The Way of the Church
Two Views of Church History-I
by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.
Improvement Era 58 (July 1955), 502-4, 538
The Three Acts of the Drama:—First of all, Christ knew and explained to others the nature and outcome of his own mission: what his purpose was in coming to earth, how he would be received here, and what would happen after he left. These points are all touched upon in a single parable—the only parable in the Bible to which the Lord himself has left us a full explanation. The parable might be called a drama in three acts. Act One is the Lord's earthly mission, in which he likens himself "unto a man which sowed good in his field" (Matt. 13:24, 37), the field being the world, (Matt. 13:38). In Act Two the villain enters: "But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat" (Matt. 13:25), and as a result the crop was spoiled: "when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also" (Matt. 13:26). This sorry state of things, with wheat and tares indistinguishably mixed together, does not represent the state of the church, for we are explicitly told that the ruined field is the world, in which the good seed ("the children of the kingdom") have not yet been brought together (Matt. 13:27-30). This time of confusion is a long one, lasting "until the harvest," which is Act Three, entitled "the end of the world" (Matt. 13:29). Here everything is set to rights again, and the wheat is finally gathered together out of the world and "into my barn" (Matt. 13:30). "A gathering out" happens to be the very meaning of the word ekklesia—"church." In the settling of accounts in the last act the tares are bound in bundles for the burning, and "then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matt. 13:43; italics added), "so shall it be at the end of this world" (Matt. 13:40). It is a happy ending, indeed, but a delayed one: first the Lord, then the adversary, who is the devil (Matt. 13:39), and finally the Lord again.
The parable of the vineyard tells the same story. In Act One we learn that the master of the vineyard, having been detained in a far country, has in the past sent many servants—the prophets—to receive the fruit at the hand of those he had left in charge; but his messengers have all been roughly treated and thrown out. Now he has decided to send his Beloved Son, saying, "it may be they will reverence him" (Luke 20:13; Matt. 21:37). But in the Second Act we see the Son treated even worse than the others, cast out of the vineyard and slain by villainous men who say, "Let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance . . . "; "let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours" (Matt. 21:38; Luke 20:14). So they claim the vineyard for their own and remain in possession until Act Three, when the lord of the vineyard comes to destroy the impostors and turns the vineyard over to authorized workers (Luke 20:16). It is the same three-act theme as the other parable: first the Lord's work, then the triumph of the impostor, finally the return and triumph of the Lord.
The first two of these acts are the legitimate subject of church history, since the third either has not happened yet or opens with the restoration of the gospel, which conventional church history does not recognize. Let us consider the major steps of the drama as far as the New Testament is concerned. First of all, the Lord came into the world knowing full well that he and his message would be rejected: even as Elias had come "and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them" (Matt. 17:12); "for from the days of John the Baptist [Elias] . . . the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matt. 11:12). At the outset of his mission he was met by "two possessed with devils," who recognized him for what he was and hailed him as the Son of God, with the request that he leave them alone and not torment them "before the time" (Matt. 8:28-29). Immediately thereafter a whole city of mortal men followed the lead of those evil spirits "and besought him that he would depart out of their coasts" (Matt. 8:34). Neither devils nor men would accept his preaching nor did he expect them to:
Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.
Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. . . .
And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.
Which of you convinceth me of sin? And, if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?
. . . because ye are not of God (John 8:43-47).
He expected only hatred from a world who came to testify of it "that the works thereof are evil" (John 7:7.) "I know you," he said to his hearers, "that ye have not the love of God in you" (John 5:42), for truly "he knew all men." He made no effort to wheedle, persuade, or meet the world halfway. Said his enemies:
Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men (Matt. 22:16; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21).
If Jerusalem refused to be gathered to him, no matter how often he would have gathered them, he would not force them (Matt. 23:37). If his hometown people put no faith in him, he could do not mighty works for them (Mark 6:5; Matt. 14:2). If they wanted to go so far as to "kill the Prince of Life" (Acts 3:15), even then he would not resist them (James 5:6).
Either we have here a very weak character or else he has definite reasons for his behavior. The reason and purpose of his preaching he makes very clear; like the other prophets, he has been sent as a witness by the Father: "We speak what we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness" (James 3:11). "And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony" (John 3:32). As in the days of Noah, the witness was given and rejected:
The world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not (John 1:10-11).
