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185

XII.

THE DAY OF THE LORD.

"But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that aught be written unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. When they are saying, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall in no wise escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief: for ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep, as do the rest, but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, since we are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God appointed us not unto wrath, but unto the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Wherefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as also ye do."—1 Thess. v. 1-11 (R.V.).

THE last verses of the fourth chapter perfect that which is lacking, on one side, in the faith of the Thessalonians. The Apostle addresses himself to the ignorance of his readers: he instructs them more fully on the circumstances of Christ's second coming; and he bids them comfort one another with the sure hope that they and their departed friends shall meet, never to part, in the kingdom of the Saviour. In the passage before us he perfects what is lacking to their faith on another side. He addresses himself, not to their ignorance, but to their knowledge; and he instructs them how to improve, instead of abusing, both what they knew and what they were ignorant of, in regard to the last Advent. It had led, in some, to curious inquiries; in others, to a moral restlessness which could not bind itself patiently to duty; yet its true fruit, the Apostle tells them, ought to be hope, watchfulness, and sobriety.

"The day of the Lord" is a famous expression in the 186 Old Testament; it runs through all prophecy, and is one of its most characteristic ideas. It means a day which belongs in a peculiar sense to God: a day which He has chosen for the perfect manifestation of Himself, for the thorough working out of His work among men. It is impossible to combine in one picture all the traits which prophets of different ages, from Amos downward, embody in their representations of this great day. It is heralded, as a rule, by terrific phenomena in nature: the sun is turned into darkness and the moon into blood, and the stars withdraw their light; we read of earthquake and tempest, of blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The great day ushers in the deliverance of God's people from all their enemies; and it is accompanied by a terrible sifting process, which separates the sinners and hypocrites among the holy people from those who are truly the Lord's. Wherever it appears, the day of the Lord has the character of finality. It is a supreme manifestation of judgment, in which the wicked perish for ever; it is a supreme manifestation of grace, in which a new and unchangeable life of blessedness is opened to the righteous. Sometimes it seemed near to the prophet, and sometimes far off; but near or far, it bounded his horizon; he saw nothing beyond. It was the end of one era, and the beginning of another which should have no end.

187 This great conception is carried over by the Apostle from the Old Testament to the New. The day of the Lord is identified with the Return of Christ. All the contents of that old conception are carried over along with it. Christ's return bounds the Apostle's horizon; it is the final revelation of the mercy and judgment of God. There is sudden destruction in it for some, a darkness in which there is no light at all; and for others, eternal salvation, a light in which there is no darkness at all. It is the end of the present order of things, and the beginning of a new and eternal order. All this the Thessalonians knew; they had been carefully taught it by the Apostle. He did not need to write such elementary truths, nor did he need to say anything about the times and seasons1818   "The times (χρόνοι) are, in Augustine's words, 'ipsa spatia temporum,' and these contemplated merely under the aspect of their duration, over which the Church's history should extend; but the seasons (καιροὶ) are the joints or articulations in these times, the critical epoch-making periods foreordained of God (καιροὶ προτεταγμένοι, Acts xvii. 26; cf. Augustine, Conf., xi., 13: 'Deus operator temporum'); when all that has been slowly, and often without observation, ripening through long ages is mature and comes to the birth in grand decisive events, which constitute at once the close of one period and the commencement of another."—Trench, Synonyms, p. 211. which the Father had kept in His own power. They knew perfectly all that had been revealed on this matter, viz., that the day of the Lord comes exactly as a thief in the night. Suddenly, unexpectedly, giving a shock 188 of alarm and terror to those whom it finds unprepared,—in such wise it breaks upon the world. The telling image, so frequent with the Apostles, was derived from the Master Himself; we can imagine the solemnity with which Christ said, "Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame."1919   Rev. xvi. 15. The New Testament tells us everywhere that men will be taken at unawares by the final revelation of Christ as Judge and Saviour; and in so doing, it enforces with all possible earnestness the duty of watching. False security is so easy, so natural,—looking to the general attitude, even of Christian men, to this truth, one is tempted to say, so inevitable,—that it may well seem vain to urge the duty of watchfulness more. As it was in the days of Noah, as it was in the days of Lot, as it was when Jerusalem fell, as it is at this moment, so shall it be at the day of the Lord. Men will say, Peace and safety, though every sign of the times says, Judgment. They will eat and drink, plant and build, marry and be given in marriage, with their whole heart concentrated and absorbed in these transient interests, till in a moment suddenly, like the lightning which flashes from east to west, the sign of the Son of Man is seen in heaven. Instead of peace 189 and safety, sudden destruction surprises them; all that they have lived for passes away; they awake, as from deep sleep, to discover that their soul has no part with God. It is too late then to think of preparing for the end: the end has come; and it is with solemn emphasis the Apostle adds, "They shall in no wise escape."

