does not mean to the last, or to the end of life; but to the close of the aeon. Alford correctly observes,---
This is an exceedingly important and interesting passage, not without its obscurities and difficulties, which have occasioned much diversity of interpretation. Some have found in it an argument for the perpetuity of the Fourth Commandment, and the observance of the first day of the week as the Christian sabbath. Others have interpreted the whole argument in an ethical and subjective sense, as if the writer exhorted to the attainment of a certain state of mind called the rest of faith: a ceasing from doubt and from self-dependence, and obtaining perfect repose of mind by full trust in God. Such interpretations, however, wholly miss the point of the argument, and are rather ingenious glosses than legitimate deductions.
What is the drift of the argument? It is very evident that the object of the writer is to warn Hebrew Christians against unbelief and disobedience by setting before them, on the one hand, the reward of obedience, and, on the other, the penalty of disobedience. There was ready to his hand a signal example, memorable to all Israelites, viz. the forfeiture of the land Canaan by their fathers in consequence of their unbelief. They had provoked the Lord to swear in His wrath, ‘They shall not enter into my rest.’
In the view of the writer there was a remarkable correspondence between the situation of the Israelites approaching the land of promise and the situation of Christians expecting the fulfilment of their hope, the promise of rest. To make this correspondence more clear he shows that the rest promised to ancient Israel, and that promised to the people of God now, were really one and the same thing. The entrance into the land of Canaan was by no means the whole, nor even the principal part, of the promised rest of God. This he proves by showing that long after the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan, the Lord, by the mouth of David, in Psalm xcv., virtually repeats the promise made to the Israelites in the wilderness, and says to the people, ‘To-day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ The repetition of the command implies the repetition of the promise, and also of the threatening; as if God were saying, ‘Believe, and ye shall enter into my rest. Disbelieve, and ye shall not enter into my rest.’ Hence it follows that there is a rest besides and beyond the rest of Canaan.
Then follows the explanation of the rest referred to, viz. the ‘rest of God,’ that which He calls ‘My rest.’ Certainly that name was never given to the land of Canaan, nor can it be applied to any other than that ‘rest’ of which we read in the account of the creation, when God did rest from all ‘his work which he had made’ (Gen. ii. 2, 3). This was God’s sabbath, the rest which He hallowed and called His own. It must be to this rest therefore---the holy, sabbatic, heavenly repose---that the promise chiefly refers. Of that rest of God Canaan was no doubt the type, for that was the rest of the Israelites after the perils and fatigues of the wilderness; but the possession of Canaan was far from exhausting the full meaning of the promise, and therefore it still remained, and was kept in reserve for the people of God. ‘There remaineth therefore a rest for the people of God.’
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews evidently regarded the ‘rest of God’ as a consummation not far distant. He says of it, ‘We that have believed are entering into that rest.’ This does not mean ‘going to heaven at death,’ but the expectation of the speedily coming kingdom of God, the hope so strongly cherished by the first Christians (Rom. viii. 18-25). To regard these exhortations and appeals as the ordinary commonplaces of religious teaching, is to rob them of half their significance. True, there is a sense in which they may be applicable to all times, but they had a meaning and a force at that particular juncture which it is difficult for us now to comprehend. The Christians of that epoch stood, as it were, on the border-line between the old and the new, between the aeon that was closing and that which was opening. They believed that the day of the Lord was just at hand,---that Christ would soon return, and that they would enter along with Him into the kingdom of heaven, the rest of God. Hence the duty of ‘exhorting one another; and so much the more as they saw the day approaching;’ of holding the beginning of their confidence stedfast unto the end; of ‘striving to enter into that rest, lest any many should fall,’ or ‘seem to come short of it.’
