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Herod and Pontius Pilate, and the rulers of the Jews, were all busy in bringing to pass what the hand and counsel of God had determined to be done; but without knowing it: they had ends and objects of their own, at which they were aiming for themselves, while they were fulfilling the purposes of God; and had they received any friendly hint of what they were doing, they would have rejected it with disdain, and probably have put the monitor to death.
The case is the same now. A considerable part of mankind are vehemently pursuing their own imaginations: and while they themselves are blind to tho nature and consequences of their own actions, they are giving instruction to us: their darkness is our light; and I mean, with God's help, to use it as such upon the present occasion
I am very sensible, that the attention of the public liath heen nearly exhausted, and their curiosity satiated, with the many fearful accounts transmitted to us, and the pious and penitent reflections made upon them by goodand learned men. But still, there is a certain view of the subject, so edifying, that we< can scarcely dwell too much upon it. As politicians, we enquire how far government may suffer-from dangerous innovations: as a commercial nation, wfe. consider how trade may be affected: as a military people, we consult how war is to be carried on; with what resources; and what will be its probable issue. AH this is very proper: but, as Christians, it is our doty to compare the signs of the time with what the Almighty Ruler of the world hath been pleased to. °pen, concerning his own purposes, and the events to be expected as the world draws nearer to its end. I enter here upon no diffuse investigation; but mean t0 confine myself to one remarkable sign of the last days, which I think hath never yet received an adequate interpretation; not through the unskilfulness of interpreters; but, because it seems to be one of those mysterious predictions, which nothing but the event can enable us to understand: and which a succession of future events may still be opening to us farther than we can see at present.
It seems there was a persuasion very early in the Christian church, that the coming of Jesus Christ, to judge the world, was then near at hand. His judgment of the Jewish nation had been foretold, in terms so applicable to his final judgment, that a mistake might thence arise, even among wise and pious Christians: of which St. Panl having heard, gives thera proper information, in that remarkable passage of the second chapter of the second epistle to the Thessalonians; wherein he warns them of a very extraordinary fact, which would precede the final destruction of this world; and that the end of all things was not to be expected, till this should have come to pass. The passage is this,——Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away (an apostacy)/;1^, and that man of fin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or (hat is worshipped; so that he as God, sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. It may be proper, that the words, in which a prophecy is delivered, should have a certain degree of obscurity, that they may not open too much before the time : and the same happens partly from the necessity of the case; because the thing which hath not as yet been known to the world, will be conceived with difficulty even from a plain description of it. This is applicable to the passage now before us; on which volumes have been written, with great uncertainty of interpretation; depending on facts, which however bad in their way, did certainly never come up to this description. But when the event brings its own interpretation with it, a child may see farther than the most learned could before: and if the whole passage be taken in its obvious sense, and with all its circumstances, it will apply itself so directly to a case in hand, that little doubt can remain in the mind of any reader, who has no reason for shutting his eyes against the truth.
We observe, then, first, that a falling away should happen before the end of the world. The original calls it an apostacy; which term, in the mouth of a Christian apostle, can mean nothing'but an apostacy from the Christian faith and worship. And this is more particularly said to consist in a revelation of a man if sin, the son of perdition. It is not necessary here to suppose, that this man of sin is only one individual person. Jn the tenth Psalm, when we read of the man of the earth, we do not understand a single person but a character, a sort of ungodly people, whose whole confidence is in this world. In like manner, the man of sin may very properly denote a particular sort of sinful character, or even the race of mankind, when become sinful in the extreme, according to that state of depravity, which is described in the words that follow. For, it seems, this man of sin opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped. Here the terms are less difficult in the original than in the English. All that is ealled God is literally every person, every man, who is called God: and the word we translate worshipped expresses most properly that sort of worship, which is given to venerable or august persons, whatever the office may be that makes them such.
If we enquire who they are that are called God, it immediately occurs, that the expression cauuot so properly denote God himselfas the vicegerents of God; those who are called by hit name. And who are they? The Scripture itself will answer us: / have said, ye are gods; which words are spoken of princes and rulers; as it is also said in the law (Exod. xxii. 28.) thou shall not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people; where the latter clause is but explanatory of the former. The reason of this is plain; rulers are called God, because they act under him, and execute his laws by his own authority. The question therefore is partly answered: they that are called God are kings and rulers. Our blessed Saviour himself tells us who -they are in the New Testament—He called them gods, to whom the word of God came. John x. 35. The name of God, therefore, is plainly given to-men, on account . of their office and commission under the word of God, whether they be princes, prophets or priests; because they act in God's stead with respect to mankind. Our Saviour, therefore, even in his human capacity, had a right to be called God, in virtue of his commission; and this seems to have been the intention of his argument with the Jews, as an argument urn ad homines, taken from the words of their own law.
We shall obtain some farther light into the character of the man of sin, if we go on with the apostle's account of him. The subject, it appears, had been mentioned to the disciples before, and privately expounded to them; for, says he, ye know what withholdeth, that he might be revealed in his time; for the mystery of iniquity doth already work; only he who now letteth, will let, till he be taken out of the way; and then shall that wicked one be revealed whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming. This part of the description informs us, first, ihat the man of sin, and that mystery of iniquity which worketh for the producing of the character, was even then in the. world, and would have broken out; but that, secondly, there was some restraining power, which served as a let or hinderance, to keep it down; till the time should come, when it should rise up in its true shape, and be fully displayed to the world. And, lastly, as it is to be destroyed by the actual presence of the Lord in judgment, it must be the last form of sin, or power of iniquity, that shall appear in the world. It may be worth distinguishing here, though I would build nothing upon it, that the word for wicked one is [not voivpot but aj'»/*0j], lawless; as casting out, and renouncing all authority of law, as well human as divine.
What has been said amounts to this: that, in the last age of the world, before the coming of Christ, there should be an actual apostacy, or departure from the Christian faith and worship: that the sinful nature of man, rising up against the powers of religion and government, which had restrained it for so many ages, should break loose, and take & form of iniquity, such as may properly be called a new revelation of sin, which the world had never seen before. More particularly, that this form of sin should exalt itself against the authority of God in his ministers, whether civil or religious: that it should even seize upon the temple of God, and convert it into the temple of man; that it should exclude God, and make a God of itself, claiming the honours of divine worship. That this spirit of disobedience had always been at work; but that there was a power which hindered it from shewing itself to the world, till the proper season; when that restraining power should no longer operate, but be taken out of the way, either by the violence of man, or