In considering these teachings, we must distinguish between those spoken to His own disciples and those spoken to the Jews. So far as His words concern us here, they refer to three points. First, His own Messianic relations to the Jews, and their national future; Secondly, The future of the Church, immediate and remote, down to His return; Thirdly, The person and work of the Antichrist.
I. (a) We have seen what were the Messianic expectations of the Jews in the Lord's day. Presenting Himself to them as their Messiah, the Son of David, He asserted His prerogative, as Judge and King. "The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son, that all men should honour the Son even as they honour the Father." (John v, 22—.) The time of this judgment is at His return. "When the Son of man shall come in His glory . . then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory." (Matt. xxv, 31. See also in same discourse the parables of the "Talents," and of the "Virgins "; and of the "Nobleman," Luke xix, 12—.)
(6) He confirmed the predictions of the prophets that at this time the Jews would be scattered abroad, and Jerusalem trodden down by the Gentiles, and the temple left desolate. (Luke xxi, 24; Matt. xxiii, 38.) He confirmed, also, the predictions that this would be a time of great trouble, and distress of all nations. "Then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be." (Matt. xxiv, 21—.) "These be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled." "There shall be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people." "Except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved."
(c) He confirmed God's promise that after these judgments had brought them to repentance, the Jews would be gathered to their own land, and acknowledge Him as their King. This is plain from His promise to the Apostles of the circumcision: — "In the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of His glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matt. xix, 28; Luke xxii, 29-30.)
II. The Future of the Church, immediate and remote.
We must, as already said, distinguish those teachings of the Lord addressed to the Jews respecting their national future, from those addressed to His disciples respecting their immediate future, and the future of the Church; though much which He said concerned both the Jews and the Church as standing to Him in like Covenant relations. His return to establish His kingdom would equally concern both, but would present to each its special aspect. Now, His words respecting His Church, its relations to the world, its history and its spiritual condition at the time of His return, demand our most careful consideration.
We may best consider these teachings under several particulars.
1. The permanent antagonistic relation of the Church to the world. As not of the world, but called out of it, and witnessing against it as evil, the relation is one of inherent hostility. The Lord in His last discourse to His disciples emphasises this. "If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saving, they will keep yours also." (John xv, 19-20.) In His intercessory prayer, He says: "I have given them Thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." (John xvii, 14—.) He also foretells how deadly this hostility will be: "They shall put you out of the synagogues; yea, the time cometh that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service." (John xvi, 2.) That this was not a transient outburst of enmity, and confined to the Jews, and only for a brief period at the beginning, but the result of a permanent antagonism between sin and holiness, righteousness and unrighteousness, truth and falsehood, and, therefore, an antagonism between the Church and the world to the end, appears everywhere from His teachings; of which the parable of the tares and the wheat may be taken as an illustration. That this antagonism is not one of abstract principles simply, but is embodied in persons, the Lord shows by His recognition of the fact that there is "a Power of darkness," the head of which is Satan —" the prince of this world," the personal adversary of God and of His Son. To the special attacks of this great enemy He had Himself been exposed, and knew that so long as Satan continued to be the prince of this world, His disciples would have no exemption from his subtle temptations and deadly assaults. They were in an enemy's country, and he would not cease in his attacks until he was cast out of the earth. All expectations of peace between his followers and the followers of the Lord were vain; but he might disguise his hostility and assume the attitude of a friend, and so lull the Church into security, and into a forgetfulness, or even a denial of his existence. But this peace was only seeming. The more the Church manifested the holiness of her Head, and affirmed the sinfulness of human nature, and the necessity of His atonement; the more clearly she proclaimed Him as the incarnate Son of God through whom alone is salvation; the more pronounced and bitter would this hostility become. The only way in which this antagonism could be set aside, was either by the conversion of the world to faith in Christ, which would deprive Satan of all his following and power; or by the entire apostasy of the Church from that faith, which would make Satan's power supreme. Either the Church or the world must lose its distinctive character before there could be peace between them.
As to the conversion of the world through the preaching of the Gospel, it must be noted that although the Lord gave the command that the Gospel should be preached to all nations, He nowhere speaks of it as being universally received. In sending forth His Apostles upon a temporary mission during His earthly ministry, He said to them, in words which plainly looked forward beyond that mission, and embrace all missionary labour, that every form of opposition and suffering would meet them. (Matt. x, 5—.) "I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. . . Ye shall be hated of all men for My name's sake. . . Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword." Even the closest family bonds would be severed: "A man's foes shall be they of his own household." All who would be His followers must bear His cross, and be willing even to die for His sake.
