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THE PAROUSIA IN THE EPISTLES TO THE THESSALONIANS.
THE SECOND EPISTLE TO THE THESSALONIANS
The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians appears to have been written shortly after the First, to correct the misapprehension into which some had fallen respecting the time of the Parousia, whether through an erroneous interpretation of the apostle’s former letter, or in consequence of some pretended communication circulated among them purporting to be from him. We learn from this epistle the precise nature of the mistake which some of the Thessalonians had committed. I was that the time of the Parousia had
actually arrived. In consequence of this opinion some had begun to neglect their secular employments and subsist upon the charity of others. To check the evils which might arise, or had arisen, from such erroneous impressions, St. Paul wrote this second epistle, reminding them that certain events, which had not yet taken place, must precede the ‘day of the Lord.’ There is nothing, however, in the epistle to suggest that the Parousia was a distant event, but the contrary.
THE PAROUSIA A TIME OF JUDGMENT TO THE ENEMIES OF CHRIST,
It is obvious from the allusions in the commencement of this epistle that the Thessalonians were at this time suffering severely from the malice of their Jewish persecutors, and those ‘lewd fellows of the baser sort,’ who were in league with them (Acts xvii.5). The apostle comforts them with the prospect of deliverance at the appearing of the Lord Jesus, which would bring rest to them and retribution to their enemies. This is in perfect accordance with the representations constantly made with respect to the Parousia,---that it would be the time of judgment to the wicked, and the reward to the righteous. The apostle seems not to anticipate the ‘rest’ of which he speaks until the Parousia, ‘when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven,’ etc. It follows that the rest was conceived by St. Paul to be very near; for if the revelation of the Lord Jesus be an event still future, then we must conclude that neither the apostle nor the suffering Christians have yet entered into that rest. It will be observed that it is not said that death is to bring them rest, but ‘the apocalypse’ of the Lord Jesus from heaven: a clear proof that the apostle did not regard that apocalypse as a distant event.
That this approaching ‘apocalypse,’ or revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven, is identical with the Parousia predicted by our Saviour, is so evident that it needs no proof. It is ‘the day of the Lord’ (Luke xvii. 24); ‘the day when the Son of man is revealed’ (Luke xvii. 30); ‘the day which shall be revealed in fire’ (1 Cor. iii. 13); ‘the day which shall burn as a furnace’ (Mal. iv. 1); ‘the great and dreadful day of the Lord’ (Mal. iv. 5). It is the day when ‘the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels, to reward every man according to his works’ (Matt. xvi. 27). And once more, it is that day concerning which our Lord declared, ‘Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt. xvi. 28).
We are thus brought back to the same truth which everywhere meets us in the New Testament, that the Parousia, the day of Israel’s judgment, and the close of the Jewish dispensation, was not a distant event, but within the limit of the generation which rejected the Messiah.
The objection will be urged, What had that to do with Thessalonica and the Christians there? How could the destruction of Jerusalem, or the extinction of the Jewish nationality, or the close of the Mosaic economy, affect persons at so great a distance from Judea as Thessalonica? Even if it were impossible to give a satisfactory answer to this objection, it would not alter the plain and natural meaning of words, or make it incumbent upon us to force an interpretation upon them which they will not bear. The Scriptures must be allowed to speak for themselves --- a liberty which many will not concede. But with regard to the bearing of the Parousia on Christians in Thessalonica, or outside of Judea in general, it cannot be denied that the language of this passage, as of many others, intimates that it was an event in which all had a deep and personal interest. Nor is it enough to say that the most bitter antagonists of the Gospel in Thessalonica were Jews, and that the Jewish revolt was the signal for the massacre of the Jewish inhabitants in almost every city of the Empire. This may be true, but it is not the whole truth, according to apostolic teaching. We must admit, therefore, that as the eschatological scheme of the New Testament unfolds itself, it becomes apparent that the Parousia, and its accompanying events, did not relate to Judea exclusively, but had an ecumenical or world-wide aspect, so that Christians everywhere might look and long for it, and hail its coming as the day of triumph and of glory. As we proceed we shall find ample evidence of this larger aspect of ‘the day of Christ,’ as a great epoch in the divine administration of the world.
