TEN SERMONS on the SECOND ADVENT
II. THE INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY.
"Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture
is of any private interpretation. For the prphecy came not in old time
(marg. at any time) by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as
they were moved by the Holy Ghost." - 2 Peter i. 20, 21.
The words of the 20th verse are confessedly difficult of translation, and have given rise to many and various interpretations. The Revisers, after we may suppose the fullest consideration, have adhered to the A.V. merely omitting the word "any," and then giving v. 21, thus:- "For no prophecy came (marg. was brought) by the will of man: but men spake from God being moved by the Holy Ghost."
The difficulty arises partly from the fact that the word translated "interpretation" occurs no where else in the whole Bible (and only once or twice in secular writings). We have therefore to seek its meaning chiefly from the context. Even the verb from which this noun is formed, occurs only twice in the New Testament (Mark iv. 34 and Acts xix. 39); and in the Old Testament only once in the lxx. (Gen xli. 12). Literally, it means a loosening upon, unloosing: then, of what is before unknown, an unfolding. Hence the rendering "interpretation."
Then, the word "private" is the translation of a Greek word that occurs 112 times, and is never translated "private" except in this verse! Seventy-two times it is rendered "his own," e.g., "his own sheep," "his own city," "his own brother," "his own place," "his own body," &c., &c.
But no translation of this verse can be correct which does not allow the verb its full and proper force. The verb here translated "is," is no part of the ordinary verb "to be"; but it is another verb altogether, and means to begin to be, to come into existence, to originate, to produce, to become.
Now, putting these facts together, and remembering that the next verse begins with "for" ("for the prophecy," &c.), thus depending on and flowing from verse 20, we arrive at the following sense:- "Knowing this first that no prophecy of the Scripture came (or originated) of his (i.e., the prophet's) own unfolding, for no prophecy ever came by the will of man; but men spake from God (not from themselves) moved by the Holy Ghost."
Prophecy is the unfolding of the future, and though men were used as instruments, yet they did not originate or produce it of themselves, but it came from God, by His Holy Spirit. This being so, prophecy comes to us already as an interpretation of the future, and our business with it is not so much to interpret this interpretation, as to receive and believe the interpretation which it gives to us. The same Holy Spirit who inspired this prophecy, is now with the Church of Christ, and His special Mission is to unfold the Scriptures to us. "He shall guide you into all truth:" "He will show you things to come" (John xiv. 13, 14). Speaking of the natural man, it is written: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared them unto us by His Spirit." (I Cor. ii. 9, 10).
David was a prophet, and in 2 Sam. xxiii. 1-3, we read, "David the son of Jesse,...the sweet psalmist of Israel said, the Spirit of the Lord spake by me and his word was in my tongue. The God if Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me." It is not possible to emphasise the truth of our text more strongly, and we have here a wonderful corroboration of its truth, and importance. Prophecy therefore (and in this statement the whole Bible is of course included) did not originate from any private views, peculiar ideas, or favourite theories, of any men. It is divine: and no matter how intelligent, or scholarly, any student of prophecy may be, he must have the illumination of the Spirit of God. Artificial light may reveal the beauties of the structure of a sun-dial, and display its carvings, or mosaics, or outward design, but only Heaven's light can show Heaven's time. So the natural wisdom of man may see many beauties in the Geography, History, Antiquities, and Language, of the Bible; but only Heaven's Wisdom can give Heaven's mind, for "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned." (I Cor. ii. 14). Scholarship may understand the written letter, but only the man who is taught of the Spirit who gave the prophecy, can grasp its meaning. It is as true to day, as when God said it by David: "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him and He will show them His covenant" (Marg. "and His covenant to make them to know it") (Ps. xxv. 14). Such a one shall "know about the teaching." The student of prophecy needs a more thorough equipment than any which mere efficient scholarship, or Biblical criticism can give him. The highest gifts must be sanctified by the Divine interpreter Himself.