A doom so awful, a life so evil, cannot be the destiny or the duty of any Christian man. "Ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief." Darkness, in that saying of the Apostle, has a double weight of meaning. The Christian is not in ignorance of what is impending, and forewarned is forearmed. Neither is he any longer in moral darkness, plunged in vice, living a life the first necessity of which is to keep out of God's sight. Once the Thessalonians had been in such darkness; their souls had had their part in a world sunk in sin, on which the day-spring from on high had not risen; but now that time was past. God had shined into their hearts; He who is Himself light had poured the radiance of His own love and truth into them till ignorance, vice, and wickedness had passed away, and they had become light in the Lord. How intimate is the relation between the Christian and God, how complete the regeneration, expressed in the words, "Ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day; we are not of the night, nor of darkness"! There are shady things 190 in the world, and shady persons, but they are not in Christianity, nor among Christians. The true Christian takes his nature, all that characterises and distinguishes him, from light. There is no darkness in him, nothing to hide, no guilty secret, no corner of his being into which the light of God has not penetrated, nothing that makes him dread exposure. His whole nature is full of light, transparently luminous, so that it is impossible to surprise him or take him at a disadvantage. This, at least, is his ideal character; to this he is called, and this he makes his aim. There are those, the Apostle implies, who take their character from night and darkness,—men with souls that hide from God, that love secrecy, that have much to remember they dare not speak of, that turn with instinctive aversion from the light which the gospel brings, and the sincerity and openness which it claims; men, in short, who have come to love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. The day of the Lord will certainly be a surprise to them; it will smite them with sudden terror, as the midnight thief, breaking unseen through door or window, terrifies the defenceless householder; it will overwhelm them with despair, because it will come as a great and searching light,—a day on which God will bring every hidden thing to view, and judge the secrets of men's hearts by Christ Jesus. For those who have lived in darkness 191 the surprise will be inevitable; but what surprise can there be for the children of the light? They are partakers of the Divine nature; there is nothing in their souls which they would not have God know; the light that shines from the great white throne will discover nothing in them to which its searching brightness is unwelcome; Christ's coming is so far from disconcerting them that it is really the crowning of their hopes.

The Apostle demands of his disciples conduct answering to this ideal. Walk worthy, he says, of your privileges and of your calling. "Let us not sleep, as do the rest, but let us watch and be sober." "Sleep" is certainly a strange word to describe the life of the worldly man. He probably thinks himself very wide awake, and as far as a certain circle of interests is concerned, probably is so. The children of this world, Jesus tells us, are wonderfully wise for their generation. They are more shrewd and more enterprising than the children of light. But what a stupor falls upon them, what a lethargy, what a deep unconscious slumber, when the interests in view are spiritual. The claims of God, the future of the soul, the coming of Christ, our manifestation at His judgment seat, they are not awake to any concern in these. They live on as if these were not realities at all; if they pass through their minds on occasion, as they look at the Bible or listen to a sermon, it is as 192 dreams pass through the mind of one asleep; they go out and shake themselves, and all is over; earth has recovered its solidity, and the airy unrealities have passed away. Philosophers have amused themselves with the difficulty of finding a scientific criterion between the experiences of the sleeping and the waking state, i.e., a means of distinguishing between the kind of reality which belongs to each; it is at least one element of sanity to be able to make the distinction. If we may enlarge the ideas of sleep and waking, as they are enlarged by the Apostle in this passage, it is a distinction which many fail to make. When they have the ideas which make up the staple of revelation presented to them, they feel as if they were in dreamland; there is no substance to them in a page of St. Paul; they cannot grasp the realities that underlie his words, any more than they can grasp the forms which swept before their minds in last night's sleep. But when they go out to their work in the world, to deal in commodities, to handle money, then they are in the sphere of real things, and wide awake enough. Yet the sound mind will reverse their decisions. It is the visible things that are unreal and that ultimately pass away; the spiritual things—God, Christ, the human soul, faith, love, hope—that abide. Let us not face our life in that sleepy mood to which the spiritual is but a dream; on 193 the contrary, as we are of the day, let us be wide awake and sober. The world is full of illusions, of shadows which impose themselves as substances upon the heedless, of gilded trifles which the man whose eyes are heavy with sleep accepts as gold; but the Christian ought not to be thus deceived. Look to the coming of the Lord, Paul says, and do not sleep through your days, like the heathen, making your life one long delusion; taking the transitory for the eternal, and regarding the eternal as a dream; that is the way to be surprised with sudden destruction at the last; watch and be sober; and you will not be ashamed before Him at His coming.