EVENTS WHICH MUST PRECEDE THE PAROUSIA
1. The Apostasy
Few passages have more exercised and baffled commentators, or are regarded to this day as involved in deeper obscurity, than the one before us. There is no reason, however, to suppose that it was unintelligible to the Thessalonians, for it refers to matters which had formed the topic of frequent conversation between them and the apostle, and possibly not a little of the obscurity of which expositors complain may arise from the fact that, to the Thessalonians, it was only necessary to give hints, rather than full explanations.
The apostle begins by distinctly stating the subjects on which he is desirous of setting the Thessalonians right. They are, (1) ‘the coming of Christ,’ and (2) ‘our gathering together unto him.’ These are evidently regarded by the apostle as simultaneous, or, at all events, closely connected. What are we to understand by this 'gathering together unto Christ’ at the Parousia? There is no doubt a reference here to our Lord’s own words, Matt. xxvi. 31: ‘He shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds,’ etc. The [shall gather together] in the gospel in evidently the [the gathering together] of the epistle; and we have another reference to the same event and the same period in 1 Thess. iv. 16,17: ‘For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God,’ etc. This can be nothing else, then, than the summoning of the living and the dead to the tribunal of Christ.
That great and solemn ‘gathering’ the Thessalonians had been taught to ‘wait for;’ but it appears they were labouring under some misapprehension concerning the time of its arrival. Some of them had formed the opinion that ‘the day of Christ’ had actually arrived . It is important to observe that our English version does not give the correct rendering of this word. The apostle does not say, ‘as that the day of Christ is at hand,’ but ‘as that the day of Christ is present, or, is actually come,’ The constant teaching of St. Paul was, that the day of Christ was at hand, and it would have been to contradict himself to tell Christians of Thessalonica that that day was not at hand. Yet nothing is more common than to find some of our most respectable scholars and critics deny that the apostles and early Christians expected the Parousia in their own day, on the strenght of the erroneous rendering of this word . Even so eminent an authority as Moses Stuart says, in reply to Tholuck:---
So, too, Albert Barnes:---
Most singular of all is the explanation of Dr. Lange:---
What can be more arbitrary and whimsical than such a distinction? What more empirical than such treatment of Scripture, by which it is made to say Yes and No; to affirm and to deny; to declare that an event is nigh and distant, in the same breath? Who would presume to interpret Scripture if it spoke in such ambiguous language as this?
We hold by the ‘definite historical and chronological sense’ of the Parousia, and by no other. It is the only sense which is respectful to the Word of God and satisfactory to sober criticism. The apostle does not correct himself, nor does he refer to two different ‘comings,’ but he corrects the mistake of the Thessalonians, who affirmed that the day of Christ had actually come. In every instance in which the word occurs in the New Testament it refers to what is present, and not to what is future. To Greek scholars it is unnecessary to point this out, but to English readers it may be satisfactory to refer to competent authorities.
Dr. Manton, comparing the force of the words and [draweth nigh] (Jas. v. 8; 1 Pet. iv. 17), observes:---
Whiston, the translator of Josephus, has the following note:---
Dr. Paley observes:---
Conybeare and Howson translate,---
Dean Alford comments thus:---
The very general misconception which prevails respecting the meaning of this verse renders it of the utmost importance that it should be correctly apprehended.
It is easy to understand how the erroneous opinion of the Thessalonians should have ‘troubled and shaken’ their minds. It was calculated to produce panic and disorder. History tells us that a general belief prevailed in Europe towards the close of the tenth century that the year 1000 would witness the coming of Christ, the day of judgment, and the end of the world. As the time drew near, a general panic seized the minds of men. Many abandoned their homes and their families, and repaired to the Holy Land; others made over their lands to the Church, or permitted them to be uncultivated, and the whole course of ordinary life was violently disturbed and deranged. A similar delusion, though on a smaller scale, prevailed in some parts of the United States in the year 1843, causing great consternation among multitudes, and driving many persons out of their senses. Facts like these show the wisdom which ‘hid the day and the hour’ of the Son of man’s coming, so that, while all might be watchful, none should be thrown into agitation.