The writer of this epistle, in verses 9 and 10 of this chapter, shows the propriety of calling this promised rest a ‘sabbatism,’ or sabbatic rest. ‘There remaineth therefore a sabbatism for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath rested from his own works, as God did from his.’ There is an ambiguity in this language both in the Greek and in the English. It may mean that all the faithful departed have ceased from the toils of earth, and now enjoy the repose and reward of heaven. This is the sense usually attached to the words. (See Stuart’s Commentary on Hebrews, in loc.; Conybeare and Howson, etc.) It must be confessed, however, that the relevance of this language so interpreted, to the matter in hand, is not very apparent, and that the grammatical construction will hardly warrant such an explanation. The argument affirms, not that Christians have entered into that rest, but just the contrary. The writer states, as Conybeare and Howson very properly show, ‘that God’s people have never yet enjoyed that perfect rest, therefore its enjoyment is still future.’ Who, then, is ‘he that entered in’? Evidently it is Christ, the Forerunner, who entered on our behalf within the veil; our great High Priest, who is passed into the heavens; the New Testament Joshua, the Captain of our salvation, who ‘entered into his rest,’ ceasing from His work of redemption, even as His Father did from His own work of creation. This shows the fitness of heaven being called a ‘sabbatism,’ a ‘rest of God,’ for there both the Father and the Son keep eternal sabbath. It may be added that this interpretation relieves us from the sense of incongruity which is felt in comparing a Christian’s ceasing from his labours to God’s ceasing from the work of creation; it is also perfectly relevant to the argument in the context.
Not only will the words bear this sense, but they will not bear any other, as Alford very well shows. (See Greek Testament, in loc.) We can now see the force of the argument as a whole. The writer shows the fatal consequences of unbelief and disobedience by the example of the ancient Israelites (chap. iii. 7-19). They had a great promise of entering into the rest of God, which they forfeited by their unbelief (chap. iii. 7-19). But that promise of rest is still offered, and my be still forfeited. It was offered to Israel again in the time and by the mouth of David; it was therefore not exhausted by the entrance of the Israelites into Canaan (chap. iv. 4-8). The promise, then had reference to the heavenly state, the rest of God Himself, when He kept sabbath after the work of creation (chap. iv. 3-5). But Christ also keeps His sabbath, having ceased from the work of redemption, as His Father did from that of creation (chap. iv. 10). There still remains therefore a sabbath, or heavenly rest for the people of God (chap. iv. 9). Let us, therefore, strive to enter into that rest of Christ and of God, warned against unbelief and disobedience by the example of ancient Israel (chap. iv. 11).
We shall find in the sequel much light thrown upon this whole subject of entrance into the heavenly state, and the relation in which the saints stood to it both before and since the coming of Christ.
THE END OF THE AGES.
In this verse we have a striking instance of the confusion arising from the translation of the two different words k o s m o z and a i w n by the same word ‘world.’
The expression s u n t e l e i a t w n a i w n w n has precisely the same meaning as s u n t e l e i a t o u a i w n o z , and refers to the Jewish age which was about to close. Moses Stuart renders the passage thus: ‘But now, at the close of the [Jewish] dispensation, He has once for all made His appearance,’ etc. This is another decisive proof that ‘the end of the age’ was regarded by the apostolic churches as at hand.
EXPECTATION OF THE PAROUSIA.
The attitude of expectation maintained by the Christians of the apostolic age is here incidentally shown. They waited in hope and confidence for the fulfillment of the promise of His coming. To suppose that they thus waited for an event which did not happen is to impute to them and to their teachers an amount of ignorance and error incompatible with respect of their beliefs on any other subject.
THE PAROUSIA APPROACHING.
‘The day’ means, of course, ‘the day of the Lord,’ the time of His appearing,---the Parousia. It was now at hand; they could see it approaching. Doubtless the indications of its approach predicted by our Lord were apparent, and His disciples recognised them, remembering His words, ‘When ye shall see these things come to pass, know that it is nigh, even at the doors’ (Mark xiii. 29). It is not fair to palter with these words in a non-natural or double sense, and say with Alford,---
To the same effect is his note on Heb. ix. 26:---
The Hebrew Christians lived close upon the actual Parousia which our Lord predicted, and His church expected before the passing away of that generation. It is not true that the Parousia ‘is always near, and always ready to break forth upon the church,’ any more than that the birth of Christ, His crucifixion, or His resurrection, is always ready to break forth. The Parousia was as distinctly a specific event, with its proper place in time, as the incarnation or the crucifixion; and it is to evacuate the word of all meaning to make it a phantom shape, appearing and disappearing, always coming and never come, distant and near, past and future. We believe that Christ in his prophetic discourse had a real event full in his view; an event with a place in history and chronology; an event the period of which He Himself distinctly indicated,---not indeed the hour, nor the day, nor even the precise year, yet within limits well defined,---the period of the existing generation. Such was manifestly the belief of the writer of this epistle. To him the Parousia was a very definite event, and one the approach of which he could see; nor can any trace be detected in his language, or in the language of any of the epistles, of a double sense, or of a partial and preliminary Parousia and a great and final one.
