The apostle Paul says of the Son, that "He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet; the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." (1 Cor. xv. 25.) In these words we are taught that the whole period of the Kingdom is a day in which the Son is engaged in putting all things under Him, that He may establish that order which is eternal, because perfect. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, and this is apparently the last act before giving up the kingdom to the Father. (Rev. xx. 11-14.) But if the whole period of the Kingdom has thus a judicial character, the Scriptures enable us to distinguish two chief acts, — one at its beginning, and one at its end; and between these there is a time of peaceful rule over all the earth, in which the redemptive promises of God to men will be fulfilled. We may, therefore, distinguish between this rule of Christ in His kingdom when established, and His judicial acts preparatory to its establishment. He Himself says, that at "the end of the world," or "consummation of the age," He " will send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire. . . . Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father." "The angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just." Let us now consider this process of judgment at the setting up of the Kingdom more in detail, first, as to its nature; second, as to its subjects. The final judgment at its close will be later considered.
First, As to its nature. The work of judgment as here described has two elements,—first, separation; second, reward. Separation must be made among those living at the Lord's return, since up to this time the good and evil are commingled, the tares and wheat grow together, the sheep and goats make one flock. There must be a division, and each go to its own place. Upon this separation, in itself a judicial process, follows the award of blessing or punishment. Then the faithful inherit the Kingdom, and the wicked are cast out. When this separation is fully accomplished, and the obedient only are left, the period follows when "the will of God is done in earth as in heaven."
It needs scarcely be said, that before this separation of good and evil at the Lord's coming, there is a process of spiritual division ever going on, men dividing themselves according to moral character. There is a true sense in which every man now "goes to his own place," self-moved: the evil gather to the evil, the good to the good. This which has always been the case in human history, will be so pre-eminently at the time of the end, when God in His providence will so arrange events, that, as in the case of the choice of the people between Christ and Barabbas, the thoughts of all hearts in regard to His Son will be revealed.
It has already been remarked, that the characteristic of the time immediately preceding the return of the Messiah, is lawlessness, the highest exponent of which is the lawless one, the Antichrist. Men strive to set themselves free from all bonds, human and Divine, that restrain freedom of action. The Divinely appointed relations of the Family, the State, and the Church, lose their cohesive power because emptied of Divine authority; and obedience to human rulers becomes a matter of interest or of compulsion. Nothing is allowed to stand which hinders the supremacy of the individual will. Thus there is a general dissolution of social, political, and ecclesiastical bonds. Christendom becomes "the city of confusion," or "city of chaos." Through this dissolving process, the way is prepared for men to gather together according to their affinities. The anarchy of absolute individualism cannot indeed be endured, and hence a multitude of societies, unions, confederacies, secret and open, of all kinds, and for all purposes; — "the gathering into bundles" of which the Lord speaks. The institutions of God being set aside as failures because they have not brought peace and prosperity to the earth, not even to Christendom, something must take their place; and hence there are many attempts at the reconstruction of society, the removal of present evils, and the restoration of social order. But men, being no longer bound together by common principles and beliefs, nor by faith in God, can rally only around men; hence the last days are, above all, the time for the development of great personalities, mighty men of action; pre-eminent among whom and chief, is the last of the antichrists.
Thus the days preceding the Messiah are to be looked at from a twofold point of view: first, as a time when men, casting off Divine bonds, are set free to reveal in word and act all that is in their hearts. God so orders events that every man must at last take his place with the Christ or with the Antichrist. As the time of the harvest draws nigh, both the tares and the wheat ripen. As the summer heat quickens all germs into life, so in this time will the faculties of men be quickened into intense activity; and as the time of ripening brings out the special characteristics of the wheat and tares, their nature being seen in their fruits, so with the good and the evil in that day. Every opposition will be brought to light, every antagonism will be sharpened. Mediations and compromises will be no longer possible: none will be able ignorantly "to call evil good, or good evil." "The hail shall sweep away the refuges of lies." It is the day of decision, when God will have men say plainly, and with full consciousness, whether they will have His Son as their Saviour and King, or not.
