Second Coming, second Advent, return of Christ, establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth - merely an eschatological curiosity or central to Christianity?
I. The Unique Place of the Lord's Coming in Scripture
F. E. Howitt: The truth of the Lord's coming occupies a unique place in the Bible. There is more said about it than about any other doctrine contained there. It may surprise you to know that more than one-third of the whole Bible is devoted to prophecy. Both through the Old Testament and the New Testament that great truth stands out conspicuously on almost every page.
The Old Testament
When we turn to the Old Testament, we find that God's children In all ages looked forward expectantly for the Lord's coming. It is true that in the Old Testament the coming of Christ a second time was mingled with the thought of His coming the first time; and yet in almost every such prophecy where the coming is referred to, you will see intimations that it was to be of a dual character: His first and His second appearing.
Look at a few of the many allusions to this precious truth that we have in the Old Testament. We find it very early; it is no new teaching. For instance, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden looked for the Lord's coming. They were led to do so from the promise that God gave to them In His word to the serpent, that the seed of the woman should bruise eventually the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). Look again at the first prophet, Enoch. We have his prophecy, it is true, recorded in the New Testament; but it is nevertheless a fact. Enoch was the seventh from Adam, we are told by Jude; and he prophesied:
"The Lord cometh with ten thousand of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him" (Jude 14-15).
Look at Abraham, the father of the faithful. We are told by St. Paul in the Hebrews that he looked for "a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:9); and that the city is the New Jerusalem, which can come only by the second advent of the Lord Jesus Christ. Look at David, the great psalmist and king, the man after God's own heart. You remember how he speaks of his hope when he says: "I shall be satisfied, when I awake, after thy likeness," (Psa. 17:15) a wish that could find fulfillment only when the Lord Jesus Christ comes. We might say that all the prophets are united in bearing testimony to the same truth, that the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ was the ultimate hope of all the Old Testament saints.
The New Testament
When you come to the New Testament, of course you get this hope much more clearly revealed. It shines out in all its brightness and effulgence. One writer at least says it is directly referred to no less than 480 times. The exact number of recurrences of the fact of the Lord's coming is somewhat doubtful. I have never personally investigated the point, and I cannot say absolutely whether that is correct or no. There are no doubt 480 distinct allusions to the Lord's coming in the New Testament. It may be said truthfully also that every writer there speaks of the Lord's coming. If we accept every type and figure as well as reference, then we may say that there is not a single book in the New Testament that does not speak of the Lord's coming. It receives more attention than any other doctrine. You read there far more about it than you do about faith; you read there far more about it than you do about the blood of Jesus Christ, that cleanseth from all sin; although both faith and the blood are absolute essentials. You read more about it than you do about even the great doctrine of love, "without which all our doings are as nothing worth" (1 Cor. 13:2).
II. The Lord's Coming the Key to the Scriptures
Why does this truth take such a prominent position in the Old and New Testaments? For this very reason, that the Lord's second coming is the objective point to which all God's past and present operations are tending; it is the crowning fact in His redemptive work; and, therefore, it is the truth that stands out preeminently. All that God has done and is still doing, is for the purpose of bringing about the Lord's coming. It is only when you see that truth in its clearness that you can get a proper conception of what the Bible really does teach. It is indeed the key to Holy Scripture. Without this knowledge the Bible is a disjointed book, apparently full of contradiction. You cannot understand it. You can see it only in its separate parts, and you will never get a vision of the whole until you realize the fact of the Lord's coming.
