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THE PAROUSIA IN THE EPISTLES OF ST. PETER
THE PAROUSIA IN THE FIRST EPISTLE OF ST. PETER.
It is evident that this epistle, like that of St. James, belongs to the period called ‘the last times.’ Like his fellow-witness and brother-apostle James, St. Peter addresses his exhortations to Hebrew Christians of the dispersion; for this is the only natural interpretation of the title give to them in the first verse. The contents sufficiently evince that the epistle was written in a time of suffering for the sake of Christ. The disciples were ‘in heaviness through manifold temptations;’ but a far severer time of trial was approaching, and for this they are exhorted to prepare: ‘Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you’ (1 Pet. iv. 12). They are comforted, moreover, with the prospect of final and speedy deliverance.
It is necessary to read this epistle in the light of the actual circumstances of the time when, and of the persons to whom, it was written. Whatever may be its uses and lessons for other times and persons, its primary and special bearing upon the Jews of the dispersion in the apostolic age must not be lost sight of.
Every word in this opening address is full of meaning, and implies the near approach of a great and decisive crisis. In ver. 4 we have a very distinct allusion to the ‘inheritance,’ which is the theme of so large a portion of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that is to say, the true Canaan, ‘the rest remaining for the people of God.’ In very similar language St. Peter styles it ‘the inheritance reserved in heaven,’ and represents the entering upon it by believers as now very near. Salvation is ‘ready to be revealed.’ What this ‘salvation’ means is very evident; it is not the personal glorification of individual souls at death, but a great and collective deliverance, in which the people of God generally are to participate: such a salvation as God wrought for Israel on the shores of the Red Sea. In the same way St. Paul uses the same word with reference to this same approaching consummation: ‘Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed’ (Rom. xiii. 11).
This great general deliverance was not a distant event, it was now ‘ready to be revealed,’ on the very eve of being made manifest. As Alford remarks, the word e t o i m h n [ready] is stronger than m e l l o u s a n . To understand this as referring to individual believers entering into heaven one by one at the hour of death, or as an admission into a heavenly state which has not yet been granted, is utterly repugnant to the plain sense of the words.
The salvation is ready to be revealed in ‘the last time,’ that is to say, ‘now,’ the time then present. We have already had occasion to notice that the apostles call their own time ‘the last time.’ They believed and they taught that they were living in the last times, and this must be reconcilable with fact, if their credit as faithful and authorised witnesses for Christ is to be maintained. They were justified in their belief: they were living in the last times, in the closing period of the Jewish aeon or age. In the twentieth verse of this chapter we find the same designation given to the time of Christ’s incarnation: ‘Who was manifested in these last times [at the last of the times] for you.’ To say that the apostle regards the whole period from the beginning of the New Testament dispensation till Christ’s coming in glory, in some future and possibly still distant age, as one short time called the last days, is a most unnatural and forced interpretation. The apostle is evidently speaking of a period of crisis, and to make a crisis extend over thousands of years is to do violence not only to the grammatical sense of words but to the nature of things.
At the risk of repetition we may here observe, that, according to New Testament usage, we are to conceive of the period between the incarnation of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem as the close of an epoch or aeon. It was in the end of the age [e p i s u n t e l i a t w n a i w n w n = close upon the end of the ages] that ‘Christ appeared to put away sin, by the sacrifice of himself’ (Heb. ix. 26). This whole period of about seventy years is regarded as ‘the last time;’ but it is natural that the phrase should have a sharper accentuation when the Jewish war, the beginning of the end, was on the eve of breaking out, if it had not already begun.
THE APPROACHING REVELATION OF JESUS CHRIST.
Everything in the apostle’s exhortation conveys the idea of eager expectancy and preparation. The salvation is ready to be revealed; the tried and persecuted believers are to ‘gird up the loins of their mind;’ the expected boon, the grace, is on its way,---it is being brought unto them. Alford properly remarks that the word f e r o m e n h n [being brought] signifies ‘the near impending of the event spoken of; q.d. which is even now bearing down on you.’ Does not this plainly prove that St. Peter understood, and wished his readers to understand, that this apocalypse of Jesus Christ was just at hand? It would have been mockery to tell suffering and persecuted men to get ready to receive a salvation which was not due for hundreds and thousands of years.
THE RELATION OF THE REDEMPTION OF CHRIST TO THE ANTEDILUVIAN WORLD.