Nowhere in all His teachings did the Lord say, that this hostility of the world to the Church would cease through the conversion of the world. On the contrary, it would continue, though it might be in a latent condition, and would become most intense at the time of the end ; for then His actings in preparation for His return, the assertion of His authority, and the quickened faith of many, would call forth the latent hatred, and rouse into activity "the prince of this world " who would put forth every power of evil to destroy. His disciples could not be "hated of all nations for His name's sake," until "the gospel had been preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations." The tares would grow and ripen till the harvest came.
If peace would not be made by the conversion of the world to the Gospel, could it be through the whole Church becoming worldly in her spirit and aims? Of a total apostasy we cannot think. The Lord has said that " the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church." She cannot cease to be the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Ghost. But though the Church cannot ever become wholly apostate, and therefore she cannot be at absolute peace with the world, she may become worldly-minded; and thus the enmity of the world to her may be blunted, and the appearance of peace exist. The Church may forget her high calling, and become earthly in her spirit. She may corrupt the Gospel, mingling the leaven of error with the truth, may refuse to set forth the claims of Christ in their fulness, may seek the honour which cometh from men, and in many ways propitiate the world; and the line of distinction be thus almost effaced. She may become "the unjust steward," lowering her Lord's claims upon the faith and obedience of men in order to gain their favour. Those who have the spirit of this world, the world will not hate. To His own brethren, who did not then believe on Him, the Lord said (John vii, 7): "The world cannot hate you, but Me it hateth, because I testify of it that the works thereof are evil." A seeming concord may be established between the Church and the world on the basis of a common worldliness, but it is superficial and unreal. The true antagonism will reappear so soon and so far as the Church bears a faithful witness in word and life to her living Head. And as the consciousness of her high calling is reawakened and strengthened in the last day, and she rises into her true heavenly position, so will the antagonism then be sharpest and most intense.
We have dwelt the longer upon this point of essential and permanent hostility, because the belief that the Church and the world can dwell peaceably together, and jointly serve God, though in different ways; and that to this end the claims of Christ, as held at first in the Church, may now be greatly modified, and His headship made of little account, is one very powerful means, as we shall see later, in preparing the way of the Antichrist.
2. Let us now note what the Lord said of the spiritual condition of the Church just before His return. It would be one of great worldliness. "The love of the many shall wax cold." (Matt, xxiv, 12.) It would be at the coming of the Son of man as in the days of Noah and of Lot, when the ordinary pursuits of life, building, planting, marrying, and the like —things in themselves right and necessary — so engrossed men that they were wholly unmindful of God's warnings, and therefore His judgments would come upon them unawares. (Luke xvii, 26—.) He speaks of the time as one of greatest temptation, when false Christs and false prophets would arise, showing great signs and wonders, and through them many would be deceived.* (Matt. xxiv, 23-4.) Iniquity — lawlessness — would abound, and many be offended, and hate and betray one another. The faith that prays for His return, though greatly strengthened in a few, would be well nigh extinguished in most; and that day come upon all that dwell upon the face of the whole earth, as a snare.
* There seems to be good reason for believing that the clause in the prayer of the Lord which He gave His disciples: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," "Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one," (R. V.), refers to the great temptation, and to the power of Satan, at the time of the end. As the second petition is a prayer for the coming of the kingdom, so the last petition a prayer that the disciples may escape the great and final temptation immediately preceding it, and be delivered from the Tempter, who would then put forth all his power through "the son of perdition." (See Rev. xii, 12: xiii, 6—.) This is wholly in accordance with the Lord's general teaching with reference to the future, and especially to the tribulation of the last days. This time of trial and temptation He does not put far distant, but would have it ever remembered, and it was clearly in the mind of the disciples as near at hand.
It would be a time so fearful, that He commands His disciples "to watch and pray always that they may escape the things which shall come to pass"; for there are some who, like Noah and Lot, shall escape the sore judgments. (Luke xxi, 36—.)
