The Way of the Church
Two Views of Church History-II, III
by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.
Improvement Era 58 (Aug. 1955), 570-1, 599-600, 602-6; (Sept. 1955), 650-3
The Role of the Apostles: But aren't we forgetting about Christ's "successors"? A "successor" is one who comes after and takes the place of another. To be a successor it is not enough merely to outlive another or come after him, one must hold his identical office and function. Even a regent is not successor to a king—only a king can be that; when a vice president takes over on the death of a president, he does not become his successor until he, too, is president. The scriptures never call the apostles Christ's successors; there is only one successor to the Lord mentioned in the Bible, and that is the Holy Ghost, "whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you" (John 14:26). Here is a true successor, coming expressly to take the Lord's place: "if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you" (John 16:7). Sent by the same authority, he will do the very same work, speak the identical words, be a witness for the judgment, and guide the apostles in all things exactly as the Lord had done (John 16:8-15).
As for the disciples, the famous passage in Mark (13:34-37) describes them as servants left behind with authorization to do special jobs: the Lord "left his house, and gave to his servants the authority, to each one his task, and commanded the porter to watch." There is no mention of supreme authority being given to anyone, but to each the authority for his particular work. The fact that every soldier in the army acts with the authority of the commander-in-chief does not give any one of them the fulness of authority that he possesses. But what about the servants? Were they expected to carry on the work and prosper where the master was rejected?
By no means! "The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20). "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household" (Matt. 10:25)? "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you" (John 15:18). The mission of the apostles does not bring about a new and happy turn of events in the drama; where the master has "failed," we are told not to look for success for the servants: "Behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves" (Luke 10:3; Matt. 10:16). He had gone as a lamb to the slaughter; their fate was to be no different. They are repeatedly told that they are to occupy a rear guard position in which they can expect no relief in this world: "I think," says Paul "that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death" (1 Cor. 4:9); and he describes the brethren as "the filth of the world, and . . . are the offscouring of all things unto this day" (1 Cor. 4:13). Are the apostles rejected like the master? They are cast off! Their orders were to endure to the end, and, as Tertullian reminds us, there was absolutely no doubt in the mind of any early Christian as to what that meant: to endure to the end meant just one thing, "to suffer the end," to suffer death. "And ye shall be hated of all men" (Luke 21:17). "Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you. But he that endures to the end shall be saved (see Matt. 24:9, 13; italics added).
In that last sentence we are given both the expected outcome and the reward of the apostolic preaching. As he went to his death, Christ said to his apostles, "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). His victory was in the resurrection, and in that alone the apostles put all their hope of victory and expectation of reward.
Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, . . .
For which cause we faint not (2 Cor. 4:14, 16).
"Ye shall be betrayed . . . and some of you . . . be put to death. . . .
"But there shall not an hair of your head perish" (Luke 21:16, 18). Paul is more than willing to suffer "the loss of all things, and do count them but dung. . . .
"If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. . . .
"I press toward the mark for the prize" (Philippians 3:8, 11, 14), the prize being "to know him and the power of his resurrection" (Philippians 3:10). So, at the conclusion of his missionary labors, Paul can claim for his work an unqualified success, and that immediately after noting that things are going to be much worse in the church after his departure (Acts 20:29), that "all they which are in Asia [the bulk of his converts] be turned away from me" (2 Timothy 1:15), and that in a recent controversy "no man stood with me, but all men forsook me" (2 Timothy 4:16). In what then does the victory and success consist? "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown . . . which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day" (2 Timothy 4:8). It never occurs to him or any other apostle that his success is to be measured by the converts he makes. Even spiritual power on this earth was not their objective: "Rejoice not, that the spirits are subject to you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20). That great institution toward which the apostles are striving in no way resembles any later churches: "I appoint unto you a kingdom . . . that he may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt. 19:28). "For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, . . . who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body" (Philippians 3:20-21).