The comment of Conybeare and Howson is far more satisfactory:
THE PAROUSIA IMMINENT.
This statement looks in the same direction as the preceding. The phrase, ‘he that shall come’ [o e r c o m e n o z ] is the customary designation of the Messiah,---‘the coming One.’ That coming was now at hand. The language to this effect is far more expressive of the nearness of the time in the Greek than in English: ‘Yet a very, very little while;’ or, as Tregelles renders it, ‘A little while, how little, how little!’ The reduplication of the thought in the close of the verse,---‘will come, and will not tarry,’ is also indicative of the certainty and speed of the approaching event. Moses Stuart’s comment on this passage is,---
This is only part of the truth; the Parousia brought much more than this to the people of God, if we are to believe the assurances of the inspired apostles of Christ.
THE PAROUSIA AND THE OLD TESTAMENT SAINTS.
The argument which is here brought to a conclusion is one of great importance, and deserves very careful consideration. It will be found to lend a powerful indirect support to the views propounded in this investigation, which in fact afford the true key to its explanation.
Having in this eleventh chapter illustrated his main position,---that faith in God was the distinguishing characteristic of the worthies whose names adorn the annals of the Old Testament, the writer draws attention to the fact that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were never actually put in possession of the inheritance which had been promised them. They did not obtain the land of Canaan; they never saw the earthly Jerusalem: ‘These all died in faith, not having received the promises’ (ver. 13). He then goes on to state that these fathers of Israel were aware of a deeper significance in the promise of God than a mere temporal and earthly inheritance. Abraham, while dwelling as a stranger and sojourner in the land of promise, looked beyond to ‘the city which hath the foundations, whose builder and maker is God’ (ver. 10). It is evident that this cannot refer to the earthly Jerusalem, and yet the language seems to point to some well-known city so described. But to what other city can the allusion be than to the city described in the Apocalypse as ‘having twelve foundations,’ ‘the city of the living God,’ the heavenly Jerusalem? The correspondence cannot be accidental, and affords more than a presumption that whoever wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews had read the description of the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse. It is not a city, but the city; not which hath foundations, but ‘the foundations;’ a particular and well-known city.
But to return. The confession of the fathers that they were strangers and pilgrims in the land, was a declaration of their faith in the existence of a ‘better country,’ ‘for they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country,’ not indeed any earthly country, but ‘a better, that is, a heavenly’ (vers. 14, 16). This faith in a future and heavenly inheritance, which they saw only ‘afar off,’ was true not only of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but of the whole company of the ancient believers (ver. 39). Not one of them received the fulfilment of that divine promise which their faith had embraced: ‘these all, being borne witness to through faith, received not the promise’ (ver. 39).
This is a fact worthy to be pondered. Up to that time, according to the author of this epistle, the Old Testament saints had been kept waiting, and were waiting still, for the fulfilment of the great promise of God made to Abraham and his seed, and had not yet received the inheritance, nor entered into the better country, nor seen the God-built city with the foundations. How was this? What could be the cause of the long delay? What obstacle stood in the way of their entrance upon the full enjoyment of the inheritance? The question has been anticipated and answered. ‘The way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest,’ as was signified by the continued existence of the temple and its services (chap. ix. 8). Access into the place of sanctity and privilege was not permitted until the way had been opened by the atoning sacrifice of Christ, the great High Priest, the Mediator of the new covenant; it could not give a perfect title to its subjects by which they might be admitted to enter on the possession of the inheritance (chap. ix. 9). Mere ritual could not remove the barriers which sin had created between God and man; and therefore there was not admission even for the faithful under the old covenant into the full privileges of saintship and sonship. But this barrier was removed by the perfect sacrifice of the great High Priest. ‘The Mediator of the new covenant,’ by the offering of himself to God, redeemed the transfressions committed under the old covenant, or Mosaic economy, thus freeing the subjects of that covenant from their disabilities, and making it competent for the chosen ‘to receive the promise of the eternal inheritance’ (chap. ix. 11-15).