Sabatier tells us of the contradictory impressions made upon those who view the wonderful frescoes of Giotto in the basilica in Assisi when seen under different conditions. He describes an occasion when an art critic went in to inspect those wonderful paintings. It happened to be a very dark, dull, cloudy day. The only light that he had by which to investigate them was a small lamp with a reflector, and the best he could do was simply to turn the light upon separated details of the great pictures. It was not very satisfactory. He saw perhaps an arm, or a hand; or perhaps a hideous face, or a beautiful face, as the case might be; but he could not put it all together. He had a very poor impression of what the frescoes really were. However, the next day the sun shone out, the day was bright and clear and beautiful, and then, when he went into the basilica, what a vision of beauty burst upon his view! How distinctly the frescoes appeared! Now he saw the purpose of the artist; now he could take in a general view of the whole thing; now he could study them as they could only be studied, in the light of God. Beloved, it is just the very same thing with regard to the Word of God Itself. Without this centralizing truth of the Lord's coming, you can never appreciate the Bible as you should. But with that truth realized the Bible becomes plain, sublime and beautiful, and we value the precious Book at its true worth.
I wish now to speak to you upon some lines that will help you to see that the truth of the Lord's coming is indeed the key to the Holy Scriptures. It was St. Augustine, I think, who made the statement that if we "distinguish the periods, the Scriptures will agree." We must see the great dispensational purposes of God before we can possibly understand the Bible as we should.
1. The Doctrines of the Bible
Let me bring before you, first of all, this thought, that Bible doctrines cannot be understood satisfactorily except in the light of the Lord's coming. Dr. Robert McWatty Russell showed us how there would have been no conflict between Calvinist and Arminian if this truth had been realized as it should have been at the time of the Reformation. It puts every doctrine into its proper place. We speak of the Lord Jesus as the Christ, and by that we mean, of course, that He is our Prophet, our Priest, and our coming King. Most people, however, look upon the Lord Jesus Christ as only their Prophet and Priest. They have no place for His kingly reign. They do not see how He is going to carry His work to a successful issue; and He cannot do so unless He comes as King, to put down all opposition and take to Himself His great power and reign. Until that event takes place men will say, as they do say, that Satan is gaining the advantage. You must, therefore, if you want to see the truth in its fullness, believe in the doctrine of the Lord's coming.
Take the fundamental truth of justification. Speaking personally, I can say that I never understood in its fullness the doctrine of justification until I realized it in the light of the Lord's coming. I am not very greatly surprised that men confuse justification by faith and justification by works. I am not very greatly surprised that the vast majority of professing Christians have never attained to a settled peace. I do not see how they can attain to it with the views they hold, because it is not until we learn to see this truth in the light of the Lord's coming, not until we can distinguish how the Lord justifies us by faith alone, and how, so far as the question of sin is concerned, there is, therefore, now no condemnation of the true believer, that a man can have peace. But when you see the truth of the Lord's coming, all becomes plain; that is to say, if you realize it as we believe it should be realized. Then you can see how the work of Christ on Calvary has made a "full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sin of the whole world"; and that every believer accepting the great work of Jesus finds adequate forgiveness for all his sins. There is a true differentiation between the judgment of the saints and the judgment of the world, and without that differentiation, I do not see how a person can possibly attain to settled peace, or how any one can appreciate as they should the great truth of justification. And what is true of justification is true of almost every other doctrine. You cannot appreciate it, you cannot understand it properly, unless you study it in the light of the Lord's coming.
2. The Ordinances of the Bible
Again, I would say that Bible ordinances cannot be appreciated truly apart from the truth of the Lord's coming. There are a number of such that we are all agreed upon. For instance, we are all agreed as to the necessity for public worship. But men never will appreciate public worship unless they become possessed of the truth of the Lord's coming. Ministers will not; congregations will not. It is only in the light of the Lord's coming that we shall appreciate fully the privilege of meeting together for the worship of God. You remember how St. Paul speaks in Hebrews 10:24, 25. He says:
"And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (Heb. 10:24-25).