In the third verse the apostle intimates that ‘the day of Christ’ must be preceded by two events:---(1) The coming of ‘the apostasy,’ and (2) the manifestation of ‘the man of sin.’
Could we place ourselves in the situation and circumstances of the Christians of Thessalonica when this epistle was written; could we call up the hopes and fears, the expectations and apprehensions, the social and political agitations of that period, we might be better able to enter into the explanations of St. Paul. Doubtless the Thessalonians understood him perfectly. As Paley justly observes, ‘No man writes unintelligibly on purpose,’ and we cannot suppose that he would tantalise them with enigmas which could only perplex and bewilder them more than ever.
The first question that presents itself is, Are the ‘apostasy’ and the ‘man of sin’ identical? Do they both point to the same thing? It is the opinion of many, perhaps of most, expositors that they are virtually one and the same. But evidently they are distinct and separate things. The apostasy represents a multitude, the man of sin a person; so that though they may be in some respects connected, they are not to be confounded; they may exist contemporaneously, but they are not identical.The Apostasy St. Paul does not at present dwell upon ‘the apostasy,’ but, having simply named it as to come, passes on to the description of ‘the man of sin.’ We may here, however, refer to the fact that ‘the falling away’ was no new idea to the disciples of Christ. The Saviour had expressly predicted its coming in His prophetic discourse, Matt. xxiv. 10,12, and St. Paul elsewhere gives as full a delineation of the apostasy as he here does of the man of sin. (See 1 Tim. iv. 1-3; 2 Tim. iii. 1-9.) It can only refer to that defection from the faith so clearly predicted by our Lord, and described by His apostles, as indicative of ‘the last days.’ But this topic will come to be considered in its proper place.
The Man of Sin
It is of utmost importance in entering upon this field of inquiry to find some principle which may guide and govern us in the investigation. We find such a principle in the very simple and obvious consideration that the apostle is here referring to circumstances which lay within the ken of the Thessalonians themselves. If the Parousia itself, to which the development of the apostasy and the appearing of the man of sin were antecedent, was declared by the word of the Lord to fall within the period of the existing generation, it follows that ‘the apostasy’ and ‘the man of sin’ lay nearer to them than the Parousia. Besides, if we suppose ‘the apostasy’ and ‘the man of sin’ to lie far beyond the times of the Thessalonians, what would be the use of giving them explanations and information about matters which were not at all urgent, and which, in fact, did not concern them at all? Is it no obvious that whoever the man of sin may be, he must be someone with whom the apostle and his readers had to do? Is he not writing to living men about matters in which they are intensely interested? Why should he delineate the features of this mysterious personage to the Thessalonians if he was one with whom the Thessalonians had nothing to do, from whom they had nothing to fear, and who would not be revealed for ages yet to come? It is clear that he speaks of one whose influence was already beginning to be felt, and whose unchecked and lawless fury would ere long burst forth. All this lies on the very surface, obvious and unquestionable. But this is not all. It appears certain that the Thessalonians were not ignorant what person was intended by the man of sin. It was not the first time that the apostle had spoken with them on the subject. He says, ‘Remember ye not, that when I was yet with you, I kept telling you these things? and now ye know what hindereth his being revealed in his own time.’ This language plainly indicates that the apostle and his readers were well acquainted with the name ‘man of sin,’ and knew who was designated thereby. If so, and it seems unquestionable, the area of investigation becomes greatly contracted, and the probabilities of discovery proportionately increased. What the Thessalonians had ‘talked about,’ ‘remembered,’ and ‘knew,’ must have been something of living and present interest; in short, must have belonged to contemporary history.