When any man, or any Church, assumes this prerogative of the Holy Spirit, the claim to infallibility is the logical sequence of such an assumption. This, therefore, is the great, first, and important point. "Knowing this first," says the Holy Spirit by St. Peter, "that no prophecy of the Scripture, came from the prophets own interpretation."
It is remarkable, and interesting to note, that the two men who stand out in the Old Testament as interpreters of dreams and visions sent from God, Joseph and Daniel, both pointedly emphasise this truth. Joseph said to Pharaoh, when asked to make known the future revealed in the dream, "It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace," (Gen. xli. 16): and Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar, "He that revealeth secrets maketh known to thee what shall come to pass, but as for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living." (Dan. ii. 29, 30).
The subject before us is purely a subject of Revelation. Outside of this blessed Book we know absolutely nothing of the future. The world is dark, and this Book is the only light in it. Speculation, Imagination, Reason, and Philosophy, have no part nor lot here; they have no value whatever in answering the question "What is Truth." There would be no difficulty in having a Bible exactly according to our own minds if each one might set up his own reason, as the standard as to what is likely to be, or what God is likely to do. That is just how people are everywhere acting. But that is not what settles questions revealed in this book. This book claims to be from God. It claims to make known His thoughts, and to reveal His will and purposes. The men who wrote it, wrote down not what they imagined, or presumed to reason out; not what they thought would prove acceptable to others; not what they themselves might deem wise, or think beneficent; but they wrote down what God thought, what God chose to say, what God commanded, yea and what God meant! "Holy men spake from God." What our attitude ought to be therefore, is perfectly clear, and our duty is very simple, viz., to accept what they reveal, as the truth of God. We have no option whatever, no right of debate or appeal as to things revealed, we are merely like students who sit down to study the statutes of the Realm. The one and only question is, what do they say? No matter whether the student can understand them, explain them, or harmonize them with his own views or with the views of others. His duty as a student, is to know them; and as a citizen, to obey them!
So these Holy Scriptures reveal what God pleases to say, and our duty is to accept and believe them because of that, and not because of our ability to understand them. The one great difficulty is, that the authority of Scripture is not regarded as absolutely supreme. So long as men insist on squaring Scripture with reason, so long can there be no certainty in the things of Faith. There can be no unity of doctrine unless there be first a unity of authority. We have no more to do, and no less, than Israel had when Moses came forth from God, and down from Horeb, and made known what God had written and revealed.
We, therefore, have not to interpret Revelation, because Revelation is given to interpret to us what we otherwise could never have known. This must be our ground, and this our spirit, in approaching the "word of prophecy." This must be our foundation, and the deeper and the firmer this is laid, the higher may be the superstructure that we build upon it; whereas, a lofty structure, erected on a feeble foundation, must end in ruin and disaster. If God has not made known to us "things to come," then we can never know them. But if He has, then we need not be ignorant.
Now we shall not deny that this Revelation uses sometimes figures of speech, and symbols, types, and visions (though I believe that where a symbol is used, the explanation is generally given by the Divine Spirit Himself). But if it be impossible to distinguish between the figurative language and the literal facts of which that language speaks, then we have no Revelation at all: we have an Apocrypha; we have concealment; we have something as useless and as ambiguous as the oracles of the heathen. If there be anything in the language of Scripture which is figurative, that is one thing; but to assert (as many people do) that the thing itself of which the language speaks is also figurative, that, is quite another thing.
Now, to pass on; we all confess that the prophecies concerning Christ's first advent were fulfilled to the letter. Indeed we all base a powerful argument in favour of the inspiration of the Bible on this fact. If you search the Scriptures you will find one hundred and nine such predictions literally fulfilled at Christ's first advent in the flesh. The place of His birth, His conception, lowly life, miracles, rejection, and betrayal; the smiting, the spitting, scourging and piercing; the parting of the garments, and casting lots for His vesture; the vinegar, the gall; His death and burial; His Resurrection and Ascension, ALL LITERALLY FULFILLED! Why then, when we read of His DESCENSION from Heaven (I Thess. iv. 16), should we apply a canon of interpretation totally opposite, and say that all is figurative?
