« PreviousContinue »
ON THE GRADUAL UNFOLDING OF PROPHECY.
IN studying the prophetic Scriptures, nothing strikes us with greater wonder and delight than the exact accordance and symmetry which we discover between all the several parts of a prophecy when it is fully understood, compared with the irregularities and seeming disorder which we attributed to the same prophecy before its interpretation was unfolded. This wonderful art-by which the mystery of God is veiled till he pleases to discover it, when it becomes clear without any additional revelation-while we reverently admire, we may also profitably inquire into, and shew some of the important ends it answers. many ends which are attained by this clearing up in the fulfilment, growing out of the previous mystery of prophecy, the scope of our present argument leads us to mention one onlynamely, that it records beforehand the purposes of God in a manner which his church may understand, so as to derive from thence the continual assurance that nothing happens by chance, but that all things are minutely determined and overruled by him; while, on the other hand, such a degree of mystery overhangs it, that the men of the world are repelled from its study, and therefore neither presumptuously attempt to forward nor impiously to counteract the designs of God. To the people of God, a waiting, watchful spirit is that most frequently enjoined in Scripture; and this frame of mind is mainly produced and encouraged by the assurance of certain great interpositions on their behalf, coupled with ignorance of the exact time when these acts shall be performed. The soul is thus kept suspended upon the will of God, with whom alone are the issues of events; and in constant readiness to welcome every development of his purpose, in the evolution of those times and seasons which the Father hath kept in his own power.
Previous to the first coming of our Lord, though the harp of prophecy had long been silent, we know (Luke ii. 38; Mark xv. 43) that there were many who, like Anna and Zacharias, were waiting for the consolation of Israel; and, though they knew not the exact time when the Lord would visit and redeem his people, did know that the period was then approaching; and were ready, with Simeon, to exclaim," Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation." The sources of these their expectations were manifold. Some, undoubtedly, were, like Simeon's, special revelations; some might be traditions; but the greater number are to be traced to their study of the prophecies respecting the Messiah, all of which seemed now to have their preliminary signs accomplished, and the whole world to stand in readiness for its promised Redeemer. The dying Patriarch had declared that the sceptre would not depart from Judah till Shiloh came;" but the sceptre had passed into the hands of Herod, and Judea was a province of Rome. Of Jesse nothing but "a stem" remained, as a root in a dry ground, whence the "rod" or scion should spring (Isai. xi). The fourth monarchy of Daniel was fully manifested: it ruled the whole world, and was as “a beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it" (Dan. vii. 7). And, more than all, Daniel's seventy weeks had nearly expired, which were "to finish transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy" (Dan. ix. 24). But, though these signs led the Jewish people to expect that God would at this time "raise up for them an horn of salvation in the house of his servant David," yet they fell into mistakes, both as to the nature of this salvation, and as to its time of manifestation a brief notice of which will help us to account for mistakes of a like kind, into which the Christian church fell, respecting the spiritual domination of Antichrist in the Papacy, and his literal manifestation as a person, in the last days of this present dispensation.
The first error we notice, in those who accompanied our Lord, was one of impatience. They saw in the prophecies but one Messiah, to whom various offices were assigned; some of humiliation and suffering, some of mighty power: they rightly concluded that all these acts would be performed by the same person; but they erroneously, though naturally, concluded that they would all be performed at the same time. When, therefore, they saw Jesus do many of those acts which proved him to be the Messiah, they cried out with impatience, "How long dost thou make us to doubt? if thou be the Messiah tell us plainly," and
would even have taken him by force to make him king. This mistaken notion was not confined to those who were imperfectly instructed among the multitude; our Lord's disciples partook of it: and even after he was risen from the dead, and had for forty days taught them the things pertaining to his kingdom, the very last question they put to him was, "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" To this their anxious inquiry, they received for answer, "It is not for you to know the times and the seasons, which the Father hath kept in his own power; but ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you." They were not wrong in their expectation, but only in looking for its immediate fulfilment; forgetting that our Lord had told them that the kingdom must begin "within" them, and that in the gift of the Holy Ghost they should be qualified for and impelled to their work of preaching the Gospel, to establish in the hearts of men that spiritual kingdom of the Lord which precedes his second advent to fill the throne of David: and, without giving them to know the times and the seasons, it was intimated they should have abundant encouragement in the success they would find in heralding the good news of that coming kingdom. We, who have seen centuries intervene, now know that it could not have been otherwise. Constant watchfulness and indefatigable exertion were both to be sustained; and these were both kept in full vigour by the continual expectation of their Lord's glorious advent to restore the kingdom to Israel. Had they known how distant was this object of their hope, exertion might have flagged, and carelessness crept in; but their perfect certainty of the fact of their Lord's return, combined with their uncertainty of its exact time, kept all their hopes and energies in full activity.