Second, as a time when those who reject the appointments of God, seek to replace them by human appointments; and to reconstruct the Family and State and Church on other foundations, and according to other principles, than those He has set and declared. And as man builds, God tests his work. He shakes the heavens and the earth, that all that can be shaken — all that is of man — may be removed, and only what cannot be. shaken — all that is of God may remain. During this period, as never before, the words of the poet are proved true, "The world's history is the world's judgment."
Thus, through the freedom of individual action from the dissolution of all old bonds, and through the providential actings of God, bringing into clear light His purpose in His Son, and forcing men to act, the process of spiritual separation is effected; first in the Church, and then in the Jews, and finally among the nations. The instrumentality by which these separations are effected, is the testimony borne by faithful men to God's purpose in Christ, followed by acts of judgment on the disobedient. Thus, at last, all are brought into positions in which they cannot be neutral: they must choose to act with God, or against Him, and are self-judged. Upon this will follow those special judicial acts of Christ whereby those separated will be gathered to their respective places to receive their final rewards.
As to the subjects of this judgment. There will be on the earth at the time of the setting up of the Kingdom, three distinct classes, — the Church, or company of the baptized; the Jewish people scattered abroad; and the nations, the unbaptized, or heathen: and the dealings of God with them are to the intent that all in each of these classes who will believe, may be gathered out from the unrepentant and unbelieving. The first separation is to be made in the Church, as having the highest place in the purpose of God, and most capable of discerning His truth. To it, therefore, must the first testimony be borne; and here will begin the spiritual division, preparing the way for the judicial acts to follow. As there are degrees of spiritual discernment and of faithfulness among those truly Christ's, there may be several successive messages and successive acts of separation. (Matt. x. 40, 42.) There may be the fully ripe, the almost ripe, and the green ears; the first-fruits, the harvest, and the gleanings. Those most devoted and faithful, the quickest to hear the Lord's words, and to discern His will, may first be gathered; and the rest in several successive companies, according to their spiritual development, till His own, all in whom the least germ of faith is found, shall be brought to Him. (Rev. xiv.) Thus, at last, the wheat and the tares will be separated, and not one grain of wheat be lost. On the other hand, all the apostates, all in whom the invincible heart of unbelief is found, will be hardened by God's dealings with them, will reject every testimony borne by His witnesses, and finally will join themselves to the Antichrist, and will perish with him. (Rev. xix. 19, etc.)
The second class is the Jews. These are scattered among the nations, yet do not remain unaffected during the Lord's dealings with the Church. A like process of spiritual separation is going on, also, among them, — some turning to Christ as their Messiah, and others made more hostile and bitter against Him; but probably its consummation is not reached till the work in the Church is finished. Here, as among the baptized, the separation is made by the word of truth, the witness borne by God's servants to His Son. Such witnesses will He raise up from the Jews themselves, the believing testifying to the unbelieving; and we may believe that at some stage earlier or later of His dealings with them, the prophecy respecting Elijah will be fulfilled. (Mai. iv. 5.) And the word of witness will be confirmed by God's actings, as foretold by their prophets, so that all who will, may know the Divine purpose. Thus, through His word declared to them, and by His mighty acts, will God awaken faith in their hearts, that " whosoever will call on the name of the Lord, may be saved." None will be lost but such as stubbornly refuse to see and to hear. Those brought to repentance and to faith in their Messiah, — " the remnant," "the holy seed" of the prophets, — He will reconstitute as a nation; and His Son will reign over them, and fulfill to them all the words the prophets had spoken. Only the persistently unrepentant will be left, who, joining themselves to the Antichrist, perhaps receiving him as their Messiah, are cut off with him.