Both advents rest on the same authority, and surely if we accept that authority, it is no harder to understand it concerning what is to be, that it is to believe it concerning what was to be. Both alike in their turn are contrary to thoughts of man, and occasions of stumbling to human reasoning. How do we know that Jesus was born, suffered, died, and rose again? Simply because we read it in the word of God. Then, on precisely that same word we know the circumstances connected with His coming again.
Having spoken of the authority of Scripture, let us now look at its Language. For Inspiration is the source of the authority; that authority is the basis of all knowledge; and the channel of knowledge is Language. The Revelation is clothed in words. Once admit that words do not mean what they say, but something else, and something different, then all the various schools of theological thought, and every individual in those schools may spiritualize in opposite directions to suit their own views.
Unless God means exactly what he says according to the laws of all language, then all positive lines of demarcation between truth and error on all the vital verities of Christianity are that moment obliterated. It is not merely the prophecies of the Second Advent that suffer; but all Doctrines, and all articles of the Christian faith, are involved in one common chaos.
Look now at a few examples, showing how the language, and the words of Divine Revelation are treated by this army of spiritualizers and figurative interpreters, who will not allow God to mean what He says, and hardly to have a meaning for anything He says! All the Creeds of Christendom, ancient and modern, with hundreds of Scriptures, proclaim the fact concerning Christ;- "He shall come again."
But see in what different ways, "interpreters" deal with this prophecy-
I. They assert that The coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost fulfils it.
But it is surely sufficient to observe, that both the Coming of the Holy Ghost, and the coming again of Christ were foretold, and the one has been literally fulfilled. Surely then the inference is that the other will be. Again, in many instances the Holy Spirit and the Saviour are emphatically distinguished in one and the same Scripture, e.g., "It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you: but if I depart I will send Him unto you." (John xvi. 7.) The Coming of the Holy Spirit is supplementary to the first coming of Christ and preparatory to His second coming. How then can the coming of the Spirit take the place of the second any more than of the first? It will not do to shift the ground and say that "a larger outpouring of the Spirit" is meant, because in no sense could that act of coming be a proper figure of a mere increase.
Those who thus spiritualize can have but a very vague idea of the mission of the Holy Ghost in this world during this dispensation; or of the sad dishonour they thus bring upon His wondrous work.
It must not be forgotten that hundreds of references to the Lord's second advent were inspired after Pentecost, and this fact alone forms an insuperable barrier against such a violation of the letter of Scripture.
II. Others say the the Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus fulfils the prophecy.
This interpretation rests solely on Matt. xxiv., Mark xiii. and Luke xxi. In the fourth sermon we shall thoroughly examine these Scriptures, and their mutual relation. It is sufficient for us to observe now that while they overlap in certain places Matt. xxiv. contains no reference to the Destruction of Jerusalem but enlarges on the events which immediately precede the Coming of the Son of man. St. Luke epitomises these events in four verse (8-11) and then (12-24) enlarges on the destruction of Jerusalem which he says shall be "before all these things," and then (verse 25) unites with St. Matthew in speaking of the Coming of Christ after the "times of the Gentiles be fulfilled."
But in no sense does Matthew refer to Titus and his armies, when he speaks of "the Son of man, coming in the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory." For when standing before Pilate, (Matt. xxvi. 64) Jesus repeats the very same words (Matt. xxiv. 30). Can it be that He spoke of Titus! At any rate His enemies did not so understand Him, for up to this point the evidence had been conflicting and with witness contradictory, but on uttering these words, the case was closed, their clothes were rent, and they pronounced Him guilty of death!