It may not be out of place to insist on the fact that "sober" in this passage means sober as opposed to drunk. No one would wish to be overtaken drunk by any great occasion; yet the day of the Lord is associated in at least three passages of Scripture with a warning against this gross sin. "Take heed to yourselves," the Master says, "lest haply your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day come on you suddenly as a snare." "The night is far spent," says the Apostle, "the day is at hand.... Let us walk honestly as in the day; not in revelling and drunkenness." And in this passage: "Let us, since we are of the day, be sober; they that be drunken are drunken in the night." The 194 conscience of men is awakening to the sin of excess, but it has much to do before it comes to the New Testament standard. Does it not help us to see it in its true light when it is thus confronted with the day of the Lord? What horror could be more awful than to be overtaken in this state? What death is more terrible to contemplate than one which is not so very rare—death in drink?

Wakefulness and sobriety do not exhaust the demands made upon the Christian. He is also to be on his guard. "Put on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation." While waiting for the Lord's coming, the Christian waits in a hostile world. He is exposed to assault from spiritual enemies who aim at nothing less than his life, and he needs to be protected against them. In the very beginning of this letter we came upon the three Christian graces; the Thessalonians were commended for their work of faith, labour of love, and patience of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. There they were represented as active powers in the Christian life, each manifesting its presence by some appropriate work, or some notable fruit of character; here they constitute a defensive armour by which the Christian is shielded against any mortal assault. We cannot press the figure further than this. If we keep our faith in Jesus Christ, if we love one another, if our 195 hearts are set with confident hope on that salvation which is to be brought to us at Christ's appearing, we need fear no evil; no foe can touch our life. It is remarkable, I think, that both here and in the famous passage in Ephesians, as well as in the original of both in Isaiah lix. 17, salvation, or, to be more precise, the hope of salvation, is made the helmet. The Apostle is very free in his comparisons; faith is now a shield, and now a breastplate; the breastplate in one passage is faith and love, and in another righteousness; but the helmet is always the same. Without hope, he would say to us, no man can hold up his head in the battle; and the Christian hope is always Christ's second coming. If He is not to come again, the very word hope may be blotted out of the New Testament. This assured grasp on the coming salvation—a salvation ready to be revealed in the last times—is what gives the spirit of victory to the Christian even in the darkest hour.

The mention of salvation brings the Apostle back to his principal subject. It is as if he wrote, "for a helmet the hope of salvation; salvation, I say; for God did not appoint us to wrath, but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ." The day of the Lord is indeed a day of wrath,—a day when men will cry to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth 196 upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath is come. The Apostle cannot remember it for any purpose without getting a glimpse of those terrors; but it is not for these he recalls it at this time. God did not appoint Christians to the wrath of that day, but to its salvation,—a salvation the hope of which is to cover their heads in the day of battle.

The next verse—the tenth—has the peculiar interest of containing the only hint to be found in this early Epistle of Paul's teaching as to the mode of salvation. We obtain it through Jesus Christ, who died for us. It is not who died instead of us, nor even on our behalf (ὑπέρ), but, according to the true reading, who died a death in which we are concerned. It is the most vague expression that could have been used to signify that Christ's death had something to do with our salvation. Of course it does not follow that Paul had said no more to the Thessalonians than he indicates here; judging from the account he gives in 1st Corinthians of his preaching immediately after he left Thessalonica, one would suppose he had been much more explicit; certainly no church ever existed that was not based on the Atonement and the Resurrection. In point of fact, however, what is here made prominent is not the mode of salvation, but one special result of salvation as accomplished by Christ's death, a result contemplated 197 by Christ, and pertinent to the purpose of this letter; He died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should together live with Him. The same conception precisely is found in Rom. xiv. 9: "To this end Christ died, and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living." This was His aim in redeeming us by passing through all modes of human existence, seen and unseen. It made Him Lord of all. He filled all things. He claims all modes of existence as His own. Nothing separates from Him. Whether we sleep or wake, whether we live or die, we shall alike live with Him. The strong consolation, to impart which was the Apostle's original motive in approaching this subject, has thus come uppermost again; in the circumstances of the church, it is this which lies nearest to his heart.

He ends, therefore, with the old exhortation: "Comfort one another, and build each other up, as also ye do." The knowledge of the truth is one thing; the Christian use of it is another: if we cannot help one another very much with the first, there is more in our power with regard to the last. We are not ignorant of Christ's second coming; of its awful and consoling circumstances; of its final judgment and final mercy; of its final separations and final unions. Why have these things been revealed to us? What influence are they meant to have in our lives? They ought 198 to be consoling and strengthening. They ought to banish hopeless sorrow. They ought to generate and sustain an earnest, sober, watchful spirit; strong patience; a complete independence of this world. It is left to us as Christian men to assist each other in the appropriation and application of these great truths. Let us fix our minds upon them. Our salvation is nearer than when we believed. Christ is coming. There will be a gathering together of all His people unto Him. The living and the dead shall be for ever with the Lord. Of the times and the seasons we can say no more than could be said at the beginning; the Father has kept them in His own power; it remains with us to watch and be sober; to arm ourselves with faith, love, and hope; to set our mind on the things that are above, where our true country is, whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.


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