The objection concerning the apostles’ apprehensions of the second coming of the Christ answered.
By Jonathan Edwards
§ 1. WITH respect to that objection against the truth of the Christian religion, that the apostles seem often to speak of the coming of Christ to judgment, as if they thought it near at hand; I will begin with what the apostle Paul says that may have such appearance. In the first epistle to the Thessalonians, which is reckoned to be the first of his epistles in the order of time; and particularly chap. iv. 15-17, he says,
“For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them which are asleep: for the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we be ever with the Lord.”
He speaks of those that should then be alive, in the first person plural; and of those that should be asleep, in the third person. Thus it would have been more natural for him to have said, They which are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent us, who shall then be asleep. And in the 17th verse, Then they which are alive, and remain, shall be caught up together with us.
§ 2. Considering the scope of the apostle in these verses, all that can be inferred from such a manner of speaking, is, that it might, for ought was then revealed, be while they lived. For the scope of the apostle was to comfort the Thessalonians concerning their friends that were already dead, with the consideration, that they should surely meet them again, at the day of the Lord’s coming. And therefore, it was most proper and natural for the apostle to speak of them in the third person. And it is but just to suppose, that it was only the uncertainty of the time, that was the ground of the apostle’s using such a manner of expression; because he, in this very context, speaks of the time as altogether uncertain; as it follows immediately in the beginning of the next chapter, “But of the times and seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you: for yourselves know perfectly, that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night,” &c. The apostle, by the expression he uses, probably had in his mind those words of Christ in Acts i. 7. “It is not for you to know the times and seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.”
§ 3. We have an instance of a like nature with this, in the words of Joseph to his brethren, Gen. l. 25. “God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.” He does not say, God shall visit your posterity, and they shall carry up my bones from hence. Yet it cannot be argued, that Joseph concluded that the redemption out of Egypt would be in that generation.
So the nature and design of the apostle’s discourse, necessarily gave him to distinguish between those that should be alive at Christ’s coming, and the deceased relations of the Christian Thessalonians. He speaks of them as already dead, and of their now living friends then meeting them risen from the dead.—That the apostle did not intend to be understood, as though it were certain that Christ would come while they were living, is evident, from what he himself says, speaking of those very words, and expressly denying that he intended any such thing; or that he supposed it to be certain, that the coming of Christ was at hand, in any such sense. See 2 Thess. ii. 1-3. where he very earnestly warns them not to understand him in any such sense. “Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter, as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means; for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition,” &c.
§ 5. Now it is evident, that the apostle does not thus write to them the second time, endeavouring to retract any thing he had written before; but it must be because he really did not intend so at first; for this epistle was written soon after the other, while the same fellow-labourers were with him. And if we well observe the contents of this and the foregoing epistle, the principal occasion of the apostle’s writing the second so soon after the other, seems to have been an information he received, that his former epistle had been misunderstood in this particular: and being much concerned about it, and fearing the ill consequences of such a misunderstanding, he writes to guard them from the mischief of such a mistake, and to establish them in it, that it is uncertain when the Lord will come, as he had told them before in his other epistle. And he argues the great uncertainty there was, whether it would be in that age or not, from what the Holy Ghost had revealed about the coming of antichrist.
§ 6. That this apostle did not expect Christ’s coming in that generation, may be argued from his speaking as though he expected that those that were then alive, would rise from the dead at Christ’s second coming, as in 1 Cor. vi. 14. “And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise us up by his own power.” And 2 Cor. iv. 14. “Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus, shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.”
§ 7. From what the apostle says in this second chapter of the second epistle to the Thessalonians, there appears a necessity, that those passages in any other of his epistles, that look as though he expected that Christ would come in that age, should be understood in some other sense; and that the apostle really did not mean so, as his words on a cursory view would lead us to suppose. For here the apostle is very express, and full, and earnest in it, that he would by no means be so understood. It is a farther evidence, that those passages in other epistles must be understood in some other sense, that there are passages in this very epistle, particularly in the first chapter, that we should be ready to think had such a look, were it not that the apostle himself, immediately in the second chapter, denies any such meaning.