The third class is the nations, the unbaptized, or the heathen. These not having the Scriptures, nor knowing the purpose of God in Christ, are not reached so much by a witness to the truth, as by His great and terrible works in the earth. He is made known to them chiefly through the Jews, both through the knowledge of His wonderful actings toward them in their national deliverance, and through those whom He sends forth from them as His special witnesses. (Ezek. xxxvi. 36; Isa. lxvi. 19.) In this people so widely scattered, so long afflicted, so greatly despised, and now so wonderfully regathered, and so visibly blessed and honored by God, the heathen nations will see His hand, and admire His power and goodness. "It shall come to pass that ten men shall take hold, out of all languages of the nations, of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you." (Zech. viii. 23.) Then will He be sanctified in their eyes. "The heathen shall know that I am the Lord when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes." (Ezek. xxxvi. 23.) Thus the regathering of the Jews from dispersion and their restoration, more marvellous in all its attendant circumstances than the deliverance from Egypt, and from so many lands, will make God and the Messiah known unto all peoples. The revelation of His glory at Jerusalem, the righteousness of the Messianic rule, the blessings given to all the obedient, cannot be hidden. "All that see them, shall acknowledge them that they are the seed which the Lord hath blessed;" and to the city of the Great King will they go up that they may be taught of His ways, and offer to Him their worship. Those who remain to the end disobedient, rejecting the Messiah's rule, will He cut off from the earth. (Ps. ix. 17.)
Such is a brief general outline of those judicial actings of God, which precede and accompany the setting up of the Messianic Kingdom. That which marks them is, that they are in intent for salvation, not for destruction; chastisements to bring to repentance. He first sends forth His witnesses to make known His purpose and declare His righteousness, and this witness is followed by the punishment of those who refuse to listen. Successive messages of warning, and successive punishments upon those who do not heed them, are the means of separating all who are penitent and have faith, from the persistently obstinate and unrepentant. Thus, out of each of these three classes, — the baptized, the Jews, the heathen nations, — are all at last gathered who see the hand of God, and become submissive to His will.
It is this period immediately preceding the setting up of the Messianic Kingdom, to which the prophets so often refer as "the day of the Lord," "the great and terrible day." It is presented in many aspects, but its special characteristic is the manifestation of Jehovah as the Righteous and Supreme Lord. It is the time when He presents Himself as the Judge, both of His own people and of the nations; and, as a day of judgment, it has a twofold character; it is both "a day of destruction " and " a day of salvation." Then He reveals both His mercy and His justice as never before in the history of the world. "He makes bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations." None dwelling on the earth shall longer be ignorant that He is the Almighty and Righteous God, and that He has given all power and dominion to His Son; and all who array themselves against His purpose will He destroy from off the earth. "It is a day that burneth as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble." "The day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up, and he shall be brought low. . . . And the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day." "By fire and by His sword will the Lord plead with all flesh, and the slain of the Lord shall be many."
As the great and terrible day, a day of vengeance, of destruction, it was associated in the Jewish mind with all forms of terror and distress. It was thought of as ushered in by many portents, both in nature and among men, — famines, earthquakes, tempests, wars, signs in sun, moon, and stars; persecutions of the faithful, outbreaks of wickedness, a general dissolution of all social and religious bonds. The hostility of man to Jehovah and to His purpose in His Son is brought out as never before; the spirit of proud disobedience now reaches its height. The long-suffering of Jehovah comes to its end. He will no longer suffer the ungodly to triumph; He will interpose to deliver His afflicted people. But while a day of vengeance, it is also a day of mercy; since the way is thus prepared for the Kingdom of His Son and the Messianic salvation.
It was the longing of many Jewish hearts, "Oh! that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion." But this was more than the salvation of Israel. "All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God." "The Lord hath made known His salvation, His righteousness hath He openly shewed in the sight of the heathen." Out of the night cometh the day; and out of anarchy and violence, and all the forms of wickedness of the last times, come the peace and order and holiness of the Messianic Kingdom.
We know from our Lord's own words that He acts for God in all this work preparatory to the Kingdom. "The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son." (John v. 22.) And in the prophets this is often declared: "Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is just, and having salvation. . . . He shall speak peace unto the heathen, and His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth." (Zech. ix. 9, etc.; Isa. xi. 4.) He will execute Jehovah's righteous judgments upon His enemies. Then will be "given Him the heathen for His inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession; and He will break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces, like a potter's vessel." Then will " He strike through kings in the day of His wrath. ... He shall fill the places with dead bodies." And in Him are fulfilled the words respecting the coming of Jehovah to judge the earth. "He cometh to judge the earth; He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth." In the Revelation, He is presented as coming from heaven: "I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and He that sat on Him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He doth judge and make war." (xix. 11.)