Let us consider the Lord's actings as Judge at His return. The time having come when the tares and the wheat must be separated, the Lord begins with His Church, and separates in several successive judicial acts the faithful from the unfaithful, and gathers the faithful to Himself. (Matt. xxiv, 40; xxv, 10, 11, 31—) This done, He proceeds to set the Jews in their place, separating in like manner the believing from the unbelieving among them; and finally judges the nations, making a like separation among them. Thus His kingdom is fully established — all things that offend and them which do iniquity being gathered out, and all classes of His subjects put in their right places — and the predictions of the prophets are fulfilled. These events, doubtless, occupy a considerable period of time, and this whole period is "the day of judgment," "the great day of the Lord."
This summary of the Lord's teaching shows us that anything like a conversion of the world before His return by the preaching of the gospel, was not in His thoughts. Had it been, He could not have failed to comfort His mourning disciples, and encourage them to vigorous action by assurances of the success of their mission. But he persistently holds up before them hatred, persecution, death. His life on earth was prophetic of the history of the Church; and the greatest manifestation of hostility to her, as to Him, would be at the end. Then would she go down into her Gethsemane; then would be "the hour and the power of darkness "; and it would be the time of "the perplexity and distress of the nations." Only His return could bring deliverance; for that she must ever watch and pray.
III. The person and work of the Antichrist.
1. Let us examine the Lord's words to the Jews. We have already seen reason to believe that the Jews looked for some great one to appear in the last days, in whom the enmity of the nations against them would be headed up, and by whom they would be grievously persecuted and oppressed; and who would set himself in opposition to the Messiah, and finally be destroyed by Him. Does the Lord in His teachings to the Jews allude to such a person? The only passage bearing on this point is that in John (John v, 43), "I am come in My Father's name, and ye receive Me not; if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive." It is here clearly intimated that someone would come presenting himself to the Jews as their Messiah, and would be received by them. Jesus, the true Messiah, had come in His Father's name, and they had rejected Him; another would come claiming in his own right the Messianic rule, and him they would receive. The Lord does not say that he would be a Jew, and yet we can scarce suppose that, with the then prevalent conceptions of their high place as God's covenant people, they could have thought of a heathen Messiah. It is possible that he may be both a Jew and a Christian, an apostate from both covenants.
2. The Lord's words to His disciples. In these does the Lord speak of an individual in whom the enmity of the world to the Church would be headed up? We find no distinct reference to one, except in the words already quoted which were spoken to the Jews, and have no direct reference to His Church. He speaks of false Christs, but not of an Antichrist. Yet there may be one implied in His reference to Daniel. (Matt. xxiv, 15.) "When ye, therefore, shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place (whoso readeth, let him understand),—then let them," etc. The question arises, what did the Lord mean by " the abomination of desolation"? The phrase occurs three times in the prophet. (ix, 27; xi, 31; xii, 11.) In the last two it is rendered "the abomination that maketh desolate"; but in the first (R. V.), "and upon the wing of abominations shall come one that maketh desolate; and even until the consummation, and that determined, shall wrath be poured out upon the desolator." Most interpreters suppose that the Lord referred to this passage of the prophet, and if so, He intended to have the disciples understand that some one person would come — an abominable desolator — who would stand in the holy place. Thus understood, this teaching of the Lord would serve as the foundation of the later teaching of St. Paul (2 Thess. ii, 4).
If, however, we suppose the Lord to have referred to all the passages in which "the abomination that maketh desolate" is spoken of, and His general warning — " Let whoso readeth, understand," implies this, we can scarce avoid the conclusion that He would teach us that at the end the enmity against God would be summed up in a person. What He said to the Church after His ascension respecting the beast and false prophet, will be considered when The Revelation is before us.
This brief survey of the Lord's words will serve to shew the importance of His Person and work as distinguished from His teachings. These were necessarily adapted to the spiritual and mental understanding of those to whom He spake. But He Himself was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The salvation of the world was not to be effected by the mere enlargement of its religious knowledge, but by its acceptance of Him as the Saviour. Not by His words, but by His works must it be saved. What He said was to explain who He was, and what He was then doing, and what He was still to do; and one stage of His work prepared the way for another; the Cross for His priesthood, the priesthood for His Kingdom; all must be done by Him personally. To substitute His teachings, spiritual or ethical, as the means of saving society or the world, is to hide Him and His future work from sight, and thus tends powerfully, as we shall see, to prepare the way for the Antichrist.