The heavenly kingdom, the second coming, the judgment, the resurrection—it is clear what these men were working for. Never once in the days of the early church does anyone so much as hint at great expectations for the church on this earth, never is its future success and glory suggested as a motive for their works or a comfort for their afflictions; even in the midst of the fiercest persecutions when the saints need "strong comfort" no one ever suggests the thought that relief is on the way, that the church will win out in the end, that it is their duty to stick it out so that generations yet unborn may call them blessed (a theme familiar to all of them from the example of pius Aeneas, but never used by the Christians), that they are building up the church which is to fill the earth and save mankind, etc. These are the noisy trumpetings of the fourth century which only make more significant the thundering silence of the earlier period on the future of the church. Either the apostles were remarkably mean and self-centered men, exclusively concerned with their individual salvation and a distant judgment, or else the victory for the church which they steadfastly refuse to promise or even mention and for which they express no yearnings and to which they dedicate no strivings was simply not in the program. When Tertullian in a later age, sorely perplexed by the spiritual poverty of the church, tried to comfort himself and quiet his misgivings with the thought that the church could not have been taken from the earth because in that case the martyrs would all have shed their blood in vain, he was forgetting two all-important things: first, that the virtues and sufferings of one man or generation do not accrue automatically to the advantage of another—it is quite possible, as Paul reminds the Galatians, for the church to suffer in vain; and second, that the martyrs have received the only reward they ever thought to get—if one wins eternal life and glory one can hardly be said to have "run in vain"!
The program of the apostles' mission was the same as that of the Lord's. Before they ever began to work, they were told that they would be "hated of all men" (Mark 13:13), betrayed and put to death as he was (John 16:2), allowed to preach for a while, but then be thrust out of the synagogues and put to death by pious souls who "think that they are doing God a favor," even as the "devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, . . . expelled them out of their coasts" (Acts 13:50). "Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive" (Acts 28:26). "Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you" (Acts 13:41). "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed" (2 Cor. 4:8, 9).
Whence this indomitable optimism—in the belief that the work is going forward and the church growing? Not a word of that: "Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus, shall raise up us also. . . .
"For which cause we faint not. . . . For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us . . . eternal weight of glory;
"While we look not at things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: . . . which are . . . eternal" (2 Cor. 4:14, 16-18).
And what point was there in preaching to a world that would not listen to them? It is the same as with Christ and the prophets: "as it was in the days of Noah," the gospel of the kingdom was to be "preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matt. 24:14, italics added). First the witness, then the end. "But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, . . . and killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses" (Acts 3:14-15, italics added). Paul tells us why he bothered to preach to the Jews, who he knew would not hear him, when "he shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles" (Acts 18:6). To the Gentiles he preached with the same expectations and for the same reason. Though these converts later fell victims to the wolves, turned against him en masse (2 Timothy 1:15), and became his enemies because he told them the truth (Galatians 4:16), he can leave them with the same assurance of "mission accomplished" that he left the Jews: "I know that ye all . . . shall see my face no more. "Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men" (Acts 10:25-26). The concern of the apostles is not whether they are believed or not but only whether they bear testimony to all against the day of judgment. Those who hear and reject such a testimony are classed with Sodom and Gomorrah and reserved for "the day of judgment" (Luke 10:12). The apostles are not to judge until they sit on thrones in the kingdom: "Judge nothing before the time until the Lord cometh" (1 Cor. 4:5) is their instruction.
The apostles were not to spend time overcoming opposition and winning people by long-term programs, as a project of conversion demands; they were rather to bear their testimonies and be on their way in all possible haste. "And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them" (Mark 6:11, italics added). The program outlined in Matthew 10 and Luke 9 is not that of founding solid institutions, but of last-minute emergency: "I send you forth as lambs among wolves. . . . Salute no man by the way" (Luke 10:3-4). What is wrong with a purse and scrip, and extra cloak, or overnight visits? Nothing at all, save that there is no time left for the ordinary business and amenities of life, as Paul tells the Corinthians: marriage, mourning, celebrating, business, careers—all that must be forgotten now, for "the time [literally, 'opportunity'] is short" (1 Cor. 7:29), "for the fashion [schema: 'the system'] of this world passeth away" (1 Cor. 7:31). Only for food and lodging were the missionaries to go to individual houses; otherwise, "Go not from house to house" (Luke 10:7), but "in that city that does not receive you, go your ways out into the streets of the same and say: Even the very dust . . . we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you" (Luke 10:10-11). After they have had their chance, the apostles' business with them is over: "Ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them . . . and ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake" (Mark 13:9-13). "Ye are witnesses for me . . . unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8), for "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things" (Luke 24:47-48, italics added).