III. Others say that a Spiritual Coming of Christ now fulfils the prophecy.
Thank God, there is a Spiritual presence of Christ now by His Spirit, for "where two or three are gathered together," (Matt. xvii. 20) or scattered abroad to the "uttermost parts of the earth," the promise holds good, "I am with you." (Matt. xxviii. 20.) But surely more than this is meant when it was written that "this same Jesus which is taken up from you into Heaven shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into Heaven." (Acts i. 11.) Surely something more is in store for the church and for the world, when we read that "times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord and He shall send Jesus Christ which before was preached unto you; whom the Heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things" (Acts iii. 20, 21). Surely there is a definite interval between the "taking up," and the "coming," between the "Heaven receiving," and the Father sending! Yes, the Promise of this interval is "I will come again;" the Ordinance of this interval is "Till He come;" the Command is "Occupy till I come;" and the Prayer is "Even so come Lord Jesus," "Thy kingdom come."
IV. Lastly, it is urged that The Death of Believers satisfies the prophecy. So common is this belief that it has well nigh blotted out the Resurrection and the Advent as a "hope," as the hope of the Church. Jesus said, as words of greatest comfort to bereaved ones, "thy brother shall rise again:" but the popular notion of death renders Resurrection as unmeaning as it is unnecessary; and hence many spiritualize the references to it (especially in Rev. xx. 4-6). Like Hymeneus and Philetus, they say it is passed already, and "err concerning the faith" (2 Tim. ii. 17, 18). Jesus said "I will come again," but the popular notion of death practically replies: No, Lord, I shall die and come to you! and thus there is no need, and no room for the fulfilment of this and many other promises; no need to wait and watch and long for that coming; no need to desire to be among those that shall be "alive and remain." No! this interpretation dislocates the Scripture, and destroys the blessed hope which it presents. In Scripture, Death is represented as an "enemy" - "the last enemy," the great enemy (I Cor. xv. 26, Jer. xxxi. 15); as a prison-house (Job iii. 17, 18); as a sleep (Deu. xxxi. 16, Job xiv. 2, Ecc. ix. 10, Ps. cxv. 17, John xi. 11): It will not be till our Resurrection at the personal coming of Christ that our song shall be "O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy Victory." "THEN," it says, "shall this saying be brought to pass" (I Cor. xv. 54, 55). It is when we shall be "clothed upon" with our Resurrection body that "mortality shall be swallowed up of life" (2 Cor. v. 4). It was only of a Risen one that it was said "He is not here" (Matt. xxviii. 6). When Jesus said of John "If I will that he tarry till I come," "this saying went abroad among the brethren that that disciple should not die," which showed their belief that to tarry till Jesus comes, means "not to die" at all (John xxi. 22, 23). And this is just what the Scripture teaches. It says "We shall not all sleep" (I Cor. xv. 51); it says that those who shall be "alive and that are left" to the coming of the Lord "shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep." This passage teaches that it is only by Resurrection (or Translation) and Ascension that we can enter Heaven. "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that are fallen asleep through Jesus will God bring (i.e., bring again from the dead as He brought the Great Shepherd of the sheep Heb. xiii. 20) with Him" (I Thess. iv. 14, 15, R.V.). At least one generation of Christians shall never die at all, but be "changed" at the appearing of "Christ our Life." This explains the words of Jesus in John xi. 25, 26, "I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth in me though he were dead (R.V. die) yet shall he live." To him, "I am the Resurrection," and whosoever liveth (i.e., is alive at my coming) "and believeth on me, shall never die." To him "I am the Life!" And "when Christ who is our Life shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory" (Col. iii. 4).
Now let us pass on to look at the actual words employed by the Holy Spirit, and
I. The word that is English-ed by APOCALYPSE. It means a removal of the vail from, so that what was before hidden may be seen. It occurs nineteen times, and is translated Revelation fourteen times; manifestation, once; appearing, once; coming, once; and to lighten, once. So that Revelation is the proper meaning, and indeed no other Greek word is so translated in the New Testament. Whenever it is used of persons, it always requires their visible presence. There are only two apparent exceptions. One is Gal. i. 16, "When it pleased God to reveal His Son in me," etc. "In" when used of time, always means "on" or "upon;" and the apostle is referring to the time of his conversion. All three accounts of it speak of a personal appearance of Christ which constituted his claim to apostleship: "Last of all He was seen of me also as of one born out of due time" (I Cor. xv. 8). The other is Matt. xi. 27, "Neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son and he to whom the Son will reveal Him." But this is no exception, for Jesus Himself by His personal presence did reveal the Father, as He said "he that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (John xiv. 9).