The argument of the epistle, then, requires us to suppose that until the atoning sacrifice of the cross was offered, the blessedness of the Old Testament saints was incomplete. In this respect they were at a disadvantage as compared with believers under the new covenant. The latter were at once put in possession of that for which the former had to wait a long time. The superiority of believers now, under the Christian dispensation, over believers under the former dispensation, is a strong point in the argument. We, says the writer, have no lengthened period of delay interposed between us and the promised inheritance,---we are near it; ‘we are come unto it;’ ‘we are entering into it.’ ‘God hath provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect’ (ver. 40). That is to say, the ancient believers had not only no precedence in the enjoyment of the promised inheritance over Christians, but had to wait long, until the fulness of the time should come when, Christ having opened the way into the holiest of all, they might enter, along with us, into the possession of the promised inheritance.
It is scarcely necessary to ask, What is this promised inheritance of which so much is here spoken, and to which the Old Testament saints looked forward in faith? Unquestionably it is that thing which God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (ver. 9); that which the patriarchs saw afar off (ver. 13); that which their illustrious successors believed, but never obtained (ver. 19). It is ‘the promise of eternal inheritance’ (chap. ix. 15); ‘the hope set before us’ (chap. vi. 18); ‘the city which hath the foundations’ (chap. xi. 10); ‘a better, even a heavenly country’ (chap. xi. 16); ‘a kingdom which cannot be moved’ (chap. xii. 28). It is, in fact, the true Canaan; the promised land; the ‘rest of God;’ ‘the sabbath-keeping which remaineth for the people of God’ (chap. iv.9). It is one thing of which the writer speaks all the way through. Let the reader carry his thoughts back to the fourth chapter, where the discussion respecting the promised rest first begins. Evidently that ‘promised rest’ is identical with the ‘promised land,’ and the ‘promised land’ is identical with the ‘promised inheritance;’ and all these different designations---city, country, kingdom, inheritance, promise,---all mean one and the same thing. The earthly Canaan was not the whole, was not the reality, but only the symbol of the inheritance which God gave by promise to Abraham and his seed. That promise, far from having been exhaustively fulfilled by the possession of the land under Joshua, was still kept in reserve for the people of God. But now the time was come when the inheritance was about to be actually entered and enjoyed, and the believers of the old covenant, with those of the new, were to enter at once and together into the promised rest.
There is a remarkable correspondence between the argument contained in this passage and the statements of St. Paul in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans, serving not only to throw additional light upon the whole subject, but also to prove how entirely Pauline is the argument in Hebrews. We select a few of the leading thoughts in Gal. iii. by way of illustration:---
Now, making allowance for the difference in the object which St. Paul has in view in writing to the Galatians, it will be seen how remarkably his statements support those in the Epistle of Hebrews.
Very similar is the scope of the argument in the Epistle to the Romans:---
In these verses we find,---
Taking all these passages together, we may deduce from them the following conclusions:---
It is evident, however, that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews did not consider that as yet either the Old Testament or the New Testament saints had actually entered upon the possession of the inheritance. The very purpose and aim of all his exhortations and appeals to the Hebrew believers is to warn them against the danger of forfeiting the inheritance by apostasy, and to encourage them to stedfastness and perseverance, that they might receive the promise. ‘Let us therefore fear lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it’ (Heb. iv. 1); ‘Ye have need of patience that ye may receive the promise’ (Heb. x. 36). It was not theirs as yet, then, in actual possession; but the whole tenor of the argument implies that it was very near, so near that it might almost be said to be within reach. ‘We which believe are entering into the rest’ (Heb. iv. 3); ‘Yet a very, very little while, and he that is coming shall come, and shall not tarry’ (chap. x. 37). This clearly indicates the period of the expected entrance on the inheritance: it is the Parousia; ‘the coming of the Lord;’ the long looked-for day; the fulness of the time, when the saints of the old covenant and those of the new should enter simultaneously into the possession of the promised inheritance; the land of rest; the city with the foundations; the better country, that is, the heavenly; the kingdom which cannot be moved; ‘the inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and unfading, ready to be revealed in the last time.’