The Passing of the Church: But even if the apostles were to suffer the same rejection and death as the master, is not the gloom of the "second act" relieved by the survival of the church? What of the "little children" whom they taught? Alas! they are given the same promise of extinction; they, too, are required to "endure to the end" and are given the same comfort and promise—eternal life. "If any man will come after me," he must lose his life (Matt 16:24-25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 9:23-24). The whole church—not just the apostles—are to be partakers in Christ's sufferings in a physical sense, and receive the incorruptible inheritance "reserved in heaven for you . . . [and] receive the end [reward] of your faith, even the salvation of your souls" (see 1 Pet. 1:4, 9). "Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind" (1 Pet. 4:1). What the saints can look forward to here is necessities, distresses, stripes, imprisonments, tumults, and fastings (2 Cor. 6:4-5). The exhortation to the saints is all for a last-ditch stand; they are to "take . . . the prophets . . . for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience," with the only hope of relief in the coming of the Lord (see James 5:10). They must work in the limited time they have here, "while it is called Today; . . . For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold . . . unto the end" (Hebrews 3:13-14); "whose house are we, if we hold fast . . . firm unto the end" (Hebrews 3:6, italics added). When the saints need a "strong consolation" what they get is the assurance that God will reward them if they "hope unto the end" (Hebrews 6:11, 18), not a promise of relief or success or ultimate triumph for the cause.
The saints were not to put up a fight: "My kingdom is not of this world: if [it] were . . . then would my servants fight" (John 18:36). They are to assemble themselves together not for "action" but to await the end—"so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25). When the leaders went around "confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith," their specific instructions were "that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). These people were already members of the church; it was another kingdom for which they strove. Why is it that none of the apostles wants to make the noble sacrifice and live for the church? Why (later churchmen ask with wonder) did they never bother to write out full instructions for the guidance of the church to come? The "foundation" which Paul lays he emphatically declares to have nothing to do with this world (1 Cor. 3:10-21). It is all too easy to say with the pagan philosophers and fourth-century theologians that to "leave the world" means only to lay aside the lusts of the flesh. It was Christ who served as the great example in this to the early Christians; all true believers knew that they must "suffer with him [Christ], that we may be also glorified together" (Romans 8:17)—but what can this have to do with turning from lust to philosophy? The Lord never indulged in either.
We learn from the Bible that the end of the church was to come in two ways. The first was the extermination of those who stood fast; that is, as we have seen, the very condition of proving oneself a true saint and winning eternal life, for one had to endure to the end to be saved. For centuries the belief persisted in the church that anyone not put to death for his testimony (martyr means "witness") had failed to achieve the fullest glory, so emphatic and deep-rooted were the teachings of the early church on the subject. Church members were expected in all confidence to be in the most literal sense "partakers in Christ's sufferings."
But what of the rest? What of the vast majority that did not stand fast and "suffer the end"? They continued to profess Christianity, but a Christianity perverted to their own tastes:
But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached (2 Cor. 11:3-4; italics added).
There is no thought in these impostors of renouncing the name and claim of Christians: "For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ" (2 Cor. 11:13).
I marvel that ye are soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:
Which is not another; but there be some that . . . would pervert the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:6-7, italics added).
What surprises the apostle in this case is not what is happening, but only that it should be happening so soon. The Lord himself had foretold what would happen:
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect (Matt. 24:24).
Such a deception could be achieved (and the scripture says "they shall deceive"—using the infinitive of result—not "they would if they could") not by any pagan bluster or anti-Christian propaganda, but only by a very clever imitation of the real thing.