The common interpretation of this difficult passage given by the majority of Protestant expositors is, that Christ, in effect, preached to the antediluvians by His Holy Spirit through the ministry of Noah. This no doubt asserts a truth, and has besides the advantage of keeping within the lines of well-known historical facts, and avoiding what seems dark and doubtful speculation. Nevertheless, as a question of grammar, this interpretation is wholly untenable. First, it is reasonable to expect a chronological sequence in the various parts of the apostle’s statement, describing what Christ did after ‘being put to death in the flesh.’ What would be more harsh and abrupt than the sudden transition from the narrative of what Christ did and suffered in the flesh to what He had done, in a sense, some thousands of years before, in the days of Noah? Further, the rendering ‘being quickened by the Spirit,’ and ‘by which also,’ implying that the Holy Spirit was the agent by whom Christ was made alive, and by whom He preached, etc., is clearly wrong. It ought to be, ‘Being put to death in [his] flesh, but made alive in [his] spirit,’---the flesh being His body, and the Spirit His soul. Then the apostle adds, ‘in which also,’ viz. in his soul, or human spirit. Further, as Ellicott has pointed out, p o r e u q e i z [having gone] ‘suggests a literal and local descent.’
There seems no escape therefore, according to the true and natural sense of words, from the interpretation---that our Lord, after His death on the cross, went in His disembodied state into Hades, the place of departed spirits, and there made proclamation [preached] to the spirits in prison, viz. the antediluvians, who in the days of Noah disbelieved the prophet’s warnings and perished in the flood. This, which is the most ancient interpretation, is now generally conceded by the most eminent critics. It is that which is embodied in the Apostle’s Creed; it has the sanction of Luther and Calvin; and it seems to be supported by other passages in Scripture which are in harmony with this explanation. In St. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts ii. 27-31) there is a distinct allusion to the soul of Christ having been in Hades; also in Ephes. iv. 9,---‘Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?’ It is difficult to suppose that the burial of the body is all that is meant by His descending into the lower parts of the earth.
The more important question remains,---What was the object of our Lord’s descent into Hades? It can hardly be doubted that it was a gracious one. The apostle says, ‘He preached [e k h r u x e n ] to the spirits in prison,’---and what could He preach but glad tidings? This fact gives a new and larger significance to the terms of our Lord’s commission: ‘He hat sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound’ (Isa. lxi. 1). The hypothesis of Bishop Horsley and others that those spirits in prison were in fact saints, or at least penitents, awaiting the period of their full salvation, scarcely requires refutation. If any thing is clear on the face of the question, it is that they were the spirits of those who had perished for their disobedience, and in their disobedience. As Bishop Ellicott remarks, a p e i q h s a s i n means, not ‘who were disobedien,’ but ‘inasmuch as they were disobedient.’
But it may be said, Why should the disobedient antediluvians have been selected as the objects of a gracious mission? Were there no other lost souls in Hades, and why should these find grace beyond others? Bishop Horsley owns this to be a difficulty, and the greatest by which his interpretation is embarrassed. Alford finds a reason, if we rightly apprehend him, in the manner of their death. ‘The reason of mentioning here these sinners above other sinners, appears to be their connection with the type of baptism which follows;’ but surely this is to ascribe an efficacy to that institution beyond the boldest theories of baptismal regeneration. We venture to suggest that the true reason lies in the nature of that great judicial act which took place at the deluge. That was the close of an age or aeon, and ended in a catastrophe, as the aeon then in progress was just about to terminate. The two cases were analogous. As the deluge was the close and consummation of a former aeon, or world-period, so the destruction of Jerusalem and the abrogation of the Jewish economy were about to close the existing world-period or aeon. What more natural on the eve of such a catastrophe as the apostle anticipated, than to advert to the catastrophe of a former aeon? What more pertinent than to note the fact that the ‘coming salvation’ had a retrospective effect upon those bygone ages? It is not difficult to see the connection of the ideas in the apostle’s train of thought. The deluge was the s u n t e l e i a t o u a i w n o z of Noah’s time; another s u n t e l e i a was just at hand. The ‘old world, that then was,’ perished in the baptismal waters of the flood; the ‘world which now is’---the Mosaic order, the Jewish polity and people---was about to be submerged in a baptism of fire (Mal. iv. 1; Matt. iii. 11, 12; 1 Cor. iii. 13; 2 Thess. i. 7-10). Was it not appropriate to show that the redemptive work of Christ joined, and indeed covered, both these aeons, and looked backward on the past as well as forward to the future?
Notwithstanding, then, the mystery and obscurity which confessedly overhand the subject, we are led to the conclusion that the apostle in this passage does plainly teach that our blessed Lord, after His death upon the cross, descended as a disembodied spirit into Hades, the place of departed spirits, and there proclaimed the glad tidings of His accomplished redemption to the multitudes of the lost who perished at the catastrophe or final judgment of the former aeon; and though we have in the present passage no express affirmation that those who heard the announcement made by our Saviour were in consequence delivered from their prison-house, and introduced into ‘the glorious liberty of the sons of God,’ yet it seems not incredible, it is even presumable, that this emancipation was both the object and result of Christ’s interposition. We have already referred to Ephes. iv. 9 as lending support to this view. ‘Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?’ Bishop Hersley shows that the phrase ‘the lower parts of the earth’ in the proper and customary designation of Hades. In the same passage the apostle speaks of the triumphant ascension of Christ in these words: ‘When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.’ Does not the teaching of St. Peter with reference to ‘the spirits in prison’ throw light on this ‘leading of captivity captive?’ Does it not suggest that the returning Saviour, having fought the fight and won the victory, enjoyed also the triumph---that He brought back with Him to heaven a great multitude whom He had rescued from captivity; the spirits in prison to whom He carried the glad tidings of redemption achieved; and who, being brought out of their prison-house, accompanied the returning conqueror to His Father’s house, at once the ransomed by His blood and the trophies of His power?
