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NOTE EThe Rev. F. D. Maurice on ‘the Last Time.’ (1 John ii. 18)
‘How could St. John say that his time was the last time? Has not the world lasted nearly one thousand eight hundred years since he left it? May it not last yet many years more?
‘You will be told by many that not only St. John, but St. Paul, and all the apostles, laboured under the delusion that the end of all things was approaching in their day. People say so who are not in general disposed to undervalue their authority; some adopt the opinion practically, though they may not express it in words, who hold that the writers of the Bible were never permitted to make a mistake in the most trifling point. I do not say that; it would not shake my faith in them to find that they had erred in names or points of chronology. But if I supposed they had been misled themselves, and had misled their disciples, on so capital a subject as this of Christ’s coming to judgment, and of the latter days, I should be greatly perplexed. For it is a subject to which they are constantly referring. It is a part of their deepest faith. It mingles with all their practical exhortations. If they were wrong here, I cannot myself see where they can have been right.
‘I have found their language on this subject of the greatest possible use to me in explaining the method of the Bible; the course of God’s government over nations and over individuals; the life of the world before the time of the apostles, during their time, and in all the centuries since. If we will do them the justice which we owe to every writer, inspired or uninspired,---if we will allow them to interpret themselves, instead of forcing our interpretations upon them, we shall, I think, understand a little more of their work, and of ours. If we take their words simply and literally respecting the judgment and the end which they were expecting in their day, we shall know what position they were occupying with respect to their forefathers and to us. And in place of a very vague, powerless, and artificial conception of the judgment which we are to look for, we shall learn what our needs are by theirs; how God will fulfil all His words to us by the way in which He fulfilled His words to them.
‘It is not a new notion, but a very old and common one, that the history of the world is divided into certain great periods. In our days the conviction that there is a broad distinction between ancient and modern history has been forcing itself more and more upon thoughtful men. M. Guizot dwells especially upon the unity and universality of modern history, as contrasted with the division of ancient history into a set of nations which had scarcely any common sympathies. The question is, where to find the boundary between these two periods. About these, students have made many guesses; most of them have been plausible and suggestive of truths; some very confusing; none, I think, satisfactory. One of the most popular,---that which supposes modern history to begin when the barbarous tribes settled themselves in Europe, would be quite fatal to M. Guizot’s doctrine. For that settlement, although it was a most important and indispensable event to modern civilisation, was the temporary breaking up of a unity which had existed before. It was like the re-appearance of that separation of tribes and races, which he supposes to have been the especial characteristic of the former world.
‘Now, may we expect any light upon this subject in the Bible? I do not think it would fulfil its pretensions if we might not. It professes to set forth the ways of God to nations and to mankind. We might be well content that it should tell us very little about physical laws; we might be content that it should be silent about the courses of the planets and law of gravitation. God may have other ways of making these secrets known to His creatures. But that which concerns the moral order of the world and the spiritual progress of human beings falls directly within the province of the Bible. No one could be satisfied with it if it was dumb respecting these. And accordingly all who suppose it is dumb here, however much importance they may attach to what they call its religious character,---however much they may suppose their highest interests to depend upon a belief in its oracles, are obliged to treat it as a very disjointed fragmentary volume. They afford the best excuse for those who say that it is not a whole book, as we have thought it, but a collection of the sayings and opinions of certain authors, in different ages, not very consistent with each other. On the other hand, there has been the strongest conviction in the minds of ordinary readers, as well as of students, that the book does tell us how the ages past, and the ages to come, are concerned in the unveiling of God’s mysteries,---what part one country and another has played in His great drama,---to what point all the lines in His providence are converging. The immense interest which has been taken in prophecy,---an interest not destroyed, nor even weakened, by the numerous disappointments which men’s theories about it have had to encounter, is a proof how deep and widely-spread this conviction is. Divines endeavour in vain to recall simple and earnest readers from the study of the prophecies by urging that they have not leisure for such a pursuit, and that they ought to busy themselves with what is more practical. If their consciences tell them that there is some ground for they warning, they yet feel as if they could not heed it altogether. They are sure that they have an interest in the destinies of their race, as well as in their own individual destiny. They cannot separate the one from the other; they must believe that there is light somewhere about both. I dare not discourage such an assurance. If we hold it strongly, it may be a great instrument of raising us out of our selfishness. I am only afraid lest we should lose it, as we certainly shall if we contract the habit of regarding the Bible as a book of puzzles and conundrums, and of looking restlessly for certain outward events to happen at certain dates that we have fixed upon as those which the prophets and apostles have set down. The cure for such follies, which are very serious indeed, lies not in the neglect of prophecy, but in more earnest meditation upon it; remembering that prophecy is not a set of loose predictions, like the sayings of the fortune-teller, but an unfolding of Him whose going forth are from everlasting; who is the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever; whose acts in one generation are determined by the same laws as His acts in another.
‘If I should ever speak to you of the Apocalypse of St. John I shall have to enter much more at large on this subject. But so much I have said to introduce the remark that the Bible treats the downfall of the Jewish polity as the winding-up of a great period in human history and as the commencement of another great period. John the Baptist announces the presence of One "whose fan is in his hand; and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." The evangelists say, that by these words he denoted that Jesus of Nazareth, who afterwards went down into the waters of Jordan, and as He came out of it was declared to be the Son of God, and on whom the Spirit descended in a bodily shape.