The danger that threatens the masses, according to the apostles, is not the same danger that threatens the true disciples: the latter are to lose their lives and win their glory; but for the rest there is another fate. They will go on as followers of "Jesus," but it is "another Jesus" they follow. In various ways they "pervert" the truth—not deny it. Some would "depart from the faith" by "forbidding to marry" (1 Timothy 4:1-3); some would be fooled by the false Gnosis (1 Timothy 6:21); some would err from the faith out of "love of money" (1 Timothy 6:10); some would "overthrow the faith of some," by denying the resurrection (2 Timothy 2:18). But such people do not return to the profession of paganism—they would be horrified at the thought! How much simpler to do it this way:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Paul is greatly alarmed at this prospect which he knows is about to be realized: "Take heed . . . unto yourselves, and to all the flock," he says in his farewell to Ephesus, "over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). Here we have a test case: Could one ask for a more perfect assurance of permanence and invulnerability to a church than the pronouncement that it is the "church of God," that it has been "purchased with his own blood," and that it is led by the Holy Ghost? Yet this is a solemn writing to take heed,
For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.
Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things [the "perversion" motive again!], to draw away disciples after them.
Therefore watch, and remember that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears (Acts 20:29-31, italics added).
Here we are told that apostolic guidance is to be withdrawn (cf. Galatians 4:18), that as a result the wolves will attack, and that the attack will be successful—the flock enjoys no immunity from such, even though "purchased with his own blood."
Paul is warning the churches in no spirit of mild fatherly admonition; his is not the calm assurance of later church writers that the church of God cannot fail and all will be well: He knows differently—the salt can lose its savor and be thrown out (Luke 14:34). His alarms have gone on for years, night and day, and with tears:
I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain (Galatians 4:11). . . . I stand in doubt of you (Galatians 4:20). . . . Have ye suffered so many things in vain? (Galatians 3:4) . . .
There are contentions among you. . . .
Is Christ divided? . . .
I thank God that I baptized none of you (2 Cor. 1:11, 13-14).
What kind of winning talk is this? Is not the important thing to get people to join the church in numbers so they can be taught? Apparently Paul does not think so. Where the strong members are concerned we hear of nothing but being put to death, enduring to the end, partaking of Christ's sufferings, thinking only of the resurrection and hereafter, and counting all things but dross as far as this world is concerned. Where the weak ones are concerned, the prediction is all of perversion, corruption, and betrayal: these are not thrown to the lions; instead (in the words of the Didache) these sheep turn into wolves—but still claim to be sheep. As the Son of Man was betrayed, so would the apostles be: Betrayal is not the work of the heathen—it is an inside job:
And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death (Luke 21:16).
Others died other ways, but the great danger comes from betrayal—the pagans can neither betray nor corrupt nor pervert the gospel; only members can do that. It was the Jews who betrayed and murdered the prophets who later adorned their tombs (Acts 7:52-53).
Recently a Catholic writer has declared: "The failure of the Mormon spokesmen to explain when, where, and how the present Catholic Church was founded exposes the fatal weakness of their accusation," (i.e., that there was a Great Apostasy). The New Testament is only one of many, many sources that clearly "explain when, where, and how" the Christian church completely changed its nature and the present churches came to be what they are. To speak of a founding in a case like this is silly, since naturally no church claiming to have originated with Christ and the apostles (and they all claim that!) is going to go about proclaiming its foundation in this or that century after Christ! Even the Protestants will not admit a time and place of origin after the apostolic age; they are merely reformers of the old order—new things have been inaugurated from time to time, to be sure, and old things reformed—but it was really the same church all along. Every Christian church claims to go back to the first century: in the third century Origen admits the charge of Celsus, that already the church has long been "divided into sects, each of which claimed that it was the depository of the pure old original form of Christianity passed down from the beginning, while all the others were upstarts and innovators." Whatever groups emerge from the squabble naturally go on claiming each that it is the one church founded by Christ; but in the horrible confusion of that and the following centuries, what are such claims worth?