Before quitting this subject it may be well to quote some opinions of Biblical critics in reference to it.
Steiger, who treats the whole passage in a most candid and scholarly manner, says,---
Dean Alford’s opinion is very decided:---
In an interesting discourse on ‘The Intermediate State,’ by the Rev. J. Stratten, the following observations occur:---
We may here, in passing, notice that such a deliverance from Hades serves vividly to illustrate the saying of St. Paul in 1 Cor. xv. 26: ‘The last enemy, death, shall be destroyed.’
NEARNESS OF JUDGMENT AND OF THE END OF ALL THINGS.
In these passages we find again, what we have so often found before, the clear apprehension of the judgment and of the end as nigh at hand.
In ver. 5 the apostle intimates that God was about to sit in judgment upon the living and the dead. This cannot possibly refer to that particular act of judgment which is, as we believe, always near to every man, in the same sense as death and eternity are always near. It is obviously a solemn, public, general adjudication, in which the living and the dead were together to answer for themselves before the tribunal of God. This approach of judgment follows course from the approach of the Parousia, which is so distinctly intimated in chap. i. 5. All that has been stated in regard to that passage applies with equal force to this; e t o i m w z e c o n t i = having it in readiness to judge, is a stronger expression than m e l l o n t i , and can by no means refer to any but an almost immediate event.
No less decisive is the statement in ver. 7, ‘The end of all things is at hand.’ Whatever that end may mean it is certain that the apostle conceives of it as near, for he urges it as a motive to vigilance and prayer. To comprehend the full force of the exhortation we must place ourselves in the situation of these apostolic Christians. As year after year lessened the distance to the passing away of the generation that saw and rejected the Son of man, the anticipation of the arrival of the great predicted consummation must have become more and more vivid in the minds of Christian believers. What their conceptions were as to the nature and extent of that consummation; whether they imagined that it involved the dissolution of the whole frame and fabric of the material world or not, it is not for us to determine. What we have to do with is not the private opinions of the apostles, but their public utterances. But that the consummation designated by our Lord ‘the end,’ and ‘the end of the age,’ was rapidly approaching, is not an open question, but a point of faith involving the truth of all His claims. There can be no doubt that in a Judaic or religious sense, that is, so far as the national polity and ecclesiastical system of Judaism were concerned, ‘the end of all things was at hand.’ All that lay beneath the eye of our Lord as He sate on the brow of Olivet was swiftly hurrying to destruction. This is the key to the meaning of St. Peter in this passage, and furnishes the only tenable and scriptural explanation.
We quote with entire satisfaction and approval the observations of a judicious expositor on the passage now before us:---
THE GOOD TIDINGS ANNOUNCED TO THE DEAD.
Perhaps the passage above cited can scarcely be said to fall within the scope of this discussion, as it does not seem to have any direct bearing upon the time of the Parousia; and its extreme difficulty might be a good reason for avoiding its examination altogether. Nevertheless, as it manifestly belongs to the eschatology of the New Testament, and as we have no right to look upon it as hopelessly insoluble, it seems better not to pass it by in silence.
There can be little doubt that the present is one of a class of difficult passages which, though obscure to us, were intelligible and easy to the original readers of the epistles. (See 1 Cor. xi. 10; xv. 29.) A passing allusion might bring up a whole train of thought in their minds, so that they easily comprehended what hopelessly embarrasses us. Paley, in his Horae Paulinae, chap. x. No. 1, adverts to this difficulty in a real correspondence falling into the hands of a third party.
The general scope of the argument is sufficiently plain. The apostle begins the chapter by calling upon the suffering and persecuted disciples to imitate the example of their once suffering but now victorious Lord : ‘Arm yourselves with the same resolution,’ i.e. suffer as He did, even unto death, if need be. In the next verses he alludes to their former godless and sensual life, and the offence which the change to the purity of a Christian behaviour gave to their heathen neighbours (vers. 2, 3, 4). This silent but living protest against the immorality of heathenism appears to have been one cause of the general antipathy to the Gospel which found vent in slanderous imputations against the unoffending Christians,---‘Speaking evil of you’ (blasfhmountez). But these calumniators and persecutors would soon be called to account by Him who was about to judge both the living and the dead (ver. 5).
It will be found very important to bear in mind this opening of the apostle’s argument, as leading up to the statement in ver. 6.
Let us now look at that statement. ‘For, for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.’
