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1. Our Lord Himself spoke of His Return in the language of Imminency.
In the Olivet discourse, where the Master replied to the inquires of His disciples concerning the Sign of His Coming and of the End of the Age, He said—“Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. But know this, that if the good man of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh. Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his Lord hath made ruler over His household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord when He cometh shall find so doing. Verily I say unto you, That He shall make him ruler over all His goods. But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My Lord delayeth His coming; and shall begin to smite his fellow-servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; the Lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for Him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 24:42–51). 88 The above Scripture refers primarily to our Lord’s Return to the earth, as is evident from the fact that He here styles Himself “The Son of Man;” yet, like all prophecy it has at least a double bearing and therefore may properly be applied to His secret Coming to the air.
An analysis of the above passage reveals the following important truths. First; the “hour” of our Lord’s Return is unknown to His people. Second; because we know not the exact time of His appearing, we must be in an attitude of constant expectation and watchfulness. Third; the Lord will return unexpectedly, even in such an hour as His own people “think not.” Fourth; the faithful and wise servant is he who shall give meat in due season to those of the Lord’s household during the time of Christ’s absence, and the one who is found so occupied at the time of His appearing shall be richly rewarded. Fifth; the one who shall say in his heart “My Lord delayeth His coming” is an “evil servant,” and such an one shall receive a portion of shame and suffering at our Lord’s Return.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins intimates that the Lord Jesus desired His people to maintain an attitude of constant readiness for the appearing of the Bridegroom. At the beginning of the parable He pictures all of the “virgins” taking their lamps and going forth to “meet” Him. The interpretation of this part of the parable is very simple. In the early days after our Lord’s departure from the earth, His followers detached themselves from all worldly interests and set their affections on Christ—His return being their one hope and great desire. But while the Bridegroom tarried the expectation of His appearing disappeared, and spiritual sloth and sleep was the inevitable consequence, and this condition prevailed until the midnight cry arose—“Behold, the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet Him.” The effect of this cry is seen in the arousing of both the wise and the foolish virgins. The need of preparation and watchfulness is disclosed in the doom that overtook those who had no oil in their vessels. The practical application of the whole parable was made by the Lord Himself—“Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh.” (Matt. 25:13).
At the close of St. Mark’s account of the Olivet discourse he records at greater length than does St. Matthew our Lord’s command to His disciples to watch for His return—“Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. For the Son of Man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch. Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the Master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock crowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly He find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (Mark 13:33–37). A careful reading of these verses makes it apparent that the design of the Master was to impress upon His disciples two things: first, that while it was certain He would return, yet it was uncertain when He would appear; second, that in view of the uncertainty of the exact hour of His second coming the Lord’s followers must maintain an attitude of constant watchfulness, looking for Him to return at any moment.
On another occasion the Lord said to His disciples, “Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning: and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord, when He will return from the wedding: that when He cometh and knocketh, they may open unto Him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the Lord when He cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that He shall gird Himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. And if He shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants” (Luke 12:35–38). The comparison is a very impressive one. The believer is exhorted to be like a faithful servant, standing on the threshold with loins girded and his lamp lighted, peering through the darkness for the first sign of his returning Master and listening eagerly with attentive ear for the first sounds of His approaching steps.
“For even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back. ** I tell you in that night there shall be two men in one bed: the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. Two women shall be girding together: the one shall be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:30–35). The force of this passage is in full harmony with the others already considered. The Lord’s appearing is to be unannounced and unexpected. It will occur while men are busy at their daily vocations, and therefore it behooves us to be constantly on the qui vive. In passing, we may observe how the last quoted Scripture brings out the marvelous scientific accuracy of the Bible. We are told in verse 31 above, that it shall be “day” (in another part of the earth), thus anticipating a comparatively recent discovery of science and demonstrating that the Lord Jesus was perfectly cognizant of the rotundity and rotation of the earth!
“And take heed to yourselves, least at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34–36). Mark particularly, above, the words “lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting (self-indulgence) ** and so that day come upon you unawares.” Daily, nay, hourly, readiness is required of us. Language could not be more explicit. Let those who speak so disparagingly of the “any moment theory” weigh the words “at any time” and remember they were uttered by the Lord Himself. The precise Date of the Second Advent has been designedly withheld from us in order that we should maintain our attitude of watchfulness and that we remain on the very tiptoe of expectation.