"Let me ask," writes Father Poetzl, "was the Catholic Church established in the 20th century? You must answer 'No.' If honest, you must say that the church of today is the continuation of the church which existed in the 19th century. Very well. Was the Church established in the 19th century? . . . The Church of the 19th century was the continuance of the Church of the 18th century. Go back farther, century by century. I defy the Mormon spokesman to name any century in which the Catholic Church was established, any other century than the first." With equal propriety, and using the same words, Father Poetzl might ask: "Was the French language established in the 20th century? You must answer 'No.' If honest, you must say that the French of today is the continuation of the French which existed in the 19th century. Very well. Was French established in the 19th century? . . . The French of the 19th century was the continuance of the French of the 18th century. Go back farther, century by century. I defy Mormon spokesmen to name any century in which the French language was established other than the first." Thus it can be shown that Latin never ceased to exist as the vernacular of Gaul and that the great apostasy from the old Roman tongue which the purists so deplored never took place. It is the same with space as with time. Hugo Schuchardt showed that it is quite impossible to point to any spot, line, or area on the map at which Italian ceases and French begins. Is it Livorno? Milan? Nice? It is none of them or any other area you can name. "Very well," to follow the logic of Father Poetzl, "how can you possibly maintain that different languages prevail in Paris and Rome? The failure of Mormon spokesmen to show when, where, or how the Italian language was founded is fatal to their argument that spoken Latin disappeared." And yet it did.
The sophistry of the argument (a typical and shopworn school demonstration) lies in the well-known trick of confining the discussion to two alternatives only, and excluding all other possibilities: either a new church was established or else the old church continued. Only those two situations are considered—"have you stopped beating your mother-in-law"—a third possibility is not allowed. But formal establishment is not the only way to bring a church into being, and continuity by no means proves identity. In history actual establishments are extremely rare, and even then they are but the formal recognition of conditions that already exist, while the continuation of institutions is never without change. It is as if the white-haired Columbus were to argue that his hair was really red since he was born with red hair and no one could name the date or place at which it became white.
Since Newman forced the Catholics to admit (albeit with extreme reluctance) that they have been changing things all along, they have fallen back on the argument that once the church had received divine authority there was no limit to the changes that might be introduced without danger of corruption, since the church had the authority to make the changes. But it was precisely these self-initiated changes in the church that worried the apostles; "They went out from us," says John of the perverters (1 John 2:19). It is entirely possible for important churchmen of high position (a number are pointed out by name in the New Testament) to "preach another Jesus" and to "pervert the gospel of Christ" and to "corrupt the word of God" (2 Cor. 2:17), and to "wrest . . . the . . . scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16). And it is quite possible for these to enjoy great success and become the leaders of the church after the apostles are gone (2 Timothy 4:2-5). This is the process the apostles and the Lord predicted—and it takes place without any break in historical continuity (the impostors make a great to-do about being the legitimate heirs of the vineyard) and without the establishment of new churches: even Tertullian, the greatest authority of his day on the early church, was fooled into believing that the Montanists were the original church of Christ.
To claim that the true Church is immune to corruption no matter how much it changes is to hold all the warnings of the Lord and the apostles in contempt. They felt no such confidence: "For if God spared not the angels," what guarantee of immunity can men expect? (2 Peter 2:4-22; Jude 5:11). "For it is impossible," writes Paul, "for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come . . ." (Hebrews 6:4-5).
At this point let us pause and ask any Christian, or, for that matter any thinking man, to finish the sentence for us: just what is impossible for people so richly endowed? If the sixth chapter of Hebrews were a fragmentary text broken off at this place, any thoughtful individual could supply the conclusion: obviously Paul is reassuring the saints, telling them that it is quite impossible—unthinkable, in fact—for those who have already qualified for every earthly blessing plus the sure earnest of the world to come—it is impossible for such ever to be lost. "Reason itself" demands such a conclusion, but it is all wrong—the rest of the sentence administers a stinging rebuke to Christian complacency: It is impossible, the writer continues, for those so blessed "If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance" (Hebrews 6:6). The falling away is a one-way process; it cannot be reversed. Heavenly powers and gifts once lost can only come again when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; . . . the times of the restitution of all things (Acts 3:19, 21).