It may be truly said that there are here as many difficulties as there are words. When, where, and by whom was the Gospel preached to the dead? Who were the dead to whom the Gospel was preached? Why was it preached to them? How could the dead be judged according to men in the flesh? How could they live according to God in the spirit? And how did the preaching of the Gospel to the dead bring about this result,---‘that they should live according to God in the spirit’?
It would answer no good purpose to pass in review the multitude of explanations of this obscure passage proposed by different commentators. Let is suffice to look at one or two of the most plausible.
To the question, Who were the dead to whom the Gospel is said to have been preached? some think it a sufficient answer to reply, They are those, now dead, who were alive in the flesh when the Gospel was preached unto them. This would be an easy solution if it were permissible so to construe the words of the apostle; but it is a fatal objection to this explanation that it makes the apostle state a very simple and obvious fact in an unaccountably obscure and ambiguous way. The words themselves reject such an explanation. Alford does not speak too strongly when he says,---
Others suppose that by the ‘dead’ in ver. 6 are to be understood the spiritually dead; but to this there are two insurmountable objections: first, this does not discriminate a particular class, for all men are spiritually dead when the Gospel is first preached to them; and, secondly, it gives to the word nekroi [the dead] in ver. 6 a different meaning from the same word in ver. 5---‘the living and the dead.’ According to this interpretation, the word ‘dead’ is used in a literal sense in ver. 5, and in an ethical sense in ver. 6. But, as Alford justly says,---
But probably the most common opinion is that the apostle here alludes again to the preaching of Christ to the spirits in prison referred to in chap. iii. 19, 20; and at first this seems the most natural explanation. That was, no doubt, a preaching of the Gospel to the dead, and also to a particular class of the dead, the antediluvians who formerly were disobedient in the days of Noah, and who were overtaken by the judgment of God.
But when we come to examine more closely the statement of the apostle we find that this application of his words will by no means suit the persons designated ‘the spirits in prison.’ How could the antediluvians be said to be ‘judged according to men in the flesh’? They perished by the visitation of God, and not by the judgment or act of man; and it appears evident that the succeeding clause---‘that they might live according to God in the spirit’---implies the reversal of the human condemnation which had been passed upon the dead while still in the body.
None of the ordinary explanations, therefore, seems to meet the requirements of the case. Those requirements are, to find a class of the dead to whom the Gospel was preached after their death; who were condemned to death when in the flesh by the judgment of men, but who are destined to live in the spirit, according to the judgment of God, and this is consequence of the Gospel being preached to them after death.
We are at once led to conclude that this particular class, judged or condemned by human judgment, must refer to persecuted disciples of Christ. It is to such and of such that the apostle is speaking, as is evident from the opening verses of the chapter. It would be quite proper to say of such, that though (unjustly) condemned by man they would be vindicated by God. It is also proper to say of such (especially, if martyrs for the faith) that they had ‘suffered in the flesh’---had been put to death by human judgment, but were made alive in spirit, or as to their spirits, and this according to God, or by the divine judgment. But there still remains the formidable difficulty presented by the words ‘the gospel was preached to them that are dead.’ We have no account in the New Testament of any such preaching to Christian martyrs after their death. But are we necessarily obliged to give this sense to the word euhggelisqh? It is here, we believe, that the key to the true explication of this passage will be found; and it is the wrong interpretation of this word that has misled commentators. Though it is very commonly used in the technical sense of preaching the Gospel, this is by no means its invariable use in the New Testament. It is employed to signify the announcement of any good news, and not exclusively the glad tidings of the Gospel. Thus in Heb. iv. 2, improperly rendered in our Authorized Version ‘to us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them,’ there is no allusion to the preaching of the Gospel in the technical sense of the phrase, but simply to the fact that ‘to us as well as to the ancient Israelites good news have been brought’ [esmen enhggelismenoi], the good news in both cases being the promise of entering into God’s rest. So in a still more general sense the word is used to denote any pleasing intelligence, as in 1 Thess. iii. 6: ‘When Timotheus brought us good tidings of your faith,’ etc. [euaggelisamenou hmin]. So also in Rev. x. 7: ‘As he hath declared [euhggelisen = made a comforting declaration] to his servants the prophets.’ (See also Gal. iii. 8).
But the question still recurs, Where have we in the New Testament any allusion to such good news, pleasing intelligence, or comforting declarations, made to any Christian confessors or martyrs after their death? The apostle seems to speak of some fact familiarly known to the persons to whom he wrote, and which he had only to allude to in order that they should at once recognise his meaning. Now, we actually have a historical representation in the New Testament in which we find all these circumstances present. We have a scene depicted in which Christian martyrs, who had been condemned and put to death in the flesh by the judgment of man, appeal to the justice of God against their persecutors, and a comforting declaration is brought to them, after their death, giving them the assurance of speedy vindication and of a glorious heavenly recompense.