But why does not the apostle speak out frankly? Why this reserve and reticence in darkly hinting what he does not name? It was not from ignorance; it could not be from the affectation of mystery. There must have been some strong reason for this extreme caution. No doubt; but of what nature? Why should he have been in the habit, as he says, of speaking so freely on the subject in private, and then write so obscurely in his epistle? Obviously, because it was not safe to be more explicit. On the one hand, a hint was enough, for they could all understand his meaning; on the other, more than a hint was dangerous, for to name the person might have compromised himself and them.
From what quarter, then, was danger to be apprehended from too great freedom of speech? There were only two quarters from which the Chrsitians of the apostolic age had just cause for apprehension, --- Jewish bigotry and Roman jealousy. Hitherto the Gospel had suffered most from the former: the Jews were everywhere the instigators in ‘stirring up the Gentiles against the brethren.’ But the power of Rome was jealous, and the Jews knew well how to awaken that jealousy; in Thessalonica itself they had got up the cry, ‘These all do contrary to the decrees of Cæsar.’ Which of these causes, then, may have sealed the lips of the apostle? Not fear of the Jews, for nothing that he could say was likely to make their hostility more bitter; nor had the Jews any direct civil authority by which they could inflict injury upon the Christian cause. We conclude, therefore, that it was from the Roman power that the apostle apprehended danger, and that his reticence was occasioned by the desire not to involve the Thessalonians in the suspicion of disaffection and sedition.
Let us now turn to the description of ‘the man of sin’ given by the apostle, and endeavour to discover, if possible, whether there was any individual then existing in the Roman Empire to whom it will apply.
With these descriptive marks in our hands can there be any difficulty in identifying the person in whom they all are found? Were there three men in the Roman Empire who answered this description? Were there two? Assuredly not. But there was one, and only one. When the apostle wrote he was on the steps of the Imperial throne---a little longer and he sate on the throne of the world. It is NERO, the first of the persecuting emperors; the violator of all laws, human and divine; the monster whose cruelty and crimes entitle him to the name ‘the man of sin.’
It will at once be apparent to every reader that all the features in this hideous portraiture belong to Nero; but it is remarkable how exact is the correspondence, especially in those particulars which are more recondite and obscure. He is an individual---a public person---holding the highest rank in the State; heathen, and not Jewish; a monster of wickedness, trampling upon all law. But how striking are the indications that point to Nero in the year when this epistle was written, say A.D.52 or 53. At that time Nero was not yet ‘manifested;’ his true character was not discovered; he had not yet succeeded to the Empire. Claudius, his step-father, lived, and stood in the way of the son of Agrippina. But that hindrance was soon removed. In less than a year, probably, after this epistle was received by the Thessalonians, Claudius was ‘taken out of the way,’ a victim to the deadly practice of the infamous Agrippina; her son also, according to Suetonius, being accessory to the deed. But ‘the mystery of lawlessness was already working;’ the influence of Nero must have been powerful in the last days of the wretched Claudius; the very plots were probably being hatched that paved the way for the accession of the son of the murderess. A few months more would witness the advent to the throne of the world of a miscreant whose name is gibbeted in everlasting infamy as the most brutal of tyrants and the vilest of men.
The remaining notes of the description are no less true to the original. The claim to divine honours; the opposing and exalting himself above all that is called God, or an object of worship; his seating himself in the temple of God, showing himself to be a god; all are distinctive of Nero.
The assumption of divine prerogatives, indeed, was common to all Roman Emperors. ‘Divus,’ god, was inscribed on their coins and statues. The Emperor might be said to ‘exalt himself above all that is called God, or an object of worship,’ by monopolising to himself all worship. This fact is placed in a striking light in the following remarks of Dean Howson:---
The attempt of Caligula to set up his statue in the temple of God in Jerusalem had driven the Jews to the brink of rebellion, and it is just possible that this fact may have given their peculiar form to the description of the apostle. Certainly it suggested to Grotius that Caligula must be the person intended to be portrayed; but the date of the epistle renders this opinion untenable. Nero, however, came behind none of his predecessors in his impious assumption of divine prerogatives. Dio Cassius informs us that when he returned victorious from the Grecian games, he entered Rome in triumph, and was hailed with such acclamations as these, ‘Nero the Hercules! Nero the Apollo! Thou August, August! Sacred voice! Eternal One.’ In all this we see sufficient evidence of the assumption of divine honours by Nero.