But it may be objected, If the seed has come ‘to whom the promise was made; ‘if the sacrifice of Calvary has been offered; if the great High Priest has rent the veil and removed the barrier; if the way into the holiest has thus been opened up,---does it not follow that the possession of the inheritance would be immediately bestowed upon the Old Testament believers, and that they would at once, along with the risen and triumphant Redeemer, enter into the promised rest?
This is the view which many theologians have adopted, who fix the resurrection of Christ as the period of advancement and glory for the Old Testament saints. But it is clear that the apostolic doctrine fixes that period at the Parousia, and that for the reason given in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chap. x. 12, 13). Though the great High Priest had offered His one sacrifice for sin; though He had sate down on the right hand of God; yet His triumph had not fully come. He was ‘henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.’ To the same effect is the statement of St. Paul in 1 Cor. xv. 22. The consummation is reached by successive steps; first, the resurrection of Christ; afterwards, they that are Christ’s at His coming; then ‘then end.’ The edifice was not crowned until the Parousia, when the Son of man came in His kingdom, and His enemies were put under His feet. That was the consummation, the end, when the Messianic delegated government was to cease; the ceremonial, local, and temporary to be merged in the spiritual, universal, and everlasting; when God was to be revealed as the Father not of a nation, but of man; when all sectional and national distinctions were to be abolished, and ‘God to be All in all.’
Meantime, when this epistle was written, the Mosaic system seemed to be unimpaired; ‘the outer tabernacle’ was still standing; Judaism, though a hollow trunk, out of which the heart had utterly decayed, still had a semblance of vigour; but the hour was at hand when the whole economy was to be swept away. A deluge of wrath was about to burst on the land, and overwhelm the city, the temple, and the nation; the judgment of the impenitent and the apostate people would then take place, and the Old Testament saints, along with the believers in Christ, would together ‘enter into rest,’ and ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.’
When we remember that this epistle was written, according to some expositors, on the verge of the great Jewish war which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem; or, according to others, after its actual outbreak, we may conceive what an intense expectancy such an approaching crisis must have produced in Christian hearts. The long looked-for consummation was now not a question of years, but of months or days.
Before quitting this very interesting passage it may be proper to advert to the opinions of some of the most eminent expositors regarding it.
Professor Stuart wholly misses his way. He pronounces Heb. xi. 40 ‘an exceedingly difficult verse, about the meaning of which there have been a multitude of conjectures;’ and expresses his opinion that ‘the better thing’ reserved for Christians is not a reward in heaven; for such a reward was proffered also to the ancient saints.
It will be seen that Stuart entirely mistakes the meaning of the writer. The e p a g g e l i a is not the Messiah, but the inheritance, the promise of entering into the rest. He fails also to apprehend the bearing of the subject on the time then present, and that the whole force of the argument lies in the fact that the moment was at hand when the great promise of God was to be fulfilled.
Dr. Alford apprehends the argument much more clearly, yet fails to grasp the precise sense of the whole. How nearly he approaches the true solution of the difficulty may be seen from the following note:---
This explanation, though in some respects not far from the truth, is inconsistent with the statements in the epistle, for it supposes the Old Testament saints to be still waiting for their complete felicity, and it reduces even the New Testament believers to the same condition of waiting for a consummation still future. What becomes, then, of the k r e i t t o n t i , the ‘some better thing,’ which God (according to the writer) had provided for Christians? The advantage of which he makes so much wholly disappears. And if the Parousia never took place, the New Testament believers have no advantage whatever over the ancient saints.
Dr. Tholuck has the following remarks on the state of the departed saints previous to the advent of Christ:---
It is curious to find very similar opinions expressed by Dr. Owen, in his treatise on Hebrews (vol. v. p. 311):---
Much that is true is here blended with something erroneous. All these opinions agree in the conclusion that the redemptive work of Christ had a powerful influence on the state of the Old Testament believers; but none of them apprehend the fact, so legibly written on the face of this epistle, that until the external fabric of Judaism had been swept away, and Christ had come in His kingdom, the way to the promised inheritance was not open either to the Old or the New Testament believers, and that the Parousia was the appointed time for both to enter together into the possession of the ‘rest of God.’
