CHAPTER 11 - THE CHRISTIAN HOPE - "The Way" by Sir Robert Anderson


NATURAL life gravitates to the grave: death is its legitimate catastrophe. And yet death is none the less an outrage. "Death thy friend" is mere poetic sentiment. It is not a friend but an enemy. "The last enemy," Scripture calls it; and this the human heart, so seldom in accord with Scripture, emphatically endorses.
One of the greatest of philosophers has said that it is as natural to die as to be born. Yes, as natural for the fallen creature who lies under the Eden sentence upon sin. But man’s natural instincts rebel against the Divine decree that has made the grave the goal of life. And the higher and truer instincts of our spiritual being respond to the promise which raises us above the sentence. The life which is from heaven turns upward to the God who gave it. The Christian has been "begotten to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."’ And the fulfilment of that hope awaits the coming of the Lord. But here "the Christian religion" parts company with Christianity. For while Christendom believes that He has come, it refuses to believe that He is coming. Or if a "Second Advent" be acknowledged at all, it is dismissed as a mere dogma, too vague and too remote to have any influence upon heart or life. The doctrine of His first coming is connected with public facts of history, but that of His return rests upon the bare word of God. Therefore it is that the one is accepted while the other is refused.
Therefore it is also that the hope affords a test whether belief in His first coming is genuine faith in God. For human superstition may fasten on Divine truth, and bring it down to its own level; and the basis of "the Christian religion" (as contrasted with vital Christianity) is Divine truth which has been thus appropriated.
Scepticism about the promise of the Lord’s return is utterly unintelligent. Indeed, the absence of such a promise would go far to discredit belief in His resurrection and ascension. If it be true that He who died on Calvary was raised from the dead, and sojourned with His disciples on earth for forty days before He ascended to Heaven, the wonder is, not that He is coming back again, but that His coming is so long delayed.
The promise of His first coming was so utterly incredible that it may well have staggered faith. But now that He has been upon earth and gone back to heaven, His coming again seems but a natural sequence to His ascension. So much so indeed, that if we were left to reason out the matter, we should expect Him to come, not once, but again and again. And this is precisely what Scripture tells us to look for. Common sense vetoes the suggestion that His coming as Avenger and Judge is the event described as "that blessed hope." "We are looking for the Saviour." Then again, an intelligent child can understand that the angels’ words to the bewildered disciples on the Mount of the Ascension do not relate to the same coming as the Apostle’s words to the sorrowing Thessalonians.
It is admitted that the early Christians expected the Lord to come during their own lifetime, and that belief was clearly based on Apostolic teaching. And this being so, it is certain there can be nothing to bar His coming in these days of ours. It is idle to plead that certain events foretold in prophecy may intervene. To maintain that they must intervene is to betray ignorance of the elementary principles of prophetic interpretation. For "the times and seasons" belong to the chronology of prophecy, and have to do with earth and the fortunes of the earthly people.
(Footnote - The prophetic period relates to Israel’s national existence as God’s people, and is therefore interrupted during this dispensation of the Church, when Israel is "Lo-ammi" (Hos. i. 9). The prophetic period of Dan. ix. 24 - 27 is seventy weeks (of years), dating from the "going forth of the commandment to rebuild Jerusalem," which afterwards occurred in Nehemiah’s time, i.e. B.C. 445. This period is divided into three parts of 7, 62, and 1 = 70. The first reached to the time when the prophetic voice became silent in Judah, i.e. the date of the Book of Malachi. The next period of sixty-two weeks, or 434 years, closed with "the cutting off of Messiah" (verse 26). And the seventieth week, which is all that remains of the prophetic period, will not begin to run its course until Israel’s national position is restored, which event will be held to date from the signing of a covenant or treaty between them and the Prince of verse 27, who, we know from other Scriptures, is the last great Emperor of Christendom. The course of unfulfilled prophecy is tided back till Israel is restored; and not one line of Scripture intervenes to bar the realisation of the Church’s hope. The scheme of prophecy, with special reference to the seventy weeks, is dealt with in the author’s books, "The Coming Prince," and "Daniel in the Critics’ Den.")
But the error which the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians was designed to correct, is now the creed of Christendom; the coming of the Lord as Saviour is confounded with "the day of the Lord" - the day of wrath - when He will be manifested as Avenger and Judge. The words of 1 Thessalonians v. 9 are definite and striking: "God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ." For "salvation" read deliverance, and the meaning stands out still more plainly, it is ours to look forward, not to the day of wrath, but to obtaining deliverance from that awful day by the fulfilment of the promise of the preceding chapter.
To appreciate the full significance of that promise we must take note of the circumstances in which the Epistle was written. While the Apostle was still at Athens he received such grave tidings from Thessalonica that he deemed it necessary to send Timotheus back there at once. And what led to the writing of the Epistle was the report which Timothy brought him after he had moved to Corinth. What can have been the trouble which produced effects so momentous?
His stay in Athens was admittedly brief. That, in such a small community as the Thessalonian Church, any deaths should have occurred during the interval was somewhat remarkable. And that a few deaths in the ordinary course of nature would have so shattered their faith as to imperil the results of the Apostle’s labours among them, is quite incredible. How then can the mystery be explained?