We allude of course to the striking representation given in the Apocalypse of the martyred souls under the alter, appealing to God for the vindication of their cause against their persecutors and murderers---‘them that dwell in the land’---and which is thus described in Rev. 9-11:---
This seems exactly to meet all the requirements of the case. Here we find the nekroi, the Christian dead; they were judged or condemned in the flesh, by man’s judgment, or ‘according to men;’ they had been put to death ‘for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.’ We find a comforting declaration made to them in their disembodied state, and we have the lacuna in the epistle filled up in the apocalyptic vision, for we are informed what led to this euaggelion being brought to them; they are assured that in a little while their cause should be vindicated, according to their prayer; meanwhile ‘a white robe,’ the symbol of purity and victory, ‘is given unto every one of them,’ which is surely equivalent to their being justified by the divine judgment.
But this correspondence, striking as it is, is not the whole; the apostle’s statement is not only elucidated by the Apocalypse on the one hand, but by the gospel on the other. Most commentators have noticed the obvious relation between the scene of the martyrs’ souls under the alter in the apocalyptic vision and the remarkable parable of our Lord in Luke xviii.; but, so far as we have observed, none of them have seized the true analogy between the parable and the vision. In the seventh and eighth verses of that chapter we find the moral of the parable, ‘And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth [in the land]?’ The parable and the vision are, in fact, counterparts of each other, and both serve to explain the passage in this epistle of St. Peter. As in the Apocalypse, so in the parable, we find all the elements of the statement in the epistle. We have Christian disciples suffering unjustly; condemned in the flesh by man’s judgment; appealing to God to judge their cause; we have the assurance of their speedy vindication by God, and we find in the gospel an additional feature which brings it into more perfect correspondence with the statement in the epistle; for it is evidently suggested that this vindication is to take place at the Parousia,---‘when the Son of man cometh.’
Lastly, we may point out the intimate connection between the statement of the apostle as thus interpreted and the argument which he is carrying on. It was appropriate to assure persecuted believers that their cause was safe in the hands of God; that, even if called to suffer unto blood and unto death by the unjust sentence of men, God would vindicate them speedily, for He was about to summon their persecutors before His tribunal. This was the lesson of the parable of the importunate widow, and perhaps still more of the vision of the martyrs’ souls under the altar, to which the language of the apostle seems more particularly to allude,---‘For to this end a comforting declaration was brought even to the dead, that though they had been condemned in the flesh by the unjust judgment of men, yet they should in their spirit enjoy eternal life, according to the righteous judgment of God.’
This interpretation assumes that the Apocalypse was written and widely circulated before the destruction of Jerusalem. It is a reflection upon the critical acumen of many eminent English commentators that they should have leaned so long upon the broken reed of tradition in regard to the date of the Apocalypse. The internal evidence of that book ought to have prevented the possibility of their being misled by the authority of Irenaeus. But we must reserve any further remarks on this subject until we come to the consideration of the Apocalypse.
THE FIERY TRIAL AND THE COMING GLORY.
These words clearly indicate that Christians everywhere were at this time passing through a severe sifting and testing---‘a fiery ordeal.’ And not merely a fiery trial, but the trial, long predicted and expected, viz. the great tribulation which was to precede the Parousia. The apostles warned the disciples that the ‘must, through much tribulation, enter into the kingdom of God’ (Acts xiv. 22). They had themselves been taught this by the Lord Himself, especially in His prophetic discourse.
The predicted tribulation had evidently set in; they were actually passing through the fire. It is impossible here not to be reminded of the words of St. Paul,---‘It shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is’ (1 Cor. iii. 13). It is highly probable that the fierce persecution under Nero was raging at this juncture, and we have good authority for believing that it extended beyond Rome to the provinces of the Empire.
Another indication of time is found in ver. 13,---‘That when his glory shall be revealed.’ The Parousia is always represented as bringing relief from persecution, and recompense to the suffering people of God. We have already seen that the glory was ‘ready to be revealed,’ and we shall find the same assurance repeated in chap. v. 1.
THE TIME OF JUDGMENT ARRIVED.
It is worthy of remark how different the tone of St. Peter in speaking of the day of the Lord is from St. Paul’s in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. That day of which St. Paul speaks as not yet present, and as not possible until the apostasy first appeared, is declared by St. Peter to be come. The catastrophe was now imminent. ‘God was ready to judge the quick and the dead;’ ‘the time was come for judgment to begin.’ The significance of these words will be apparent if we consider that this epistle was written close upon the outbreak of the Jewish war, if not after its actual commencement.