Even as their ancestors did not believe in Moses, "ye also have seen me, and believe not" (John 6:36); "for neither did his brethren believe in him" (John 7:5). "The world cannot receive the spirit of truth" (see John 14:17). Why then bother to preach it? The answer is clear: "For judgment I am come into this world" (John 9:39)—that judgment to take place at a later date; "the Father . . . hath committed all judgment unto the Son" (John 5:22), but during his earlier mission he did not judge. Men are free to accept or reject him as they will: "And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.
"He that rejecteth me . . . hath one that judgeth him [lit. "one to judge him"]: the word I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day" (John 12:47-48). No judgment now, but "in the last day." "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come," writes Paul (1 Cor. 4:5), "who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God" (italics added). The time of Christ and the apostles was not to be the time of judgment, but of testing; without the opportunity of freely accepting or rejecting, there could be no judgment: "If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father" (John 15:24; italics added). That was the purpose of his preaching to them—to give them the chance, not to convert them no matter what—"That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? . . .
"Therefore they could not believe" (John 12:28-31); "their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted" (Matt. 13:15). The world is not going to be converted, but it is going to be judged. The first act of the drama is all a preparation, not for the second act, but for the last one—the second coming and the judgment; on that time and event all the apostles fix their gaze as the reward and vindication of all they are doing. In between lies the dark and dismal interlude of the second act about which the Lord and the apostles have a great deal to say.
Having been as completely as possible rejected by the world—cast out of the vineyard and slain—the Lord was to depart thence and leave the stage clear to the adversary for the gloomy second act. This is a long period in which people go about seeking the Lord in vain and falsely but loudly proclaiming themselves to be the true heirs of the vineyard. First, the departure of the Lord, in no happy mood: "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you, and suffer you?" (Luke 9:41). He is going to rise up and "shut the door" (see Luke 13:25). "The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast" (Matt. 9:15). "Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me" (John 14:30).
Then, surprisingly enough, once he is gone, everyone, the wicked as well as the righteous, will desire Christ and seek after him—but in vain. Just as the wicked world venerated the prophets and painted their tombs after they had been safely put to death (Matt. 23:29-33), so they would worship Christ—at a safe distance.
Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me.
Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come (John 7:33-34).
I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come (John 8:21).
Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say unto you" (John 13:33).
The days will come, when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it.
And they shall say to you, See here; or, see there: go not after them, nor follow them (Luke 17:22-23; italics added).
In these speeches the Lord is addressing not the wicked but his followers; even for them the quest will be vain; plainly there are conditions and time limits attached to the promise "Seek and ye shall find," and "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:20). In their search they are warned not to follow after any of the groups claiming to be the church—to have found Jesus. Those who are looking admit they have not found him—they are not the church; and all the rest are impostors! Once he has risen up and has shut the door, then all will call upon his name and clamor to be numbered among his followers—but then it will be too late: he will refuse to recognize them (see Luke 13:25-27). "In vain do they worship me" (Matt. 15:9) is not a denunciation of idolatry, but of those marching under the banner of Christ. There is a point of no return after which even repentance comes too late, as Esau learned to his sorrow: "For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no chance to repent [metanoias topon, 'place of repentance'], though he sought it carefully with tears" (Hebrews 12:17). He wants to repent sincerely and makes every effort to be reinstated in his inheritance, but it is too late; he is "rejected" even as those will be rejected who cry "Lord! Lord!" and try to get into the kingdom of Christ (Matt. 7:21). The time is coming when vast numbers shall claim Christ for their own, and when that time comes, "if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not" (Matt. 24:23; italics added). And that time is not far off: "the time draweth near [when many shall come in my name]; . . . go ye not therefore after them" (Luke 21:8). It is true, the real church is going to be there for a time, but the story is one of constantly deepening gloom until, to use Polycarp's famous phrase, after the apostles "the light went out."
The beautiful and much-quoted words "I am the light of the world" are rarely given in full, since their purpose is to make clear that the light is not going to remain in the world:
I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.
As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world (John 9:4-5).
It is not the night of death referred to here (the scripture knows no such expression), but a night that keeps men from doing a particular kind of work—"the works of him that sent me," the Father's work, the work of the church. What follows the Lord's mission is not victory but darkness: "The light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not" (John 1:5).
Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you:
. . . While ye have light, believe in the light (John 12:35-36).
"And this is the condemnation [literally, 'the process of judgment'], that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19).