These predictions by the prophets of the fearful judgment of God by the Messiah upon all who should oppose Him at the setting up of the Messianic Kingdom, our Lord confirmed in His own teachings. He declared that, at the time of His return, there "shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world, no, nor ever shall be; and except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved." (Matt. xxiv. 21.) There shall be "upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring" (or, "in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows." Rev. Ver.); "men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth." (Luke xxi. 25, etc.) "For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled." The apostles speak in like way: "The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power." (2 Thess. i. 7-10.)
In the Book of the Revelation, which has especial reference to the Church, an order is clearly set forth in those disciplinary judgments preceding the Lord's return. In the trumpets there is first a note of warning, followed hy a chastisement upon those by whom the warning is unheard; then another warning and another chastisement, the chastisements increasing in severity as men rebel and blaspheme. (Chaps, viii., ix. 20, 21.) Upon the trumpets follow the vials "full of the wrath of God," "the seven last plagues, for in them is filled up the wrath of God." The merciful actings of God having failed to bring all to repentance, He visits the unrepentant in righteous anger. "The first angel went and poured out his vial, . . . and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image." (xvi. 2.) But the more his displeasure is manifested, the more the evil in them is revealed; "they blasphemed the name of God, . . . and they repented not to give Him glory." The end of all is, that the hardened and the incorrigible gather themselves to the beast and false prophet, that they may resist to the last the Messiah and His Kingdom. (Rev. xix. 19, etc.)
Thus, among the living on earth, when these successive separations have been completed, are left only the holy ones of the Church, the repentant and restored among the Jews, the obedient among the nations. All the rebellious, all who remain hostile to God and to His Son, neither moved by His goodness nor trembling at His justice, are cut off from the earth. Now, all hinderances being removed, "all things that offend being gathered out, and them which do iniquity," the true order of the Messianic Kingdom is seen; and the Messiah rules over a world at rest, and in peace. How long a period will be occupied in these processes of separation and reward, has not been made known, but must necessarily be of considerable duration.
The Scriptures mention many events as immediately preceding the establishment of the Kingdom, which must be referred to this period, but whose exact order is not known, — the persecution of the Jews by the Gentiles, the ripening of the apostasy in the Christian Church, the appearing of the Antichrist, the growth of his power, the great and last confederacy of kings and rulers against the Lord and His Anointed, the partial regathering of the Jews, a new and final assault of the nations against Jerusalem, the sufferings and death of the martyrs, and the overthrow of the Antichrist,— events which apparently must demand years for their accomplishment.
From these judicial actings of God with the living, we turn to the departed, and ask whether, as some in the Church on the earth are changed into Christ's likeness at His coming, and made immortal that they may reign with Him; it is so likewise with some of the departed? Is there a separation among the dead, some rising before the rest? That the resurrection spoken of by the Old-Testament prophets is a partial one, we have already seen. We are told by the apostle that "we which are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them which are asleep. . . . The dead in Christ shall rise first; then we, which are alive and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds." The faithful living enter into His glory by translation, the faithful departed by resurrection. Thus, there is at His coming a separation among the dead; not all are then raised, only those whom the Lord counts worthy. (Luke xx. 35.) "The Son quickeneth whom He will." This is the first resurrection, that to which St. Paul strove to attain. (Phil. iii. 11.) How great the number that will attain to it, whether all those who sleep in Jesus, or the most faithful only, it is not for us to decide. "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power." This election from among the dead, the clothing of some with their immortal and incorruptible bodies before others, has its ground in His purpose of progressive redemption and revelation, first in Christ raised from the dead and glorified, then in the members of His body made like Him; and faithfulness in the present life is the measure of reward in the life to come. "To sit on my right hand and on my left, is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it has been prepared of my Father." (Matt. xx. 23.) "Thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just." (Luke xiv. 14.)