The heavenly inheritance can be lost, even to the saints; and no matter how they may seek it "carefully and with tears," once it is gone they shall "seek and not find."
The great apostasy did not happen consciously. The mentally ill ("O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you"? [Galatians 3:11]) do not know what is wrong with them or when it happened. What the apostles denounce most strenuously in their letters is the complete complacency and self-satisfaction of the perverters: "Lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud. . . . Traitors, heady, highminded" (2 Timothy 3:2-4). No lack of assurance here!
Like the slinging of a noose, the end comes silently, quietly, without warning, so that the victim never suspects what is happening, being the while wholly preoccupied with the "cares of this life" (Lukie 21:34). It is not a process of founding new institutions that the scriptures describe, but one of becoming: "love shall turn to hate," "evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse" (2 Timothy 3:13), "iniquity shall increase," "the sheep of the fold shall turn into wolves" (Didache)—but go right on calling themselves sheep! The false claimants never give up, "Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof" (2 Timothy 3:5). The end was never formally declared (heaven forbid!); in the words of Polycarp, "the lights went out."
What, then, was "the end"? The Bible has a good deal to say on the subject, and scholars have had a great deal more. At present we are considering only the former. On the mountain of the transfiguration Peter, James, and John, having just beheld Elias in conversation with the Lord and Moses, were told that Elias would at some time come and "restore all things," though he had already come and been rejected (Matt. 17:11-12). It was further explained that the Son of Man would suffer the same rejection; and later on Peter declares in a sermon that Christ would come again at "the times of restitution of all things" (Acts 3:21; italics added). Some time after that the same Peter announces to the church that "the end of all things is at hand" (1 Peter 4:7; italics added). Here we have "all things" brought to earth, "all things" coming to an end, and "all things" restored again. "All what things?" we ask, for the world itself seems to go on. Peter gives us the answer: "All things" which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began" (Acts 3:21; italics added); "According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3; italics added). "All things" means the fulness of the gospel. That is what passes away when "the end of all things is at hand."
The apostles speak of their own times as the end of the world, and yet they talk of more history to follow: "Now once in the end of the world hath he appeared. . . . And unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time" (Hebrews 9:26, 28). Now is here "the end of the world," and yet it is to be followed by a time of waiting and expectation, after which the Lord will appear again. Plainly with "the end of the world," the whole story is not told. Literally "end of the world" here means "consummation of the periods, or aeons." The word aeon appears over a hundred times in the New Testament, nearly always as the equivalent of the Hebrew 'olam ha-zeh, "the age in which we live." An aeon is, strictly speaking, a world period, and hence was sometimes loosely employed to refer to this world of ours, our times, the wicked world, etc. But never is the sense of a limited span of time completely absent when this word is employed: one can stretch a point and translate "the completion of the aeon" as "the end of the world," but only if it is understood that the "world" referred to is not necessarily the physical earth or the physical universe but the present age of men.
When Christ met with the eleven by special appointment on a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16), he sent them out with instructions to "teach all nations," to carry out all the instructions he had given them, and gave his messengers the promise, "Behold I am with you every day until the completion of the period" (Matt. 28:19-20). The "Great Commission" is not an unlimited call to everyone, but specifically and privately to the eleven; it is not an order for them to tell all men whatever they had heard but simply to instruct them to carry out certain specific orders (the language is technical and military); above all, it is not a promise that the Lord is going to stay in the world forever and ever or, as John Chrysostom desperately translates it, "for ages without end;" aeon is here in the singular; a definite limit is placed on the Savior's personal support, which is to be enjoyed until the apostles have finished their work: "until the completion [syntelesis] of the aeon, or period." There is going to be an end: the Lord said he would send his apostles out to preach to all the world for a witness, that they would carry out that assignment, "and then shall the end come" (Matt. 24:14). Their mission, like the Lord's, was indeed at the end of the world. There is no more firmly established belief or more ancient tradition in Christendom than the conviction that the apostles themselves actually did carry out their mission, the Lord, as he promised, "working with them, and confirming the word with signs following" (Mark 16:20). When every man on Pentecost heard the gospel preached in his own tongue, Peter announced that this was actually the fulfilment of
that which was spoken by the prophet Joel;
. . . in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my
Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:16-17).