‘We are wont to separate Jesus the Saviour from Jesus the King and the Judge. They do not. They tell us from the first that He came preaching a kingdom of heaven. They tell us of His doing acts of judgment as well as acts of deliverance. They report the tremendous words which He spoke to Pharisees and Scribes, as well as the Gospel which He preached to publicans and sinners. And before the end of His ministry, when His disciples were asking Him about the buildings of the temple, He spoke plainly of a judgment which He, the Son of man, should execute before that generation was over. And to make it clear that He meant us to understand Him strictly and literally, He added,---"Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." This discourse, which is carefully reported to us by St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. Luke, does not stand aloof from the rest of His discourses and parables, nor from the rest of His deeds. They all contain the same warning. They are gracious and merciful,---far more gracious and merciful than we have even supposed them to be; they are witnesses of a gracious and merciful Being; but they are witnesses that those who did not like that Being just because this was His character,---who sought for another being like themselves, that is, for an ungracious and unmerciful being---would have their houses left to them desolate.
‘When, therefore, the apostles went forth after our Lord’s ascension, to preach His Gospel and baptize in His name, their first duty was to announce that that Jesus whom the rulers of Jerusalem had crucified was both Lord and Christ; their second was to preach remission of sins and the gift of the Spirit in His name; their third was to foretell the coming of a great and terrible day of the Lord, and to say to all who hear, "Save yourself from this untoward generation." It was the language which St. Peter used on the day of Pentecost,; it was adopted with such variations as befitted the circumstances of the hearers by all who were entrusted with the Gospel message. It was no doubt peculiarly applicable to the Jews. They had been made the stewards of God’s gifts to the world. They had wasted their Master’s goods, and were to be no longer stewards. But we do not find the apostles confining their language to the Jews. St. Paul, speaking at Athens,---speaking in words specially appropriate to a cultivated, philosophical, heathen city,---declares that God "has appointed a day in the which he will judge the world by that Man whom he hath ordained," and points to the resurrection from the dead as determining who that Man is. Why was this? Because apostles believed that the rejection of the Jewish people was the manifestation of the Son of Man; a witness to all nations who their King was; a call to all nations to cast away their idols and confess Him. The Gospel was to explain the meaning of the great crisis which was about to occur; to tell the Gentiles as well as the Jews what it would imply; to announce it as nothing less than the commencement of a new era in the world’s history, when the crucified Man would claim an universal empire, and would contend with the Roman Caesar as well as with all other tyrants of the earth who should set up their claims against His.
‘This Scriptural view of the ordering of times and seasons entirely harmonizes with that conclusion at which M. Guizot has arrived by an observation of facts. Our Lord’s birth nearly coincided with the establishment of the Roman Empire in the person of Augustus Caesar. That empire aspired to crush the nations and to establish a great world supremacy. The Jewish nation had been the witness against all such experiments in the old world. It had fallen under the Babylonian tyranny, but it had risen again. And the time which followed its captivity was the great time of the awakening of national life of Europe,---the time in which the Greek republics flourished,---the time in which the Roman Republic commenced its grand career.
‘The Jewish nation had been overcome by the armies of the Roman Republic; still it retained the ancient signs of its nationality, its law, its priesthood, its temple. These looked ridiculous and insignificant to the Roman emperors, even to the Roman governors who ruled the little province of Judea, or the larger province of Syria, in which it was often reckoned. But they found the Jews very troublesome. Their nationality was of a peculiar kind, and of unusual strength. When they were most degraded they could not part with it. They would stir up endless rebellions, in the hope of recovering what they had lost, and of establishing the universal kingdom which they believed was intended for them, and not for Rome. the preaching of our Lord declared to them that there was such an universal kingdom,---that He, the Son of David, had come to set it up on the earth. The Jews dreamed of another kind of kingdom, with another kind of king. They wanted a Jewish kingdom, which should trample upon the nations, just as the Roman Empire was trampling upon them; they wanted a Jewish king who should be in all essentials like the Roman Caesar. It was a dark, horrible, hateful conception; it combined all that is narrowest in the most degraded exclusive form of nationality, with all that is cruellest, most destructive of moral and personal life in the worst form of imperialism. It gathered up into itself all that was worst in the history of the past. It was a shadowing forth of what should be worst in the coming time. The apostles announced that the accursed ambition of the Jews would be utterly disappointed. They said that a new age was at hand---the universal age, the age of the Son of man, which would be preceded by a great crisis that would shake not earth only, but also heaven: not that only which belonged to time, but also all that belonged to the spiritual world, and to man’s relations with it. They said that this shaking would be that it might be seen what there was which could not be shaken---which must abide.
‘I have tried thus to show you what St. John mean by the last time, if he spoke the same language as our Lord spoke, and as the other apostles spoke. I cannot tell what physical changes he or they may have looked for. Physical phenomena are noticed at that time,---famines, plagues, earthquakes. Whether they, or any of them, supposed that these indicated more alteration in the surface or the substance of the earth than they did indicate, I cannot tell; these are not the points upon which I look for information if they gave it. That they did not anticipate the passing away of the earth,---what we call the destruction of the earth,---is clear from this, that the new kingdom they spoke of was to be a kingdom on earth as well as a kingdom of heaven. But their belief that such a kingdom had been set up, and would make its power felt as soon as the old nation was scattered, has, I think, been abundantly verified by fact. I do not see how we can understand modern history properly till we accept that belief.’
1. The Epistles of St. John, by F.D. Maurice, M.A., Lect. ix.
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