§ 8. In this sense we must understand those passages, in which it is spoken of as a duty of Christians, to look and wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus; as, Titus ii. 13. 1 Cor. i. 7. Philip. iii. 20. There is a necessity of understanding, in like manner, the following passages—which were all written after this to the Thessalonians—Rom. xiii. 11, 12. “And that knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent; the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” We cannot understand this as though the apostle concluded, the day of judgment would come while they lived; because he had before explained himself otherwise; but only that the day of Christ’s kingdom, which is the day of the salvation of the church of Christ, was at hand. And so, Philip. iv. 5. “Let you moderation be known to all men: the Lord is at hand.” And Heb. x. 25. “Exhorting one another, and so much the more as ye see the day approaching.”
§ 9. Christ’s coming was indeed at hand in many respects; and in such respects as might well have all that influence upon those to whom the apostle wrote that he intended. The coming of Christ at the overthrow of the heathen empire, might well be said to be at hand; and Christ’s last coming to judgment, might well, considering all things, be said to be at hand, as the apostle Peter observes, though there should be thousands of years between. The apostle Paul speaks of ages to come, Eph. ii. 7. That it was not to be till many generations were past: yet it was at hand, in a sense agreeable to the common language of the Holy Spirit. So, Christ’s first coming was spoken of as very nigh at hand, of old. Hag. ii. 6,7 “For thus saith the Lord of hosts, Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land, and I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” Yet there was then above 500 years to it. And when it was about 400 years, it is said, Mal. iii. 1 “The Lord whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple; even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in.” And when it was about 700 years to the gospel day, it is said to be but a very little while. Isa xxix. 17, 18. “ Is it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall become a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be esteemed as a forest? And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness.” So God represents, as though he would very quickly perform all the things prophesied of by Jeremiah, though some of them were not to be fulfilled in many ages; Jer. i. 10-12. So the time is said to be at hand, for the accomplishment of all the prophecies of the book of Revelation, and Christ’s last coming at the conclusion of them, Rev. i. 3. And xxii. 7, 10, 12, 20. though the book evidently contains a series of events for many ages.
§ 10. Again, when the apostle Peter says, with respect to Christ’s last coming, and its being said to be at hand, that “a thousand years in God’s sight are but as one day,” it is no new conceit of his own, to save reputation; but God’s language that he had used of old justifies him in so saying. And the expression that the apostles used about the approach of Christ’s coming, did not tend to the disappointment of God’s people. For Christ’s coming to reward them at death was at hand, when they should have such a comfortable and full prospect of their complete reward at Christ’s last coming; so that they shall anticipate, and as it were have a possession of it. Though the time appears long to us in our dim-sighted state, yet it will appear as nothing to them. The second coming of Christ was so nigh at hand, that the church of God might well take all that comfort from what was really to be understood by those expressions. The first coming of Christ was very often spoken of for the comfort of the saints of the Old Testament, under great afflictions, though they were never like to see it in this lifetime. So in the case of Zerubbabel, and Joshua, and Daniel.
§ 11. As to that text of the apostle in 1 Cor. x. 11. “And they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come;” the connexion of these words with the context, and the drift of the apostle, explain his meaning. For his drift is only this, that what had happened to the children of Israel in the wilderness, happened to them for ensamples, and were written for our sakes, though they happened so long ago, or though we live so long after them, and, with respect to them, in the ends of the world, or in the latter part of the world’s duration, called the latter days.
§ 12. As to 1 Pet. iv. 7. “The end of all things is at hand;” how did this same apostle explain this propinquity? 2 Pet. iii. 7,8. “But the heavens and the earth which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire, against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” And it is to be considered, that the apostle Peter was under no temptation to change his voice in this matter, from any experience of the events failing as yet. He had not lived long enough to prove, but that Christ’s words—whence any may suppose they might expect Christ’s second coming before the generation passed away, and before some that were then present should taste of death—might be fulfilled in that sense.
§ 13. That there was no such notion prevailing among the disciples, that Christ should come while most of them lived, is manifest from this, that when the disciples mistook the design of Christ’s words, John xxi. 22. “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” and from thence, for a while, entertained a notion that that disciple was not to die till Christ came; it seems they, even while under this mistake, looked upon it as the distinguishing privilege of that disciple, which none of the rest were to expect. And it is evident, that John himself concluded no such thing, as that Christ should come in his lifetime, because he speaks of that notion of the other disciples about him as ill-founded.