These were the last days, the gospel actually had been preached to all flesh, the prophecy was fulfilled, and the end could come. For the prophecy was that before the apostles could be put to death, "the gospel must first be published among all nations" (Mark 13:9-10; italics added). The apostles themselves complete the whole work of the dispensation; after them comes not the beginning—but the end. The clear statement of the Lord, that "this generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled" (Luke 21:32) is enough in itself to settle the issue: either Jesus was a false prophet, or the end did come.
Why did the early Christians express the keen and anxious concern they did for "signs of the times?" Why did they diligently study the times and seasons and everlastingly ask the Lord and the apostles, "When will it be?" (Cf. Acts 1:7.) It is because they were expecting an end and had been instructed to watch even until the end. Their attitude would have been hard to understand if they had ever been given reason to believe that the church had been established, once and for all, to remain firm and steadfast until the end of the world.
It has often been noted that the ancient Christians professed two expectations: one an expectation of bliss, the other an expectation of woe. In their calendar the woe was to come first. Paul explains the situation when he reminds the Thessalonians that they must indeed look forward to "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and . . . our gathering together unto him," but not be deceived into thinking "that the day of Christ is at hand," since before that could come there must come "a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition" (2 Thess. 2:1-3). And Peter reminds the church, "first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts," and only later will the Lord come, being meanwhile "not slack concerning his promise," since "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years" (2 Peter 3:3-9). The joy is coming, but first the woe. There are ends and other ends. The "signs of the times" are significant because things follow a pattern: "When you see these events," says the Lord, stating a general rule in a present general condition, "know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand" (Luke 21:31); for example, you look at the trees, and "when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand" (Luke 21:29-30, italics added). It is a characteristic and repeated event, this "end of all things" and "restitution of all things," which we shall discuss in the next section. Whose coming was expected by the saints? The Lord's, according to some accounts, the adversary's, according to others. Why should this be a cause (as it has been) of ferocious controversy? Plainly they expected both; and not at one and the same time, but first the deceiver, and then the Lord.
After the Lord left the world, who came next? "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me" (John 14:30). Who is to follow up the work of the apostles if they are "sent last" and "the end" is to come when they have completed their work? Who indeed: "After my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock" (Acts 20:29). Those are the only "successors" mentioned. Who is to take over the place when Peter leaves it? "The devil . . . abroad as a ravening lion," completely on the loose. When John announced, "Little children, it is the last time," is he expecting the Lord? On the contrary: "Even now there are many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time" (1 John 2:18). You know the last time is here because "the mystery of iniquity doth already work," and his work is only temporarily held up by an opponent who is presently to be "taken out of the way" (2 Thess. 2:7).
As modern scholars, Catholic and Protestant, are beginning to realize (we shall discuss them later), the prospects were not brilliant: "When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8.) It was a dark interval that lay ahead, "the Wintertime of the Just," they called it in the ancient church. There is a real element of tragedy here; the tears of the Lord and the apostles were genuine. Paul does not warn constantly and with tears for the sake of a few inevitable crackpots and backsliders: the wicked one is coming "with all power and signs and lying wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9); the night is coming when no man can work, the time which the closing lines of Didache describe as the long ordeal of the human race. There is no doubt that the early Christians were convinced that the glorious final act of the drama would not be played "before the time." No city ever had a better chance of hearing the gospel than Capernaum; no city ever rejected it more completely; accordingly, "in the day of judgment" Capernaum "shall be thrust down to hell." But meantime, what is the status of the cursed city to be? Quite magnificent: "exalted to heaven" (Matt. 11:23-24; Luke 10:15). That "meanwhile" is the second act of the drama, and it lasts until the judgment.
