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a repose : Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord : For they rest from their labours. Rev. xiv. 13. In adopting the term, they had a special regard to the resurrection which shall follow. If the terms require further illustration, they shall be incorporated in what we shall say when discussing the subjects.
II. We have said, that this text is difficult, because it refers to certain notions peculiar to Christians in the apostolic age, which to us are imperfectly known. The allusion of ancient authors to the peculiar notions of their time, is a principal cause of the obscurity of their writings; it embarrasses the critics, and often obliges them to confess their inadequacy to the task. It is astonishing that the public should refuse to interpreters of the sacred books, the liberty they so freely grant to those of profane authors. Why should a species of obscurity, which has never degraded Plato, or Seneca, induce us to degrade St. Paul, and other inspired men ? But how extraordinary soever, in this respect, the conduct of the enemies of our sacred books may be, it contains nothing that should astonish us; but there is cause to be astonished at those divines who would be frequently relieved by the solution of which we speak, that they should lose sight of it in their systems, and so often seek for theological mysteries in expressions which simply require the illustration of judicious criticism. On how many allusions of the class in question, have not doctrines of faith been established? Let him who readeth understand. We will not disturb the controversy.
We have said that there is in the words of the text, probably some allusion to notions peculiar to the
apostolic age. St. Paul not only designed to assuage the anguish excited in the breast of persons of fine feelings by the death of their friends; he seems to have had a peculiar reference to the Thessalonians. The proof we have of this is, that the apostle not merely enforces the general arguments that Christianity affords to all good men in those afflictive situations, such as the happiness which instantly follows the death of saints, and the certainty of a glorious resurrection : he superadds a motive wholly of another kind ; this motive, which we shall now explain, is thus expressed; We which are alive and remain at the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them which are asleep, &c.
What was the opinion, peculiar to the Christians of that age, which could be assuaged by this motive ? Among the conjectures it has excited, this
appears to me the most rational :-It was a sentiment generally received in the apostolic age, and from which we cannot say that the apostles themselves were wholly free, that the last day was just at hand. Two considerations had contributed to establish this opinion.
The ancient rabbins had affirmed, that the second temple would not long subsist after the advent of the Messiah ; and believing that the Levitical worship should be co-eval with the world, they believed likewise that the resurrection of the dead, and the consummation of the ages, should speedily follow the coming of Christ. Do not ask how they associated those notions with the expectation of the Messiah’s temporal kingdom ; we know that the rabbinical sys
tems are but little connected ; and inconsistency is not peculiar to them.
But secondly: the manner in which Jesus Christ had foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, might have contributed to persuade the first Christians, that the last day was near. He had represented it in the prophetic style, as an universal dissolution of nature, and of the elements. In that day the sun shall be darkened ; the moon shall be turned to blood ; the stars shall fall from heaven ; the powers of heaven shall be shaken ; and the Son of man himself as coming on the clouds, and sending his angels with the sound of a trumpet to gather together his elect from the four winds. Matt. xxiv. 29. 31. These oriental figures, whereby he painted the extirpation of the Jewish nation, and the preaching of the apostles, concerning which St. Paul has the words of the Psalmist, That their sound went forth to the ends of the earth : these ideas had persuaded many of the primitive Christians, that the coming of the Messiah, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of the world must follow one another in speedy succession : and, the more so, as the Lord had subjoined to those predictions, that this generation should not pass away until all these things be fulfilled ; that is, the men then alive. This text is of the same import with that in the xvith of St. Matthew : 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. ver. 28.
These are the considerations which induced many of the first Christians to believe that the last day would
And as the Lord, the more strikingly to represent the surprise that the last day would excite in men, had compared it to the approach of a thief at midnight, the primitive Christians really thought that Jesus Christ would come at midnight; hence some of them rose at that hour to await his coming, and St. Jerome relates the custom of never dismissing the people before midnight during the vigils of Easter.
But what should especially be remarked for illustration of the difficulty proposed, is, that the idea of the near approach of Christ's advent was so far from exciting terror in the minds of the primitive Christians, that it constituted the object of their hope. They regarded it as the highest privilege of a Christian to behold his advent. The hope of this happiness had inflamed some with an ardour for martyrdom; and induced to deplore the lot of those who had died before that happy period. This is the anguish the apostle would assuage when
I would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that ye sorrow not as others; that is, as the heathens, who have no hope.
III. But the consolation he gives, to comfort the afflicted, constitutes one of the difficulties in my text, because it is founded on a doctrine concerning which the scriptures are not very explicit, and of which inspired men had but imperfect knowledge. This is the third point to be illustrated.
The consolation St. Paul gave the Thessalonians must be explained in a way assortable to their affliction, and drawn from the reasons that induced them to regret the death of the martyrs, as being deprived of the happiness those would have who shall be alive,
when Christ shall descend from heaven to judge the world. St. Paul replies, that those who should then survive would not have any prerogative over those that slept, and that both should enjoy the same glory: this, in substance, is the sense of the words which constitute the third difficulty we would wish to re
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. On these words we shall ask several questions essential for their illustration.
1. What did St. Paul mean when he affirmed, that what he said was by the word of the Lord? You will understand it by comparing the expression with those of the first epistle to the Corinthians, chap. xv. 51, where discussing the same subject, he speaks thus ; Behold I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed. These words, Behold I show you a mystery, and those of my text, are of the same import. Properly to understand them, let it be observed, that besides the gift of inspiration, by which the sacred authors knew and taught the things essential to salvation, there was one peculiar to some privileged Christians; it was a power to penetrate certain secrets, without which they might be saved, but which, nevertheless, was a glorious endowment