The same is true with respect to another note in this delineation,---the pretension to miraculous powers. ‘Whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders’ (ver. 9). This pretension follows almost as a matter of course from the assumption of the prerogatives of deity.
It is to be supposed that the Imperial Divus would be credited with the possession of supernatural powers; and we find a very remarkable side-light thrown upon this subject in Rev. xiii. 13-15. At this stage of the investigation, however, it would not be desirable to enter into that region of symbolism, though we shall fully avail ourselves of its aid at the proper time.
Further, ‘the man of sin’ is doomed to perish. He is ‘the son of perdition,’ a name which he bears in common with Judas, and indicative of the certainty and completeness of his destruction. ‘The Lord is to slay him with the breath of his mouth, and to destroy him with the appearance of his coming.’ In this significant expression we have a note of the time when the man of sin is destined to perish, marked with singular exactitude. It is the coming of the Lord, the Parousia, which is to be the signal of his destruction; yet not the full splendour of that event so much as the first appearance or dawn of it. Alford (after Bengel) very properly points out that the rendering ‘brightness of his coming’ should be ‘the appearance of his coming,’ and he quotes the sublime expression of Milton,---‘far off His coming shone.’ Bengel, with fine discrimination, remarks, ‘Here the appearance of His coming, or, at all events, the first glimmerings of His coming, are prior to the coming itself.’ This evidently implies that the man of sin was destined to perish, not in the full blaze of the Parousia, but at its first dawn or beginning. Now what do we actually find? Remembering how the Parousia is connected with the destruction of Jerusalem, we find that the death of Nero preceded the event. It took place in June A.D.68, in the very midst of the Jewish war which ended in the capture and destruction of the city and the temple. It might therefore be justly said that ‘the appearance, or dawn, of the Parousia’ [ ] was the signal for the tyrant’s destruction.
It does not follow that the death of Nero was to be brought about by immediate supernatural agency because it is said that ‘the Lord shall slay him with the breath of his mouth,’ etc. Herod Agrippa was smitten by the angel of the Lord, but this does not exclude the operation of natural causes: ‘he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost’ (Acts xii.23). So Nero was overtaken by the divine judgment, though he received his death-blow from the sword of the assassin, or from his own hand.
Lastly, it is scarcely necessary to make good the title of Nero to the appellation ‘the man of sin.’ It will be observed that it is the profligacy of his personal character that stamps him with this distinctive epithet, as if he were the very impersonation and embodiment of vice. Such, indeed, was Nero, whose name has become a synonym for all that is base, cruel, and vile; the highest in rank and the lowest in Character in the Roman world: a monster of wickedness even among Pagans, who were not squeamish about morality and who were familiar with the most corrupt society on the face of the earth. The following graphic delineation of the character of Nero is taken from Conybeare and Howson:---
But there is probably another reason why Nero is branded with this epithet. The name ‘man of sin’ was not unknown to Hebrew history. It had already been given to one who was not only a monster of cruelty and wickedness, but also a bitter enemy and persecutor of the Jewish people. It would not have been possible to pronounce a name more hateful to Jewish ears than the name of Antiochus Epiphanes. He was the Nero of his age, the inveterate enemy of Israel, the profaner of the temple, the sanguinary persecutor of the people of God. In the first Book of Maccabees we find the name ‘the man the sinner’ [ ] given to Antiochus (1 Macc. ii. 48, 62), and it seems highly probable that the character and destined to a similar fate with Antiochus, the relentless tyrant and persecutor who became a monument of the wrath of God.
The parallel between ‘the man of sin’ and Antiochus Epiphanes is particularly noticed by Bengel, who points out that the description of the former in ver. 4 is borrowed from the description of the latter in Dan. xi. 36. The comment of Bengel is well worthy of quotation:---
We shall find in the sequel that this is not the only passage in which Antiochus Epiphanes is referred to as the prototype of Nero.