If one is determined to believe that the primary intent and purpose of the missions of Christ and the Apostles was the setting up on the earth of a mighty institution of sure salvation for all, "to remain firm and steadfast until the end of the world" (to use the proud formula of 1870—in the absence of any appropriate scripture!), then the negative course of things so clearly indicated in the Bible was a terrible mistake. Common sense rebels against the dismal prospect of the whole earth being given into the hands of "the one who leads the world astray" (as the Didache puts it)—it is a hard thing to take. And that is exactly why all the prophets of the New Testament urge the saints continually not to take the common-sense point of view in the matter: "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer!" Is that common sense? "Now is the day of salvation," Paul cries joyfully, describing the day as one of afflictions, necessities, distresses, stripes, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watchings, fastings—"as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" (2 Cor. 6:10). It seems like anything but fun or good sense. As to the things that common sense values, Paul says, "I count them but dung, just so I win Christ." Worldly standards are utterly misleading. Hear what Peter, James, and John have to say:
Note the emphasis in Peter's epistles on the evil times ahead and the postponement of blessings for a definite interval: "Ye are kept . . . unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness . . . [expecting] praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ" (cf. 1 Peter 1:5-7. "Be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:13). "Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear" (1 Peter 1:17). "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you:
"But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's suffering; that when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad" (1 Peter 4:12-13). "The God of all grace . . . hath called us unto his eternal glory . . . after that ye have suffered a while" (1 Peter 5:10).
"Humble yourselves . . . that He may exalt you in due time" (1 Peter 5:6), etc. The unpleasant interval is not to be taken seriously, "For all flesh is as grass" (1 Peter 1:24); we are merely "strangers and pilgrims" here (1 Peter 2:11); it is a frightening prospect, but "if you will it shall be as nothing." Peter preaches a thoroughgoing exchange of earthly values for heavenly values.
James does not mince words: "Know ye not, that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever, therefore, will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (James 4:4). Nor does John: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world . . . is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof" (1 John 2:15-17). "Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you. . . . "We are of God: he that knoweth God, heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. . . . And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness" (1 John 3:13; 4:6; 5:19).
These were truly the disciples of the Lord who said, "Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets" (Luke 6:26). There is no place here for a popular program. The whole consolation of the saints is in the resurrection and glory to come, "whether we wake or sleep, . . . Wherefore comfort yourselves" (1 Thess. 5:10-11). There is a complete disconcern for the possible success or failure of the church on earth, and a total silence on the subject of future generations—never a thought of that "inevitable triumph" which later church historians were to insist should have been their chief consolation. "The foundation of God standeth sure," not in a visible institution of salvation, but "having this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are his" (2 Timothy 2:19). Every opportunity to play up the church is passed by in silence.
The values of the early Christians were not commonsense values. The translators of the King James Version use the word lusts for the Greek epithumia, which means "desire, interest, value," in the broadest sense, and thus make it appear that all that John is condemning is vice and depravity, whereas actually he is renouncing all earthly values good and bad. The Christian point of view was not that of another philosophy; it administered a severe shock to intelligent people—"a slap in the face," to use Karl Holl's apt expression. Thinking people were not just amused, they were "scandalized" (a favorite word) and enraged, sickened, and disgusted; Tacitus, Celsus, Caecilius, and the Jewish and pagan professors cannot think of words strong enough to express their loathing and alarm.
Here we have two systems of values totally and hopelessly opposed to each other. The things Jesus talked about were entirely outside the range of normal human thought and experience; in time their reality was to be made manifest to all, but meanwhile their rejection was to be emphatic and complete, and pagans could embarrass Christians by chanting about "Jesus the King who never ruled!" A triumphant rule and a triumphant church were not on the program, but the world would settle for nothing less, and of course the world got what it wanted—a church modeled after its idea of what a church should be. Such an institution was as clearly prophesied as was the passing away of the true church.