That this is ‘the judgment which must begin at the house of God’ there can scarcely be a doubt. There is a manifest allusion in the language of the apostle to the vision seen by the prophet Ezekiel (chap. ix.). The prophet sees a band of armed men commissioned to go through the city (Jerusalem), and to slay all, whether old or young, who had not the seal of God upon their foreheads. The ministers of vengeance are commanded to begin the work of judgment at the house of God,---‘Begin at my sanctuary.’ The apostle sees this vision as about to be fulfilled in reality. The judgment must begin at the House of God, and the time is come. It may be a question whether by ‘the house of God’ the apostle intends the temple of Jerusalem, as the prophecy in Ezekiel would suggest, or the spiritual house of God, the Christian church. It may be that both ideas were present to his mind, as well they might, for both were being verified at the moment. The persecution of the church of Christ had already begun, as the epistle testifies, and the circle of blood and fire was narrowing around the doomed city and temple of Jerusalem.
It is perfectly clear that all this is spoken with reference to a particular and impending event, a catastrophe which was on the eve of taking place; and there is not other explanation possible than that which lies visible and palpable on the page of history, the judgment of the guilty covenant nation, with the destruction of the house of God and the dissolution of the Jewish economy.
The following remarks of Dr. John Brown well express the sense of this passage:---
THE GLORY ABOUT TO BE REVEALED.
Everything in this chapter is indicative of the nearness of the consummation. This is the motive to every duty, to fidelity, to humility, to vigilance, to endurance. The glory is soon to be revealed [thz melloushz apokaluptesqai doxhz]; the unfading crown is to be received by the faithful undershepherds when the chief Shepherd is manifested; the sufferings of the persecuted church are to continue only ‘a little while’ (ver. 10). All is suggestive of a great and happy consummation which is on the very eve of arriving. Would the apostle speak of an expected crown of glory as a motive to present faithfulness if it were contingent on an uncertain and possibly far distant event? Yet if the chief Shepherd has not yet been manifested, the crown of glory has not yet been received. It is quite clear that to the apostle’s view the revelation of the glory, the manifestation of the chief Shepherd, the reception of the unfading crown, the end of suffering, were all in the immediate future. If he was mistaken in this, is he trustworthy in anything?
On this passage (ver. 11) Alford observes:---
Doubtless he did; and so did St. Paul, and St. James, and St. John, and all the apostolic church; and they believed it on the highest authority, the word of their divine Master and Lord.
It is no part of our plan to discuss the difficult and still unsettled questions respecting the genuineness and authenticity of the Second Epistle of Peter and the unsolved problem of the second chapter. We might perhaps, in view of the difficulties which it presents in its eschatological teaching, decline to accept its authority, but we accept it as it stands, honestly believing that it bears indubitable internal evidence of apostolic origin. It appears to have been written at no great interval after the first epistle, and very shortly before the death of the apostle (chap. i. 14). Alford gives the date conjecturally, A.D. 68.
The scoffers referred to in this passage are no doubt the same persons whose character is described in the preceding chapter. Disbelief of God’s promises and threatenings, and especially of His coming judgment, is the characteristic of these evil men of ‘the last times.’ We are reminded by this description of these unbelievers, of our Lord’s prediction with reference to the same period,---‘Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith in the land?’ (Luke xviii. 8.) It is worthy of notice also that the apostle, in replying to their argument derived from the stability of the creation, refers to the catastrophe of the deluge as an illustration of the power of God to destroy the wicked: the very same illustration employed by our Lord in referring to the state of things at the Parousia (Matt. xxiv. 37-39.)
It must not be forgotten that St. Peter is speaking, not of a distant, but of an impending, catastrophe. The ‘last days’ were the days then present (1 Pet. i. 5, 20), and the scoffers are spoken of as actually existing (chap. iii. 5),---‘This they willingly are ignorant of,’ etc.
ESCHATOLOGY OF ST. PETER.
The imagery here employed by the apostle naturally suggests the idea of the total dissolution by fire of the whole substance and fabric of the material creation, not the earth only but the system to which it belongs; and this no doubt is the popular notion of the final consummation which is expected to terminate the present order of things. A little reflection, however, and a better acquaintance with the symbolic language of prophecy, will be sufficient to modify such a conclusion, and to lead to an interpretation more in accordance with the analogy of similar descriptions in the prophetic writings. First, it is evident on the face of the question that this universal conflagration, as it may be called, was regarded by the apostle as on the eve of taking place,---‘The end of all things is at hand’ (1 Pet. iv. 7). The consummation was so near that it is described as an event to be ‘looked for, and hastened unto’ (ver. 12.) It follows, therefore, that it could not be the literal destruction or dissolution of the globe and the created universe concerning which the spirit of prophecy here speaks. But that there was at the moment when this epistle was written an awful and almost immediate catastrophe impending; that the long-predicted ‘day of the Lord’ was actually at hand; that the day did come, both speedily and suddenly; that it came ‘as a thief in the night;’ that a fiery deluge of wrath and judgment overwhelmed the guilty land and nation of Israel, destroying and dissolving its earthly things and its heavenly things, that is to say, its temporal and spiritual institutions,---is a fact indelibly imprinted on the page of history. The time for the fulfillment of these predictions was now come, and when the apostle wrote it was to declare that it was the ‘last time,’ and the very taunts of the scoffers were verifying the fact. We are therefore brought to the inevitable conclusion that it was the final catastrophe of Judea and Jerusalem, predicted by our Lord in His prophecy on the Mount of Olives and so frequently referred to by the apostles, to which St. Peter alludes in the symbolic imagery which seems to imply the dissolution of the material universe.
