Jesus's Words

Chapter 12: More Falsehoods.—Resurrection-Witnesses Multiplied.—World's End Predicted.—to Save Credit, Antichrist Invented

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Section 2: False Prophecy, That the World Would End In the Lifetime of Persons Then Living

The unsatiableness of Paul's ambition meets the eye at every page: the fertility of his invention is no less conspicuous. So long as, between this and the other world, the grave stood interposed,—the strongest impression capable of being made by pictures of futurity, even when drawn by so bold a hand, was not yet sufficient for stocking it with the power it grasped at. This barrier, at whatever hazard, he accordingly determined to remove. The future world being thus brought at both ends into immediate contact with the present,—the obedient, for whom the joys of heaven were provided, would behold the troubles of the middle passage saved to them, while the disobedient would see the jaws of hell opened for their reception, without any such halting-place, as might otherwise seem to be offered by the grave. In particular, by a nearer as well as smoother road than that rugged one, he would make his way to heaven: nor would they, whose obedience gave them a just claim to so high a favour, be left behind.

His Thessalonians were the disciples, chosen by him for the trial of this experiment. Addressed to them we have two of his Epistles. In these curious and instructive documents, the general purport—not only of what had been said to the persons in question on a former occasion, but likewise of the observation of which on their part it had been productive,—is rendered sufficiently manifest, by what we shall find him saying in the first of them. "Good," said they, "as to some of us, whoever they may be: but, how is it to be with the rest? in particular, with those who have actually died already: not to speak of those others who will have been dying off in the meantime: for you do not go so far as to promise, that we shall, all of us, be so sure of escaping death as you yourself are." "Make yourselves easy," we shall find him saying to them: "sooner or later, take my word for it, we shall, all of us, mount up together in a body: those who are dead, those who are to die, and those who are not to die—all of us at once, and by the same conveyance: up, in the air, and through the clouds, we shall go. The Lord will come down and meet us, and show us the way:—music, vocal and instrumental, will come with him, and a rare noise altogether there will be! Those who died first will have risen first; what little differences there may be are not worth thinking about. Comfort yourselves," concludes he, "with these words." Assuredly not easily could more comfortable ones have been found:—always supposing them followed by belief, as it appears they were. But it is time we should see more particularly what they were.

And indeed ye do it (love one another) toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more; And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing. But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.1st Thessalonians 4:10-18 Hereupon, without any intervening matter, follows that of the next chapter. The division into chapters,—though, for the purpose of reference, not merely a useful, but an altogether necessary one,—is universally acknowledged to have been a comparatively modern one.

But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do. 1st Thessalonians 5:1-11

An ingenious game was the one thus played by Paul, if ever there was one. Of this prophecy,65 what when once mentioned, is plainly enough visible, is—this is of the number of those predictions, by which profit is put in for, and no loss risked: for such is the shape given to it. So long as the predictor lived, it would remain good and undisfulfilled: at the end of a certain time—namely, at the end of the life of the longest liver of the aggregate number of individuals in existence at that time,—the disfulfillment would indeed take place. But if, by that time, the predictor had made his exit,—as, in this case, being already of a certain age, it is tolerably certain he would,—the reproach of false prophecy would not have reached him: and, even, supposing it to have reached him, as it would do if he survived the last of them, still the speculation would not be a very bad one. His prophecy, his purposes would have been fulfilled.

Not altogether without claim to observation, is the manner, in which, by the adroitness of the soothsayer, the anxiety of questioners is evaded. That he himself does not know, nor ever expects to know,—that is what his prudence forbids his telling them. "The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night:"(1st Thessalonians 5:2.) this is what, in answer to former importunities, he had at that time told them. "For you yourselves," says he, "know this perfectly;" that is, in so far as they could know from his telling: this being, in this instance, the only source,—of that delusion, to which he gave the name of knowledge. This he had told them then: and more, he takes care not to tell them now. "Of the times and seasons, brethren," says he, "ye have no need that I write unto you." Meantime, their hopes and fears, and therewith their dependence upon his good pleasure, are kept still alive: in the first place, the hope—that, knowing already more than he as yet desires to disclose, he may by ulterior obsequiousness be prevailed upon to disclose it: in the next place, the hope—that, though not as yet possessed of the information, he may at some future period be able to obtain it, and in that case give them the benefit of it.

To a speculation of this sort,—in how particular a degree favourable the mode of communication by letter was, is sufficiently visible. Writing, was an operation not quite so prompt, in those days as in these. Between Thessalonica and Athens,—from whence, as they tell us, these Epistles were written,—there was not, it may be affirmed without much danger of error, any established letter-post: and, even if there was,—to this or that question, which a man sees in a letter, he makes or does not make answer, as he finds convenient. Not exactly so, when the questioner is at his elbow.


65 By the word prophecy the idea meant to be conveyed in Jewish language seems to be very generally misconceived. It is regarded as exactly synonymous to prediction. Nothing can be more erroneous. In New Testament language in particular, it is no less applicable to past events than to future. Witness, Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?Luke 22:64 In the Greek, the word is occasion, it meant evidently neither more nor less than speak out. Hence it came to signify speaking in public: hence again, speaking as a statesman: hence again, writing as a statesman, as well as speaking. Not that a statesman could ever or can ever be a statesman, and in the above sense, a prophet, without being a predictor likewise: as often as any proposed measure is on the carpet, such he must be, or what he says must be nothing to the purpose. Merely by uttering a prediction concerning future events, Paul would not have included, in his prophecy, any such pretension, as that of a supernatural communication received from the Almighty: but, the one here in question was one which, supposing it true, could not have come from any other source.

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