I think it was Mr. Moody who made a statement somewhat to this effect, - that he never preached a sermon without thinking that possibly the Lord might use that sermon for the calling out of the last saint who should go to make up the full number of God's elect, and so bring about the Lord's coming. Oh, beloved, if our public worship was conducted in the realization of that great truth, how it would change it all! We should hear nothing about the new theology. There would be no down-grade teaching, as there is today. I do not think any true believer in Jesus Christ would ever absent himself from God's house and from God's worship if he realized that the Lord Jesus Christ might come that very day. It makes all the difference in the world whether or not you really believe in the possible immediate coming of Christ.
Take the great divine institution of the Sabbath. I do not think we ever shall appreciate the Sabbath day, I do not think we ever shall use it as we should, until we begin to do so in the light of the Lord's coming. Look back at the Sabbath as God originally instituted it. You remember the first Sabbath saw the introduction of man, created in God's own image, into the earth, and all was in perfect harmony; nature was in harmony with God and man, and God was in harmony with all nature. We are told in chapter 4 of Hebrews, "There remaineth therefore a rest [Gk. "sabbatismos" = keeping of the Sabbath] to the people of God" (Heb. 4:9). That will be the endless Sabbath. That is the Sabbath to which the first Sabbath pointed, and for which it was intended to be a constant preparation. When that Sabbath comes, we shall see the introduction of the new Man, the second Adam, the mystical Christ, brought into perfect accord once more with all nature and with God. And it is only as we realize that the earthly Sabbath is intended as a preparation for the heavenly Sabbath, for the coming of the Lord Himself and for our enjoyment of His presence then, that we shall ever rightfully appreciate and value the privilege of the Sabbath day. How few are doing that at the present time! How many there are who give the Sabbath no thought whatever, but simply spend it as a day of amusement, perhaps, or of sin, with no thought whatever of its value!
Take the sacraments. For instance, I do not think you can appreciate baptism in its fullness until you view it in the light of the Lord's coming. See what St. Paul tells us about baptism in the Epistle to the Colossians (2:11-12):
"In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead" (Col. 2:11-12).
Baptism not only looks back to the death of Jesus Christ, with Whom we are buried, but baptism implies resurrection with the Lord Jesus Christ, by which also we are risen with Him. If that is the case, what will be the outlook? Look at the third chapter, the first three verses:
"If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid in Christ with God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:1-3).
And therefore the ultimate outlook, even of the sacrament of baptism, is the Lord's coming. That is why we are baptized. It is a step in preparation for the Lord's coming.
Look at that other great sacrament, the Lord's Supper. We shall never value it at its true worth until we realize its bearing upon the second advent. Our blessed Lord bade us break the bread and drink the wine until He come (Matt. 26:29, 1 Cor. 11:26). We call it the Lord's Supper. You know the evening meal is the one to which all the members of a family usually get home. They are not always able to breakfast together, and they are seldom able to dine together; but they can all get home to supper together when the day's work is done. And so there is coming a glorious supper by and by, the marriage supper of the Lamb, and each Lord's Supper should remind us of that great supper; and that great supper will be brought in by the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, I think, that whenever we come to the Lord's Table there are three directions in which our thoughts should go. We ought to look back to the cross, we ought to look up to the glory, and we ought always to look on to the coming of our Lord. Each holy communion, if only we observe that communion as the Lord would have us observe it - "Let a man examine himself; and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup" (1 Cor. 11:28) - should see us progressing in holiness, in preparedness, in readiness for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, because we cannot understand Bible ordinances, or appreciate them as we should, apart from the realization of the truth of the Lord's coming, I say that the Lord's coming is a key to a proper understanding and appreciation of the Holy Scriptures.
3. The Promises of the Bible
Let us pass on to notice that the Bible promises cannot be realized fully, apart from the Lord's coming. We value the promises. We rejoice that there are thirty thousand of them in the Word of God. But never shall we appreciate them as we should, never shall we seek to realize them in their fullness, unless we see them in the light of the Lord's coming.
Take the first great promise. We looked at it a moment or two ago, that promise which we find recorded in Genesis 3:15,
"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed. It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (Gen. 3:15).
