Before entering upon the enquiry as to the teaching of the several Apostles, whose Epistles we have, in regard to the Antichrist, and the spiritual condition of the Church before the coming of the Lord, let us first note what they all have in common. And in our examination we must bear in mind that they all looked for the return of the Lord in their own lifetime, or in the lifetime of some then living. This must affect our interpretation of their words so far that we may not impute to them a conception of a long period as intervening.*
Accepting their Lord's words as the very truth of God, the Apostles make them the rule of all their teachings to the Church. What He said of the future of the Jewish people, and of His Church, they repeat; and as time went on, and His words became more and more clear through their partial fulfilment; and the Holy Ghost also gave new light through the Christian prophets (John xvi, 13; 1 Tim. iv, 1)> they bring forth some particulars which He had not made known. This gradual enlargement of prophetic knowledge need not surprise us, for it lies in the very nature of prophecy that, as the purpose of God goes on from stage to stage, He makes known to His children what He is about to do, that they may be His helpers.
* It is well said by Bengel: "Oradatim prqfetica proeedit, apocalyptU expiicatius loquitur quam Paulus; Paulut explicatius quarri Dominus ante gloriJUationem.
1. The Apostles agree in affirming that the return of the Lord was to be continually watched for by the Church as an event that might occur at any moment. This was only to repeat His express teachings. (Matt. xxiv, 44; Luke xii, 35—.) They, therefore, so taught the Church. St. Peter said: "The end of all things is at hand; be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer." "The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. . . What manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God."
St. Paul said: "The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night . . therefore, let us not sleep as do others, but let us watch and be sober." "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." St. James said: "Be ye patient, for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh: the Judge standeth before the door."
It is often said that in their expectation of the nearness of the Lord's return, the Apostles were mistaken, as the long centuries since have shown. Mistaken in this, they may also have been mistaken in other matters. The objection is invalid. The Lord commanded them to watch for Him alway on the ground that of the day of His return neither Himself, nor any man, nor any angel knew, but the Father only. (Matt. xxiv, 36; Acts 1, 7.) Not to have watched for Him, and not to have taught the disciples to do so, would have been in the face of His command; and would have brought upon them the judgment pronounced upon the evil servant, who said: "My Lord delayeth His coming." (Matt. xxiv, 48.) But the Apostles also knew from the Lord's own words, and from the light given them by the Holy Spirit, that, as the harvest is not reaped until it is ripe, so there must be a certain spiritual ripening, a going on unto perfection, in those ready for His appearing. Not upon the unready and unprepared could the great and sudden change from the mortal to the immortal pass. (1 Cor. xv, 51—.)
So great is the dislike now felt to the Lord's return by many, and so little the faith in it, that His command to watch must be explained away. By some it is said that the Apostles misunderstood Him. He used words in the spiritual, not literal, sense; and did not mean that He would ever return to earth, but that at their death they would come to Him. Thus Prof. Jowett (" Essay on Belief in the Coming of Christ,") says: "St. Paul at first was waiting for and hastening to the day of the Lord, but in the course of years He grew up into a higher truth, that to die and to be with the Lord is far better."* But others more bold say, that the Lord was Himself mistaken. He shared the common but erroneous Messianic expectations of His day. He thus led the Apostles into error, and they led the Church.
*How wholly foreign the patient waiting for the Lord is to the modern spirit, may be seen in Jowett's words: "The language which is attributed in the epistle of St. Peter (2 Pet. iii, 3—) to the unbelievers of that age, has become the language of believers in our own. . . No one can now be daily looking for the visible coming of Christ, any more than in a land where nature is at rest, he would live in expectation of an earthquake. The experience of eighteen hundred years has made it impossible, consistently with the laws of the human mind, that the belief of the first Christians should continue among ourselves." Prof. Jowett overlooks the essential distinction that to wait for the Lord is to wait for a living Person who has promised to return, and therefore may be daily looked for; but an earthquake is an event which may or may not be, and of the time of its occurrence we know, and can know, nothing.