Just here we must take note of an objection that is brought against the position we are now advocating, namely, In view of the fact that in the above quotations it is clear that our Lord taught His disciples to look for His Return in their own lifetime, how can we harmonize this with His teaching in Matthew 13 where we found He foretold that certain conditions must arise before the end of this age could arrive? How can we square the presentation of the Redeemer’s Return in the language of imminency with the predictions that before He came back the little mustard-seed must grow into a great tree and the whole of the three measures of meal be completely leavened? At first sight this appears a real difficulty, but further reflection will show it is more apparent than actual.
When we examine the parables of Matthew 13 in the presence of the above objection our first question must be, What impression were these parables calculated to make upon the minds of the apostles, or on Christians in apostolic days? That these parables contain prophetic pictures which it has taken many centuries to fully develop is evident to intelligent believers living now, but we insist that these predictions were couched in such terms that there was nothing in their surface and obvious signification which forbade the apostles and their converts looking for the Redeemer to return in their own lifetime. In other words, there was nothing direct in these parables which argued the inevitable postponement of the Second Advent until a long interval of time had elapsed after they were uttered by the Lord Jesus. In our exposition of Matthew 13 (see the previous chapter) we showed how, very early in the apostolic era, these parables began to receive their fulfillment, and, as we would now point out, they were fulfilled to such an extent that as a matter of fact they presented no necessary obstacles to the first century saints who believed in the Imminent appearing of the Saviour.
The first parable need not here detain us, for, the Sowing of the Seed was done by Christ Himself while He was here in person on the earth. Concerning the parable of the Tares it is sufficient to say that within the lifetime of the apostles themselves, long before the end of the first century was reached, Satan had succeeded in covertly introducing his children among the people of God. It is true the parable teaches that the wheat and the tares were to grow together until the harvest and that the harvest would not be until the end of the age, but there is nothing in the parable which intimated that a protracted interval lay between the sowing and the harvest, nay, there was nothing in it which discouraged the belief that the crop might hasten rapidly and the harvest occur in the lifetime of the apostles themselves.
The third parable foretold that the little mustard-seed was to become a great tree and, as we say, it was the growth of Christianity (previously corrupted) which was thus symbolized. But let it be carefully noted that nothing at all was said in the parable as to how great the “tree” was to become. Furthermore, we know that even in the days of the apostles Christianity had made marvelous progress and had spread through extensive regions. At the time our Lord uttered the parable His followers were but a mere handful and there is nothing to indicate that up to the hour of His ascension His flock was anything more than a “little” one. But contrast the conditions that we read of in the Book of Acts. Mark the three thousand which were converted on the day of Pentecost. Take note of such expressions as, “And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts 5:14); “Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake ** when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (8:5, 6, 12); “And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus, And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord”(11:20–24). Take into consideration the churches which were planted in Galatia, Corinth, Thessalonia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, Babylon (1 Pet. 5:13), Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and then it will be seen that the predicted growth of the mustard-seed could present no obstacle to the disciples’ continual expectancy of Christ’s appearing. And, if it be further objected that our parable foretold the corruption as well as the growth of Christianity, the answer is that the apostolic Epistles record the fulfillment of this part of the parable too. Read such passages as Phil. 3:18, 19, where the apostle says, “For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the Cross of Christ; whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things;” (2 Thess. 2:7) and from such Scriptures we may discover how extensively the meal had been “leavened” in that early day. Thus the parables of the mustard-seed and the Leaven had been so far fulfilled in the lifetime of the apostles themselves that none could say the end of the age might not even then be near at hand.
One other Scripture needs to be noted in this connection ere we turn to our next point. It has often been objected by post-millennialists that in view of our Lord’s declaration “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matt. 24:14), that it was impossible for the apostles to be expecting Christ to return in their own lifetime. But this objection is disposed of by several passages recorded in the New Testament itself. In Acts 19:10 we read, “And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.” And again, in Col. 1:5, 6 we are told, “For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the Gospel: which is come unto you, as it is in all the world” and in verse 23 of the same chapter “be not moved away from the hope of the Gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister.” From these passages then it is abundantly clear that no such formidable hindrance as imagined by post-millennialists interposed between the apostles and the hope of the imminent return of the Redeemer. Scripture thus affords positive evidence that the Gospel had been so widely diffused by the apostles themselves that nothing further necessarily and inevitably intervened between them and the realization of their hope.
Having thus, we trust, satisfactorily, disposed of the most plausible and forcible objection which can be brought against the pre-millennial and imminent Return of our Lord, let us now consider.
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