We learn from the Epistle that a storm of persecution had passed over them. And the deaths they mourned were evidently connected with it. The inference therefore is obvious that some of their number had been martyred. They had been told that the Lord had "all power in heaven and upon earth," and would never forsake His people. But He had left them a prey to their enemies. Either the doctrine was false, or else their lost ones had fallen under Divine displeasure, and were thus doubly lost to them. So the Apostle begins by reminding them of the warnings he had given them - warnings which, doubtless, had been as unheeded as warnings always are in bright days of gladness and hope. And then he goes on to give them a special message of comfort. Let us here appeal to some pagan pundit who will translate the Greek for us without any doctrinal bias. He will tell us that the Apostle deplored the ignorance which led the Thessalonians to grieve with a hopeless grief over "the sleeping ones." "For," he proceeds, "if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which were put to sleep through Jesus will God bring with Him." Which means that it was by His agency they were put to sleep, or, in other words, that He was the cause of their being put to death. For so our pundit will explain this plain and simple phrase. A new light will now illumine the whole passage. For this was precisely what must have perplexed and distressed the Thessalonian Church. It was faithfulness to the Lord that had brought all the trouble upon them. They had been true to Him, but He had failed them. The mystery of a silent heaven which weighs so heavily even upon us, to whom the whole story of the Church’s sorrows is an open page, may well have staggered faith in those early days. And mark the infinite grace and exquisite tenderness with which the Lord deals with the troubles and trials, and even with the doubts and murmurs, of His people. It is as though He said to them, "I admit all you say; I accept the responsibility for their having been put to death. But was not I Myself put to death? And so surely as I was raised from the dead, they, too, shall be raised. God will bring them back to you with Me when I return. There will be no interval of separation; nor will you, the living who remain till I come, have any advantage over them."
Could this have been written if His return had been fixed as a far distant event in the Divine chronology? Could it have been written if a Divine decree had interposed the Great Tribulation of Old and New Testament prophecy before His coming? The accepted theory that the Apostle blundered is a disgrace to theology. Such a blunder would discredit the whole Apostolic writings. But what we have here is not merely the belief of an inspired Apostle, though such a belief ought not to be lightly dismissed. "We are saying this to you in the word of the Lord," he declares. And this "schoolboy translation" may suggest what the Greek original explicitly conveys; that he was communicating a definite message which the Lord had entrusted to him for His sorrowing people.
And the words were clearly meant to awake in them the hope of His near return. How, then, can the lapse of centuries be accounted for? The forty years’ sojourn of Israel in the wilderness may suggest the answer. Theirs was a true hope who fled from Egypt, with their faces toward the promised land which lay but a few days’ march across the desert; and yet two men alone of all that host ever planted foot upon the soil of Palestine. And why? Because they let slip the hope, and in heart turned back to Egypt. And can any one read the later Epistles, and the Revelation, and fail to mark how closely the Christian Church followed in the footsteps of the Jewish people? Can we wonder, then, that "the same example of unbelief" should reap the same results? Apostasy on earth, and long-suffering in heaven, afford the true solution of the mystery of long centuries of desert wandering and trial for a Church which, in its pristine purity and life, was called to wait for, and expect with joyful confidence, its absent Lord’s return.
The Thessalonians "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven." And so absolutely is this attitude of soul the proof and test of faithfulness, that the crown of faithfulness is declared to be for "them that love His appearing." "The grace of God has appeared, teaching us that we should live looking for that blessed hope;" and if Christians are not looking for it, it is because grace has not had its due influence upon their hearts. It is a hope to strengthen amid trials, to cheer in sorrow, to solemnise in days of prosperity and ease, and to keep us through the even tenor of an uneventful life. "Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings," was Peter’s word to the saints in view of a "fiery trial" coming, "that, when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy."
"Therefore comfort one another with these words," expressed the purpose with which Paul unfolded the doctrine to the Thessalonians, And it needs no flight of fancy to picture the "beloved disciple "taking leave of some happy home circle where peace and contentment reigned, with the words, "And now, little children, abide in Him; that, when He shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming." But the hope has another aspect; and it is one which claims prominence here, not only as being the most practical, but also the least noticed, application of the truth of His appearing. With most of us heaven is such a fools’ paradise that it has no influence upon our life on earth. Hearts may be filled with longings for the rest and glory it will bring; but there is nothing in it for the conscience. For death is to wipe out for ever all memories of earth, and the white robes and harps of gold and ever-swelling hymn are to banish every thought of our sojourn here, just as a midnight dream is lost when the sleeper awakes to the sunlight of a new day. What a fools’ paradise, to be sure! For he to whom yesterday is a blank is but a fool, and in entering such a heaven we should pass from a higher to a lower elevation, intellectually and morally. Strange thoughts they have of heaven who think that Martha and Mary could forget the scene around their brother’s grave, or the Magdalene the sins by which she proved and gauged the depths of grace; that Paul will ever cease to testify that once he was a blasphemer, or Peter to recall his denial of his Lord. As though the saints of God who here have learned to love and trust Him by the remembrance of the many sins forgiven, and of the waywardness and wanderings through which His grace has kept them, shall, the moment their eyes behold Him, be swept into a stream that is to swamp their individuality for ever, and, in destroying their memories of earth, to destroy the special emphasis with which on earth they praised Him. McCheyne’s well- known hymn suggests a truer, healthier thought : -

"When this passing world is done,
When has sunk yon glaring sun,
When I stand with Christ in glory,
Looking o’er life’s finished story,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know - Not till then - how much I owe."

As the traveller ascends some mountain side, each turning in the path shuts out from view the way behind him; but when the summit has been reached he sees his track mapped out from first to last, and can in thought retrace his journey even to the far-off village he set out from. And such shall be the change from earth to heaven. In the ceaseless vicissitudes and toils of life the narrow present too often fills our thoughts, and the past slips from us as each "to-day" falls back among the forgotten "yesterdays"; but when the great to-morrow comes we shall remember all the way which the Lord our God has led us,’ and at every reminiscence of it we shall bless the Lord our God.