It was when the Apostles discerned that the churches under them did not, as a whole, leave the things that were behind, and press onward toward the mark, the goal, the perfected likeness to Christ, that they knew that the Lord, though "not slack concerning His promise," would delay His return, "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." But how long He would delay, they did not know. They, therefore, did not cease to hold up before the Church His speedy return, for this was ever the highest incentive tc spiritual sobriety and watchfulness. Whilst there was the growing consciousness that they themselves would not be able to present the Church as one body to Christ, yet they knew not but some might be made ready through His special spiritual dealings with them. The Lord had taught them in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, that some at His return would be ready, and some not ready to meet Him; and, as in the wheat field, some stalks ripened before others, so would it be in the Church; and they knew not when His all-discerning eye would see His wise virgins, His first ripe fruits, and come to take them to Himself. This done, an interval might elapse during which He would purify those not ready yet not apostate, by the fires of the great tribulation. These last, many or few, would, like the builders of wood, hay, and stubble, "suffer loss, but be saved, yet so as by fire." (1 Cor. iii, 12—.)
Of the two chief Apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, the first knew from His Lord's words (John xxi, 18)
that he himself would not live to His return. But
his knowledge of his own death did not prevent him
from keeping the Lord's speedy coming before the
Church, rather it made him more earnestly do so.
(2 Peter i, 13—.) So St. Paul knew that he would
not live to present the Church to Christ, but the
knowledge only redoubled his desire to warn it of its
perils, and exhort it ever to watch for the Lord.
(2 Tim. iv, 6—.)
2. The Apostles agree in teaching that the
preaching of the Gospel — the sinfulness of men, the
call to repentance, the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and
salvation through His death and resurrection,— is
offensive to our fallen nature; and that His disciples,
therefore, must always be exposed to hostility and
hate. In this, also, they only repeat what He had
taught them. Says St. Paul: "We preach Christ
crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto
the Greeks foolishness." "All that will live godly in
Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." "For we
which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus'
sake." "We must through much tribulation enter
into the kingdom of God." Says St. Peter: "For
even hereunto (suffering) were ye called; because
Christ also suffered for us." St. James says:
"Take, my brethren, the prophets . . for an
example of suffering affliction, and of patience.
Behold, we count them happy which endure." In
the apostolic teaching, the offense of the cross is
never to cease. "The friendship of the world is
enmity with God," and this enmity will reach its
highest point just before the Lord's return. "In the
last days perilous times shall come." "Evil men and seducers will wax worse and worse deceiving and being deceived." "There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lust, and saying, where is the promise of His coming?" "Remember the words which are spoken before of the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that there shall be mockers in the last time."
If the Apostles expected that the preaching of the Gospel would bring all men, or a very large part of them, to repentance and faith, they would not have spoken in this way. How long would be the period of the Lord's absence, they did not know, or how many would be gathered into the Church. Had they looked for any conversion of the world, or the reception of the gospel by all nations, they could not have looked for the Lord's return in their own lifetime. They knew the Church to be an election, and it might be speedily gathered. But the whole period, whether longer or shorter, they knew to be one of trial and suffering for those faithful to their absent Lord. Of honour, wealth, power, rule, they say not a word, but shame, reproach, persecution — these are ever on their lips.
3. The Apostles agree in teaching that Satan is "the prince of this world," and that he will continue to show to the Church the same hostility that He showed to the Lord. He will remain to the end the enemy and tempter. St. Paul says: "The God of this world hath blinded the minds of them that believe not." "I fear lest, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtility, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ." "The prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience." "Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil." St. Peter says: "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." St. John says: "He that is begotten of God, keepeth himself, . . and the evil one tempteth him not." "The whole world lieth in the evil one." (R. V.) "For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil."
The supremacy of Satan as the prince and god of this world continuing to the end, the Church must expect to be tempted as the Lord was tempted, and to meet with every form of subtle deception as well as of open opposition. He would come in "the guise of an angel of light." He would even suffer himself to be scoffed at as a nonentity. He would make use of all devices to deceive and to destroy. The Church, therefore, must never think herself secure, but be always on the watch, " putting on the whole armour of God." (Eph. vi, 11—.)