II. The word that is English-ed by EPIPHANY. It means manifestation by personal appearance, and is translated appearing, five times; and brightness, once. It is used, in every case except one, of His second Advent: and this exception proves the rule because it refers to His first Advent which all agree was personal. "The grace which is now made manifest by the Epiphany of our Saviour Jesus Christ" (2 Tim. i. 10). The use of the verb throws still clearer light upon it. See Acts xxvii. 20. "When neither sun nor stars in many days were epiphanized." The context of every passage, renders every sense except the literal, impossible.
III. The word PAROUSIA, which means PRESENCE. It occurs twenty-four times, and is translated coming, twenty-two times; and presence, twice. Seventeen of these refer to the second Advent. And here again the exceptions prove the rule. I Cor. xvi. 17, "I am glad of the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for that which was lacking on your part they have supplied." It is clear that if Christ's coming is figurative so must the coming of these be; but if these men were bodily present with the Apostle, and their help substantial, so must the presence of Christ be. 2 Cor. vii. 6, "God...comforted us by the coming of Titus and not by his coming only but by the consolation wherewith he was comforted in you." And 2 Cor. x. 10, "His bodily presence is weak," etc. In all these cases it is indeed "bodily presence." The work marks the moment when absence ceases and presence begins, and sets forth therefore very powerfully the future, real, personal and glorious coming and presence of our blessed Lord.
Look further at other words which qualify and define the promises of His coming.
I. "THIS SAME JESUS which is taken up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven" (Acts i. 11). How emphatic are the words, "this same;" not another, not His influences, not Titus and his armies, not death but
II. "THE LORD HIMSELF shall descend from heaven," etc. (I Thess. iv. 16), not the angels, not an archangel, but "the Lord Himself."
III. The words "ONCE" and "THE SECOND TIME" in Heb. ix. 28 are conclusive. "Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time," etc. All the words, and even the smallest words protest against any figurative interpretation. All the actions and verbs point to the same conclusion. They are all acts requiring the presence of a person to perform and accomplish them. The Dead in Christ are to be raised: the Living saints are to be changed: Judgment is to be administered, and False Christs are to appear. Unless all these things are figurative then all the prophecies of Christ's coming must be understood in the plain, literal sense in which a child would understand them. They were not given by any man's unfolding, nor by or for any man's interpretation. They are God's own interpretation of what would be else unknown to us, and are to be received in their plain, grammatical sense with childlike simplicity and faith.
In Sermon No. 7 we shall consider the wondrous Covenants made by God with Abraham and David. To them, these covenants were prophecies. How did they understand them? Literally! The oath concerning them was "My covenant will I not break nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips" (Ps. lxxxix. 34). But this is what man dares to do! In reading the part fulfilment of the Covenant in Luke i. 32, 33, man does not hesitate to interpret half of it literally, and the other half figuratively, so as to make it accord with his reason. His name was indeed "called Jesus," etc., but as to His reigning over the house of Jacob on the throne of His father David, that is carnal, that is unreasonable, that is unlikely, and therefore man sits in judgment on God, and alters the thing that is gone out of His lips!
While we thank God that He has given us such an abundance of "exceeding great and precious promises," let us remember that He hath said concerning them, "these are the true sayings of God." "Hath He said and shall He not do it."
Among His last words, He said (John xiv. 1-3), "If I go away, I will come again and receive you unto Myself." "If I go," meant literally going; and so "I will come again," must mean literally coming. May we not repeat His own sure words "If it were not so I would have told you." He has not so told us, and therefore it must be true. He very last word from Heaven, closing up all Revealed Truth confirms and ratifies all His many promises, "Surely I come quickly," and if we have not ceased to expect Him, or ceased to desire Him, our eager, heart-felt response will be, "Even so, come Lord Jesus."
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