Secondly, we must interpret these symbols according to the analogy of Scripture. The language of prophecy is the language of poetry, and is not to be taken in a strictly literal sense. Happily there is no lack of parallel descriptions in the ancient prophets, and there is scarcely a figure here used by St. Peter of which we may not find examples in the Old Testament, and thus be furnished with a key to the meaning of like symbols in the New.
Few passages have suffered more from misconstruction than this, which has been made to speak a language inconsistent with its obvious intention, and even incompatible with a strict regard to veracity.
There is probably an allusion here to the words of the psalmist, in which he contrasts the brevity of human life with the eternity of the divine existence,---‘A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past’ (Ps. xc. 4). It is a grand and impressive thought, and quite in unison with the sentiment of the apostle,---‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years.’ But surely it would be the height of absurdity to regard this sublime poetic image as a calculus for the divine measurement of time, or as giving us a warrant for wholly disregarding definitions of time in the predictions and promises of God.
Yet it is not unusual to quote these words as an argument or excuse for the total disregard of the element of time in the prophetic writings. Even in cases where a certain time is specified in the prediction, or where such limitations as ‘shortly,’ or ‘speedily,’ or ‘at hand’ are expressed, the passage before us is appealed to in justification of an arbitrary treatment of such notes of time, so that soon may mean late, and near may mean distant, and short may mean long, and vice versa. When it is pointed out that certain predictions must, according to their own terms, be fulfilled within a limited time, the reply is, ‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.’ Thus we find an eminent critic committing himself to such a statement as the following: ‘The apostles for the most part wrote and spoke of [the Parousia] as soon to appear, not, however, without many and sufficient hints of an interval, and that no short one, first to elapse.’ Another, alluding to St. Paul’s prediction in 2 Thess. ii., remarks that ‘it tells us that while the coming of the Lord was then near, it was also remote.’ These are specimens of what passes for exegesis in not a few commentators of high repute.
It is surely unnecessary to repudiate in the strongest manner such a non-natural method of interpreting the language of Scripture. It is worse than ungrammatical and unreasonable, it is immoral. It is to suggest that God has two weights and two measures in His dealings with men, and that in His mode of reckoning there is an ambiguity and variableness which makes it impossible to tell ‘what manner of time the Spirit of Christ in the prophets may signify.’ It seems to imply that a day may not mean a day, nor a thousand years a thousand years, but that either may be the other. If this were so, there could be no interpretation of prophecy possible; it would be deprived of all precision, and even of all credibility; for it is manifest that if there could be such ambiguity and uncertainty in respect to time, there might be no less ambiguity and uncertainty in respect to everything else.
The Scriptures themselves, however, give no countenance to such a method of interpretation. Faithfulness is one of the attributes most frequently ascribed to the ‘covenant-keeping God,’ and the divine faithfulness is that which the apostle in this very passage affirms. To taunt of the scoffers who impugn the faithfulness of God, and ask, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’ he answers, ‘The Lord is not slack concerning his promise as some men count slackness;’ there is no fickleness nor forgetfulness in Him; the lapse of time does not invalidate His word; His promise stands sure whether for the near or the distant, for to-day or to-morrow, or a thousand years to come. To Him on day and a thousand years are alike: that is to say, the promise which falls due in a day will be performed punctually, and the promise which falls due in a thousand years will be performed with equal punctuality. Length of time makes no difference to Him. He will not falsify the promise which has only a day to run, nor forget the promise which has reference to a thousand years hence. Long or short, a day or an age, does not affect His faithfulness. ‘The Lord is not slack concerning his promise;’ He ‘keepeth truth for ever.’ But the apostle does not say that when the Lord promises a thing for to-day He may not fulfill His promise for a thousand years: that would be slackness; that would be a breach of promise. He does not say that because God is infinite and everlasting, therefore He reckons with a different arithmetic from ours, or speaks to us in a double sense, or uses two different weights and measures in His dealings with mankind. The very reverse is the truth. As Hengstenberg justly observes: ‘He who speaks to men must speak according to human conceptions, or else state that he has not done so.’
It is evident that the object of the apostle in this passage is to give his readers the strongest assurance that the impending catastrophe of the last days was on the very eve of fulfillment. The veracity and faithfulness of God were the guarantees for the punctual performance of the promise. To have intimated that time was a variable quantity in the promise of God would have been to stultify his argument and neutralise his own teaching, which was, that ‘the Lord is not slack concerning his promise.’