THE GREAT CONSUMMATION NEAR.
Contrast between the Situation of the Hebrew Christians and that of the Israelites at Sinai.
We have in this passage a powerful exhortation to stedfastness in the faith, enforced by a vivid parallel, or rather contrast, between the situation of their Hebrew ancestors as they stood quaking before Mount Sinai and the position occupied by themselves standing, as it were, in full view of Mount Sion and all the glories of the promised inheritance. There are, indeed, in this representation both a parallel and a contrast. The resemblance lies in the nearness of the object---the meeting with God. Like the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the Hebrew Christians had drawn near [p r o s e l h l u q a t e ] to the Mount Sion; like their fathers, they were come face to face with God. But in other respects there was a striking contrast in their circumstances. At Mount Sinai all was terrible and awful; at Mount Sion all was inviting and attractive. And this was the prospect now full in their view. A few more steps and they would be in the midst of these scenes of glory and joy, safe in the promised land. There can be no question respecting the identity of the scene here described: it is a near view of the ‘inheritance,’ ‘the rest of God,’ so constantly set forth in this epistle as the ultimatum of the believer,---once beheld, afar off, by patriarchs, prophets, and saints of olden time, but now visible to all and within a few days’ march,---‘the city with the foundations,’ the ‘better country, that is the heavenly.’
Here an interesting question presents itself. From what source did the writer draw this glowing description of the heavenly inheritance? It is of course easy to say, It is an original and independent utterance of the Spirit which spake by the prophets. But the author of the epistle evidently writes as if the Hebrew Chrsitians knew, and were familiar with, the things of which he speaks. The picture of Mount Sinai and its attendant circumstances is evidently derived from the book of Exodus; and if we find the materials for the picture of Mount Sion ready to our hand in any particular book of the New Testament, if is not unfair to presume that the description is borrowed from thence. Now we actually find every element of this description in the Book of Revelation; and when the reader compares every separate feature of the scene depicted in the epistle with its counterpart in the Apocalypse, it will be easy for him to judge whether the correspondence can be undesigned or not, and which is the original picture:---
Mount Sion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Rev. xiv.1.
Looking at the exact correspondence between the representations in the epistle and those in the Apocalypse, it seems impossible to resist the conclusion that the writer of this epistle had the descriptions of the Apocalypse in his mind; and his language presupposes the knowledge of that book by the Hebrews Christians. This conclusion involves the inference that the Apocalypse was written before the Epistle to the Hebrews, and consequently before the destruction of Jerusalem. The subject will come before us again when we enter upon the consideration of the Book of Revelation; meantime, let it suffice to observe that both in this epistle and in the Apocalypse the events spoken of are regarded as so near as to be described as actually present; in the epistle the church militant is viewed as already come to the inheritance, and in the Apocalypse the things which are shortly to come to pass are viewed as accomplished facts.
THE NEARNESS AND FINALITY OF THE CONSUMMATION.
The parallel, or rather contrast, between the situation of the ancient Israelites drawing near to God at Mount Sinai and that of the Hebrew Christians expecting the Parousia is here further carried out, with the view of urging the latter to endurance and perseverance. If it was perilous to disregard the words spoken from Mount Sinai---the voice of God by the lips of Moses; how much more perilous to turn away from Him who speaks from heaven---the voice of God by His Son? That voice at Sinai shook the earth (Exod. Xix. 18; Ps. lxviii. 8); but a more terrible convulsion was at hand, by which, not only earth, but also heaven, were to be finally and fore ever removed.
But what is this impending and final ‘shaking and removing of earth and heaven’? According to Alford,---
At the same time he admits that---
But if so, surely the catastrophe must have been an immediate one; for, on the supposition that it belongs to the distant future, the interval must necessarily be very long, and divisible into many periods, as years, decades, centuries, and even millenniums.