That was the primal promise. That is the promise in which are wrapped up all the promises of God, because every other promise is but the expansion of that one. It is the promise of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, as we have seen already. It is the promise of the ultimate triumph of the Lord Jesus Christ over all the works of the devil. "For this cause was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8), and He is going to do it. But He will not do it until He comes. Sin will go on until Jesus comes. A great many people look upon the Lord's coming as catastrophic. It is that, of course. And because it is catastrophic, they say that they do not like the thought of the Lord's coming. But, can there be any greater catastrophe than that of sin? Can there be any greater catastrophe than that which is going on every day, all about us, from the sin, the wickedness, the evil, the death, the temptation and the misery that are afflicting the millions of people upon the face of this earth? Should we not look forward to the day when all that will be done away? And it will be when Jesus comes [though not all at once]. When this promise is fulfilled, then sin will be no more, and Satan himself will be vanished. He will be put away; every sinner will have been put away; and only righteousness will be on the face of the earth.
Remember, St. Paul says: "And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly" (Rom. 16:20). He is not bruised yet. He has bruised the heel of Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ is going to crush the serpent's head; He is going to destroy him. The head of the serpent, you know, is the vulnerable part.
Every other promise is but an expansion of that first great promise and, as I say, you will never realize the promises of God as you should, and you will never see that they will be fulfilled in their absolute completeness, until you realize them in the light of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
4. Types of the Bible
I might say also that the types of the Bible necessitate the coming of the Lord. You are all aware that the Bible is filled with beautiful types; and I do not know any of them that you can understand fully and appreciate apart from the realization of the Lord's second advent.
Take, for instance, that great type of Melchizedek. You remember he was one of the great typical characters of the Old Testament. He was a king as well as a priest. He comes to Abram after the defeat of the four great world powers, when Lot, the typical Hebrew, had been delivered, and blesses the father of the faithful as the possessor of heaven and earth. In Psalm 110 we read this prophecy of Jesus: "The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (Psa. 110:4). Jesus then is a Priest-King. How can this be fulfilled unless the Lord Jesus Christ returns? How can we understand this great type, except in the light of the Lord's coming? It would be an impossibility.
Take the type of the bride, which runs all through Scripture, that beautiful type, seen in Genesis, seen all through the Old Testament, and seen in its perfection in the New Testament. We look first in Genesis, and we see Eve, the bride of Adam, formed out of his side, presented to Adam, becoming his bride, his wife. We understand what it all means when we read Ephesians 5:25, 27 and 32:
"Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church."
There is a day coming when that type will be fulfilled, when Jesus Christ comes. So it is with every type.
I think I have said enough to show you that the Lord's coming is indeed the key to the Holy Scriptures. Without this key all will be confusion. You may study separate doctrines; you may take up individual facts; but you cannot see them in their true connection and proportion, you can never realize them as you ought, and they will never do you the good they would until you have read and studied them in the light of the truth of our Lord's return. I think it was Dr. Gordon who told the story of a gentleman in Dublin who was in a great hurry to get to a certain place. Jumping into a cab, he called to the coachman, "Drive me off as quickly as you can." The cabman jumped upon the box and began to drive furiously. After some little time had passed the gentleman inside called, "Where are you going?" The cabman said, "I don't know, sir." "Where are we?" "I don't know, sir. You told me to drive off as quick as I could, and I have done it." He did not know where he was going; he did not know what the end of the journey was going to be. That is just exactly as it is with many, many, people in reading the Word of God. They do not see its purpose, they do not see its trend, they do not see God's object, they do not realize their proper place in God's great scheme. All this confusion, will persist until they get an objective point and realize the great objective fact of the Lord's return, and see that everything is tending to that end; and that end will be glorious!
Lecture given by Canon F.E. Howitt of Hamilton, Ontario at the Prophetic Bible Conference, Chicago, 1914.
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