But the question may be asked, Why should the revelation of Nero in his true character be a matter of such concern to the apostle and the Christians of Thessalonica? The answer is not far to seek. It was the ferocity of this lawless monster that first let loose all the power of Rome to crush and destroy the Christian name. It was by him that torrents of innocent blood were to be shed and the most exquisite tortures inflicted upon unoffending Christians. It was before his sanguinary tribunal that St. Paul was yet to stand and plead for his life, and from his lips that the sentence was to come that doomed him to a violent death. But more than this, it was under Nero, and by his orders, that the final Jewish war was commenced, and that darkest chapter in the annals of Israel was opened which terminated in the siege and capture of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the extinction of the national polity. This was the consummation predicted by our Lord as the ‘end of the age’ [ ] and the ‘coming of his kingdom.’ The revelation of the man of sin, therefore, as antecedent to the Parousia, was a matter that deeply concerned every Christian disciple.
We can now understand why the apostle should use such caution in writing on a subject like this. It was from no affection of oracular obscurity, but from prudential motives of the most intelligible kind. There were many prying eyes and calumnious tongues in Thessalonica, that only waited an opportunity to denounce the Christians as disaffected and seditious men, secret plotters against the authority of Caesar. To write openly on such subjects would be in the highest degree indiscreet and perilous. Nor was it necessary; for they had discussed these matters before in many a private conversation. ‘Do you not recollect,’ he asks, ‘that when I was with you I was often telling you these things?’ More than hints were unnecessary to the Thessalonians, for they had a key to his meaning which subsequent readers had not. Nor is it greatly to be wondered at if obscurity has gathered round the teaching of the apostle on this subject. Events which to contemporaries are full of intense interest often become not only uninteresting but unintelligible to posterity. Yet it is somewhat strange that the very obvious reference to contemporary history, and to Nero, should have been so generally overlooked. This is the most ancient interpretation of the passage relating to the man of sin. Chrysostom, commenting on the mystery of iniquity, says, ‘He (St. Paul) speaks here of Nero as being the type of the Antichrist; for he also wished to be thought a god.’ This opinion is also referred to by Augustine, Theodoret, and others. Bengel, referring to the obstacle to the manifestation of the man of sin, says: ‘The ancients thought that Claudius was this check: hence it appears they deemed Nero, Claudius’ successor, the man of sin. Moses Stuart has collected a great number of authorities for the identification of Nero with the man of sin. He remarks: ‘The idea that Nero was the man of sin mentioned by Paul, and the Antichrist spoken of so often in the epistles of St. John, prevailed extensively and for a long time in the early church.’ And again: ‘Augustine says: What means the declaration, that the mystery of iniquity already works? . . . Some suppose this to be spoken of the Roman emperor, and therefore Paul did not speak in plain words, because he would not incur the charge of calumny for having spoken evil of the Roman emperor: although he always expected that what he had said would be understood as applying to Nero.’
We consider it a fact of peculiar importance that a conclusion arrived at on quite independent grounds should be found to have the sanction of some of the greatest names of antiquity. We are, however, not at all disposed to rest this interpretation upon external authority; we are inclined to think that the internal evidence in favour of the identification of Nero as the man of sin amounts almost, if not altogether, to demonstration. But we have yet to deal with the confirmation of this fact furnished by the Apocalypse, which we presume to think will produce conviction in every candid mind.
It would be improper to pass from the consideration of this deeply interesting passage without some notice of what may be called the popular Protestant interpretation, which finds here the rise and development of Popery and identifies the Pope as the man of sin. The interpretation is in may respects so plausible, and the points of correspondence so numerous, that it is not surprising that it should have found favour with perhaps the majority of commentators. There is a certain family likeness among all systems of superstition and tyranny, which makes it probable that some of the features which distinguish one may be found in all. But few expositors of any note or weight will now contend that all the descriptive notes of the man of sin are to be found in the Pope. Dean Alford justly observes:---
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