§ 14. It is a further argument, that, when the apostles used such kind of language as that, “the Lord is at hand,” &c. they did not use it in any such sense, as that it should be in that age or the next; that the apostle John, who was accustomed to their language, uses it still, even after he had prophesied of many great events, which plainly were to have their accomplishment in many successive ages. As Rev. iii. 11. “Behold, I come quickly.” And he uses it repeatedly at the end of the book, after he had given an account of those future events, in the last chapter, ver. 7. “Behold, I come quickly;” ver. 12. “Behold, I come quickly;” and ver. 20. “He that testifieth these things, saith, Surely I come quickly.” The 17th chapter of this book alone is sufficient to convince any one, that John could not suppose that his prophecies could be fulfilled, but in several successive ages.
§ 15. It is an argument, that such a nearness of Christ’s last coming as the objection supposes, was not the doctrine that the apostles so much insisted upon; that the church prevailed still, when they saw that Christ did not come. Such a disappointment would have been a dreadful blow to Christianity, if this had been the universal expectation of Christians, and it had been raised by the abundant promises of Christ and his apostles. They probably, upon it, would have exceedingly lost ground, and shrunk away. But the fact was very much the contrary.
§ 16. Christ often speaks of his last coming, as that which would be long delayed; Matt. xxv. 5. “While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.” Luke xx. 9. “A certain man planted a vineyard;” ver. 19. “After a long time, the Lord of those servants cometh and reckoneth with them.” Matt. xxiv. 48. “My Lord delayeth his coming.” So Luke xvii. 22.
§ 17. It is evident, that when Christ speaks of his coming; of his being revealed; of his coming in his kingdom, or his kingdom coming; he has respect to his appearing in those great works of his power, justice, and grace, which should be in the destruction of Jerusalem, and other extraordinary providences which should attend it. So, in Luke xvii. 22, to the end, with chap. xviii. 1-8. Christ speaks of the kingdom of God coming; of the coming days of the Son of man being revealed; and of the Son of man coming. But yet, it is evident he has respect to the destruction of Jerusalem, by chap. xvii. 37 “And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? and he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.” See also chap. xix. 13-15. So, when the disciples had been observing the magnificence of the temple, and Christ had said to them, “Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down,”—having respect to the destruction of Jerusalem—the disciples asked him, when these things should be? and what should be the signs of his coming, and of the end of the world? By Christ’s coming, they have plainly a respect to that time of the destruction of the temple, which Christ had spoken of; and therefore, their question is thus expressed by St. Mark, chap. xiii 4. “Tell us, when shall these things be, and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?” And in like manner by St. Luke, chap. xxi. 7.; and Christ has many things in his answer agreeable to this sense of this question. He warns them to beware of others that should come in his stead, Matt. xxiv. 4,5. Then he proceeds to tell them what will precede the end, i. e. the end of the world, which the disciples inquired after, and tells them what shall be signs of its approach; Matt. xxiv. 6-16. And then speaks of the desolation of Jerusalem, and of the land, as that end and that coming of his which they inquired after; Matt. xxiv. 15-21, 28.; and more plainly, Luke xxi. 20-24. From these things, it follows,
§ 18. That when Christ speaks of his coming, his coming in his kingdom, &c. as being in that generation, and before some who were then alive should taste of death, there is no need of understanding him of his coming to the last judgment; but it may well be understood of his coming at the destruction of Jerusalem, which, as has been shown, he calls by these names, and which he also distinguishes from his coming to the last judgment, and consummation of all things. Yea,
§ 19. It is evident, that he did not suppose his coming to the last judgment, and the consummation of all things, would be till a long time after the destruction of Jerusalem. The calling of the Gentiles, instead of the Jews, is spoken of as what should be principally after the destruction of Jerusalem; Matt. xxi. 41, 43. Luke xx. 15, 16. Matt. xxii. 7-10. But this Christ himself speaks of as a gradual work, in the parables of the grain of mustard seed, and of the leaven hid in three measures of meal; Matt. xiii. 31-33 Luke xiii. 19-21. Mark iv. 26-32. And it is very manifest, that Christ did not suppose the consummation of all things to take place, till long after the destruction of Jerusalem, Luke xxi. 24. where it is said of the Jews, that they should be led away captive into all nations, and Jerusalem should be trodden down of the Gentiles, till the times of the Gentiles should be fulfilled.
(From The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 2, Reprinted by Banner of Truth Trust, pages 466-468)
( Grateful appreciation is expressed to John DiVito, who sent this to us.)