An error similar to this of the Jews respecting Christ, prevailed for some centuries in the Christian church respecting Antichrist. As Christ was spoken of in a twofold character, and came then to establish a spiritual, while he shall yet come to establish a literal kingdom; so Antichrist is spoken of as already at work in the Apostles' days, and the antichristian character elsewhere described with the utmost accuracy as it manifested itself in the Papacy; while in other places language is employed which can only apply to a person, who shall assume a literal sovereignty more ample than man has yet dared to usurp, and claims of Divinity more blasphemous than Satan or any of his agents have hitherto arrogated. And, according as Christ said," the kingdom of heaven cometh not with observation," and many of the most striking signs passed unobserved at the time, "but after He was risen from the dead then remembered they that they had done these things;" so the usurpations of Antichrist have hitherto been gradual, and unobserved
at the time, though afterwards recognised and we doubt not, that, when the last personal Antichrist shall come forth, it shall be true of the commencement of his career that he "cometh not with observation." It is written, 1 John ii. 18, "It is the last time; and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists, whereby we know that it is the last time." Paul declares, 1 Tim. iv. 1, "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith," &c. In all the later Epistles-as 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, 2 Timothy a falling away of the church and a manifestation of Antichrist are stated to be the signs immediately preceding the coming of the Lord. And, last of all, in the Apocalypse many details are given of the course of action of this oppressor of the church and enemy of the Lord, and the period is also stated during which the saints were to be given into his hand, under the different forms of forty-two months-twelve hundred and sixty days-three years and a half--and a time, times, and the dividing of time. Though the early fathers expected a principle of hostility to Christ, which they called Antichrist, to be manifested in a body of men and a system of things growing out of the corruption of the church, and under this expectation were constantly guarding against corruptions; yet they all interpreted the "lawless king" of Dan. xi. 36-45, and "the wicked one" of 2 Thess. ii. 8, of an individual, whose career should be one of only three years and a half; and they were continually endeavouring to recognise in the persecuting Emperors some features of "that man of sin, the son of perdition, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and destroy with the brightness of his coming." Their view of the succession of events accompanying the manifestation of Antichrist, may be seen very distinctly given in the two treatises of Hypolitus, "On Antichrist," and "On the end of the world," as also in detached passages in Irenæus, Justin Martyr, and Lactantius; and Jerome, in his comment on Dan. xi., contends strongly, against Porphyry, that Antiochus and the other persecutors were but types of the personal Antichrist, whom the Lord himself shall come to destroy.
All the first Christians had been living in continual expectation of the second advent: three centuries rolled on, and still the Lord delayed his coming. These were times of almost uninterrupted persecution; but this the church had been taught to expect, and therefore faithfully testified under it, and regarded the increase of persecution as only indicating the nearer approach of that time when their great Deliverer should appear. The conversion of Constantine introduced a change in the aspect of the church the power of the empire, heretofore directed against her, was now ranged on her side. This she was not prepared
for; and the same church which had boldly and faithfully adhered to the truth under persecution, was enervated and deteriorated by this patronage of the state. It suffered loss in general doctrine and discipline: but these it would be beside our present object to notice; the deterioration we have to do with is that which respects the one doctrine of the coming of the Lord. The church found itself unexpectedly courted, caressed, and loaded with favours, while accustomed to look for nothing but persecution from men. The Scriptures, it is true, promise a time of blessedness upon earth; but the day of vengeance, the day of the Lord, the coming of Christ, uniformly precede it. They now found themselves very much at ease, and were willing to persuade themselves that the time of blessedness promised in Scripture had already begun they therefore lowered the prophetic announcements, calling them poetical and metaphorical, and exaggerated their own prosperity; imagining that by this double process they made the prophecy and their own times accord and a little ingenuity of the same kind made the day of vengeance already passed. Origen had before taken the same unwarrantable liberty with other doctrines of our faith and from sources no more worthy than these is the greater part of the modern system of spiritualizing to be derived. But the halcyon days of Constantine quickly passed, and these men of metaphor were driven to great straits. Some of the thorough-going spiritualizers were determined to maintain their interpretation at all hazards, and insisted that they were still living under the reign of peace which the Millennium denoted, and that Julian's persecutions did not materially alter its character of blessedness; which preposterous folly has been revived by Grotius and Hammond. Others declared that the Millennium was passed, and that Satan was again loosed from the bottomless pit. But the greater number abandoned part of their error, and still retained the other part: they re-asserted a personal Antichrist, to be revealed in the last times, whom the Lord would come in person to destroy; but they thought that this coming would be the end of the world, and that the Millennium was only a figurative expression for the joy of heaven. In this state of uncertainty, mingled with hope, the church remained till about the thirteenth century; with light enough to guide the elect in the course of their duty, and with knowledge enough to enable many individuals to protest against the errors and superstitions which were in these times heaped upon the true doctrines; but not with light or knowledge sufficient to enable them to detect and expose that Antichristian principle which had then grown up in the church. In the thirteenth century the Papal abuses had become so enormous, and these were so like the characteristics of Antichrist in Scrip