I just finished reading “Encouragement for New Converts,” chapter 17 of The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History (1976, 2009 Banner of Truth Trust) by J. Gresham Machen. This book makes a concise introduction to the major themes in the New Testament and clearly and effectively makes a positive presentation of orthodox New Testament scholarship, while at the same time providing textually based correctives to the academically popular theories of modernist liberal scholarship. Dr. Machen was, above all else, a New Testament scholar. While most known for both his New Testament Greek for Beginners, which is still used in many seminaries, and his popularly written Christianity and Liberalism, New Testament scholarship is his specialty.
Each chapter in Machen’s New Testament Introduction first assigns a selection of New Testament readings on which the following chapter is based. In this case, I read both 1 and 2 Thessalonians out of my ESV Study Bible before taking in Machen’s seven-page chapter on both books. While reading this chapter, which summarized the occasion, contents and issues related to the these earliest of Paul’s epistles, I was struck while reading the section on “The Second Coming of Christ,” in which he expounds “the second advent, with the events which are immediately to precede it” (p. 119). Machen interacts with the dominant modernist theory that Paul actually expected Christ to return during his lifetime.
But there is also a bit of timeliness to Machen’s exposition of 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, specifically in the light of the current prediction by Harold Camping that Judgment Day has been calculated by him to be soon to occur on May 21, 2011. That’s 51 days and counting! Despite the fact that Jesus himself said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36 ESV), Camping, not to mention all other date-setters, appeal to verses such as 1 Thessalonians 5:4-6, which read, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” Machen’s introductory commentary also puts these words in perspective for us in the light of Camping’s millennial madness. Following is Machen’s section on “The Second Coming of Christ,” from pages 119-121 in The New Testament: An Introdcution to its Literature and History. Enjoy!
The Second Coming of Christ
Undoubtedly the second advent, with the events which are immediately to precede it, occupies a central position in the Thessalonian Epistles. Evidently the expectation of Christ’s coming was a fundamental part of Paul’s belief, and had a fundamental place in his preaching. ‘Ye turned unto God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven’–these words show clearly how the hope of Christ’s appearing was instilled in the converts from the very beginning, I Thess. 1.9, 10. To serve the living God and to wait for his Son–that is the sum and substance of the Christian life. All through the Epistles the thought of the Parousia–the ‘presence’ or ‘coming’–of Christ appears as a master motive. I Thess. 2.19; 3.13; 4.13 to 5.11, 23, 24; II Thess. 1.5 to 2.12.
This emphasis upon the second coming of Christ is explained if Paul expected Christ to come in the near future. The imminence of the Parousia for Paul appears to be indicated by I Thess. 4.15: ‘For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we that are alive, that are left unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep.’ This verse is often thought to indicate that Paul confidently expected before his death to witness the coming of the Lord. Apparently he classes himself with those who ‘are left unto the coming of the Lor’ as over against those who will suffer death. In the later epistles, it is further said, Paul held a very different view. From Second Corinthians on, he faced ever more definitely the thought of death, II Cor. 5.1, 8; Phil. 1.20-26. A comparison of I Cor. 15.51 with II Cor 5.1, 8 is thought to indicate that the deadly peril which Paul incurred between the writing of the two Corinthian Epistles, II Cor. 1.8, 9, had weakened his expectation of living until Christ should come. After he had once despaired of life, he could hardly expect with such perfect confidence to escape the experience of death. The possibility of death was too strong to be left completely out of sight.
Plausible as such a view is, it can be held only with certain reservations.
In the first place, we must not exaggerate the nearness of the Parousia according to Paul, even in the earliest period; for in II Thess. 2.1-12 the Thessalonians are reminded of certain events that must occur before Christ would come. The expression of the former Epistle, I Thess. 5.2, that the day of the Lord would come as a thief in the night, was to be taken as a warning to unbelievers to repent while there was yet time, not as a ground for neglecting ordinary provision for the future. In Second Thessalonians Paul finds it necessary to calm the overstrained expectations of the Thessalonian Christians.
Furthermore, it is not only in the earlier epistles that expressions occur which seem to suggest that the Parousia is near: Rom. 13.11; Phil. 4.5. And then it is evident from II Cor. 11.23-29 and from I Cor. 15.30-32 that Paul had undergone dangers before the one mentioned in II Cor. 1.8,9, so that there is no reason to suppose that that one event caused any sudden change in his expectations.
Lastly, in I Cor. 6.14 Paul says that ‘God both raised the Lord, and will raise up us throught his power.’ If that refers to the literal resurrection, then here Paul classes himself among those who are to die; for if he lived to the Parousia, then there would be no need for him to be raised up.
It is therefore very doubtful whether we can put any very definite change in the apostle’s expectations as to his living or dying between First Corinthians and Second Corinthians. A gradual development in his feeling about the matter there no doubt was. During the early part of his life his mind dwelt less upoon the prospect of death than it did after perils of all kinds had made that prospect more and more imminent. But at no time did the apostle regard the privilege of living until the Parousia as a certainty to be put at all in the same category with the Christian hope itself. Especially the passage in First Thessalonians can be rightly interpreted only in the light of the historical occasion for it. Until certain members of the church had died, the Thessalonian Christians had never faced the possibility of dying before the second coming of Christ. Hence they were troubled. Would the brethren who had fallen asleep miss the benefits of Christ’s kingdom? Paul writes to reassure them. He does not contradict their hope of living till the coming of Christ, for God had not revealed to him that that hope would not be realized. But he tells them that, supposing that hope to be justified, even then they will have no advantage over their dead brethren. He classes himself with those who were still alive and might therefore live till Christ should come, as over against those who were already dead and could not therefore live till Christ should come.
Certain passages in the epistles of Paul, which are not confined to any one period of his life, seem to show that at any rate he did not exclude the very real possibility that Christ might come in the near future. But such an expectation of the early coming of Christ was just as far removed as possible from the expectations of fanatical chiliasts. It did not lead Paul to forget that the times and the seasons are entirely in the hand of God. It had no appreciable effect upon his ethics, except to make it more intense, more fully governed by the thought of the judgment seat of Christ. It did not prevent him from laying far-reaching plans, it did not prevent his developing a great philosophy of future history in Romans, chapters 9 to 11. How far he was from falling into the error he combated in Second Thessalonians! Despite his view of the temporary character of the things that are seen, how sane and healthy was his way of dealing with practical problems! He did his duty, and left the details of the future to God. Hence it is hard to discover what Paul thought as to how soon Christ would come–naturally so, for Paul did not try to discover it himself. [emphasis mine, highlighting Machen’s correction of Camping-like date-setting].