Moses Stuart’s comment is far more to the point:---
The key to the interpretation of this passage is to be found in the prophecy of Haggai. On comparing the prophetic symbols in that book it will be seen that ‘shaking heaven and earth’ is evidently emblematic of, and synonymous with, ‘overthrowing thrones, destroy kingdoms,’ and similar social and political revolutions (Haggai ii. 21, 22). Such tropes and metaphors are the very elements of prophetic description, and it would be absurd to insist upon the literal fulfilment of such figures. Prodigies and convulsions in the natural world are constantly used to express great social or moral revolutions. Let those who find it difficult to believe that the abrogation of the Mosaic dispensation could be shadowed forth in language of such awful sublimity consider the magnificence of the language employed by prophets and psalmists in describing its inauguration. (See Ps. lxviii. 7, 8, 16, 17; cxiv. 1-8; Habak. iii. 1-6).
What, then, is the great catastrophe symbolically represented as the shaking of the earth and heavens? No doubt it is the overthrow and abolition of the Mosaic dispensation, or old covenant; the destruction of the Jewish church and state, together with all the institutions and ordinances connected therewith. There were ‘heavenly things’ belonging to that dispensation: the laws, and statutes, and ordinances, which were divine in their origin, and might be properly called the ‘spiritualia’ of Judasim---these were the heavens, which were to be shaken and removed. There were also ‘earthly things:’ the literal Jerusalem, the material temple, the land of Canaan- these were the earth, which was in like manner to be shaken and removed. The symbols are, in fact, equivalent to those employed by our Lord when predicting the doom of Israel. ‘Immediately after the tribulation of those days [the horrors of the siege of Jerusalem] shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken’ (Matt. xxiv. 29). Both passages refer to the same catastrophe and employ very similar figures; besides which we have the authority of our Lord for fixing the event and the period of which He speaks within the limits of the generation then in existence; that is to say, the references can only be to the judgment of the Jewish nation and the abrogation of the Mosaic economy at the Parousia.
That great event was to clear the way for a new and higher order of things. A kingdom which cannot be moved was to supersede the material and mutable institutions which were imperfect in their nature and temporary in their duration; the material would give place to the spiritual; the temporary to the eternal; and the earthly to the heavenly. This was by far the greatest revolution the world had ever witnessed. It far transcended in importance and grandeur even the giving of the law from Mount Sinai; and as that was accompanied by fearful signs and wonders, physical convulsions, and portentous phenomena, it was fitting that similar, and still more awful, prodigies should attend its abrogation and the opening of a new era. That such portents did actually precede the destruction of Jerusalem we have no difficulty in believing, first, on the ground of analogy; secondly, from the testimony of Josephus; and, above all, on the authority of our Lord’s prophetic discourse.
But it is not so much to any new era here upon the earth as to the glorious rest and reward of the people of God in the heavenly state, that the author of the epistle directs the hope of the Hebrew Christians. Into that eternal kingdom the faithful servants of Christ believed they were just about to enter, and no consideration was more calculated to strengthen the weak and confirm the wavering. ‘Since therefore we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us be filled with thankfulness, whereby we may offer acceptable worship unto God with reverent fear: for our God is a consuming fire.’
EXPECTATION OF THE PAROUSIA.
Alford well says:---
This is unexceptionable, and we may say, ‘O si sic omnia!’ The commentator sees clearly in this instance the relation of the writer’s language to the actual circumstances of the Hebrews. This principle would have been a safe guide in other instances in which he seems to us to have entirely missed the point of the argument. The Christians to whom the epistle was written were come to the closing scene of the Jewish polity; the final catastrophe was just at hand. They heard the call, ‘Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her plagues.’ Jerusalem, the holy city, with her sacred temple, her towers and palaces, her walls and bulwarks, was no longer ‘a continuing city;’ it was on the eve of being ‘shaken and removed.’ But the Hebrew saint could see through his tears another Jerusalem, the city of the living God; an enduring and heavenly home, drawing very near, and ‘coming down,’ as it were ‘from heaven.’ This was the coming city [t h n m e l l o u s a n = the city soon to come] to which the writer alludes, and which he believed they were just about to receive. (Heb. xxi. 28.)
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