This statement fixes with precision the event to which the apostle refers as ‘the day of the Lord.’ It is familiar to us from the frequent allusions made to it in other parts of the New Testament. Our Lord had declared, ‘In such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.’ He had cautioned His disciples to watch, saying, ‘If the goodman of the house had know in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched;’ implying that His own coming would be stealthy and unexpected as a thief in the night (Matt. xxiv. 43). St. Paul had said to the Thessalonians, ‘Yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night’ (1 Thess. v. 2). And again, St. John, in the Apocalypse, had written, ‘Behold, I come as a thief’ (Rev. xvi. 15). Since, then the allusions in these passages undoubtedly refer to the impending catastrophe of Judea and Jerusalem, we conclude that this also is the event referred to in the passage before us.
That ‘the day of God,’ ‘the day of Christ,’ and ‘the day of the Lord,’ are synonymous expressions, having reference to the selfsame event, is too obvious to require proof. Here we find again what we have so often found before---the attitude of expectancy and that sense of the imminent nearness of the Parousia which are so characteristic of the apostolic age. It is incredible that all this was based on a mere delusion, and that the whole Christian church, with the apostles, and the divine Founder of Christianity Himself, were all involved in one common error. Words have no meaning if a statement like this may refer to some event still future, and perchance distant, which cannot be ‘looked for’ because it is not within view, nor ‘hasted unto,’ because it is indefinitely remote.
The catastrophe about to take place was to be succeeded by a new creation. The death-pangs of the old are the birth-throes of the new. The old Jerusalem was to give place to the new Jerusalem; the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. It may be a question whether by the new heavens and a new earth the apostle means a new order of things here among men or a holy and perfect heavenly state? It may also be asked, To what promise does the apostle refer when he says, ‘According to his promise’? Alford suggests Isa. lxv. 17, ‘For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,’ etc., and this may be correct. But we are rather disposed to think that the apostle has in his mind ‘the new heaven and the new earth’ of the Apocalypse, where we find righteousness set forth as the distinguishing characteristic of the new aeon. The new Jerusalem is the holy city, into which ‘there shall in no wise enter anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie.’ It is no more improbable that St. Peter should refer to the writings of the Apostle John than to those of the Apostle Paul.
This exhortation clearly indicates the expectation of the Parousia as at hand. Its nearness is a motive to diligence, preparedness to meet the Lord. It is not death that is here anticipated, but to be found by the Lord watching, ‘with their loins girt, and their lamps burning.’
The apparent long delay of the anxiously looked-for coming of the Lord must have been disquieting to persecuted Christians longing for the expected hour of relief and redress. Their cry went up to heaven, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true?’ Yet this very delay had a gracious aspect; it was ‘long-suffering,’ makroqumia; not ‘slackness,’ but ‘unwillingness that any should perish.’ Exactly in accordance with this is our Lord’s parable of the importunate widow, which has relation to this very case. There were have the same delay in the execution of judgment through the long-suffering [makroqumia] of God; the consequent trial of the faith and patience of the saints; their appeal to the judgment of God for redress; and the exhortation to diligence: ‘Men ought always to pray, and not to faint’ (Luke xviii. 1-8).
This allusion to the epistles of St. Paul suggests several important inferences.
We may consider briefly one or two questions,---
We are disposed to concur with Dr. Alford in the opinion that the reference is to the Epistles to the Thessalonians. The only difficulty lies in the statement ‘hath written unto you,’ for there is no reason to think that St. Peter addressed this epistle to the Thessalonians. But perhaps the expression means no more than that all the epistles of St. Paul were the common property of the church at large; otherwise the Epistles to the Thessalonians answer well to this description of their contents by St. Peter. We find in them allusions to the coming of the Lord; to the suddenness of His coming; to the nearness of His coming; to the deliverance and rest which His coming would bring to the suffering disciples of Christ; and to the duty of diligence and vigilance in the prospect of the event.
It has often been pointed out that the proper antecedent to which in the second clause of the sixteenth verse is not ‘epistles,’ but ‘things;’ en oiz agreeing, not with epistoluz, but with toutwn. Now, however, it appears, since Tischendorf’s discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, that the reading of the three most ancient MSS. is aiz and not oiz, making epistles the proper antecedent to ‘which.’ It does not, however, greatly affect the sense which of the two readings we may adopt. It is quite clear that the difficulties alluded to by St. Peter were in those portions of St. Paul’s epistles which treated of the Parousia. We know how much the subject was misapprehended by the Thessalonians themselves; and we have abundant experience since then to prove how much the whole eschatology of the New Testament has been ‘hard to be understood,’ and has been ‘wrested’ by many even to this day. It is no marvel, then, that much difficulty should have been felt by the primitive Christians as to the true interpretation of many of the prophetic declarations respecting the coming of the Lord, the close of the age, the changing of the living, the resurrection of the dead, the end of all things, etc. That some should distort and pervert the apostolic teaching on such subjects was only too probable, and we know as a matter of fact that they did. It was needful, therefore, to exhort believers to beware of being ‘led away with the error of the wicked.’
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