The manner of the Lord's Coming
In these words our Lord reveals to us with perfect precision the manner in which He will make His Second Advent. He will come as the Son of Man, in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. Our conceptions of this coming, however, will be determined by the meaning we give to the words "Son of Man," "clouds," and "power and glory." In their natural meaning, they teach us that the Lord is coming in a material body, in the unsubstantial clouds of mist which float a few miles above the surface of our globe, and in physical power and external splendor; that He is coming by an outward, natural way, to do a work differing in kind from a merely human work only in the extent of its power and the terribleness of its destruction.
But if, as we have tried to show, He is coming to a world of thought and affection, then He must come in forms adapted to that world.. If He is coming at the end of one age, one complete cycle in human progress, to institute another, these words cannot have a natural meaning. The new age is to be created by new truths; it is to be a new and higher state of human life produced by those truths. By Son of Man, therefore, we must understand the form in which the Lord comes; by clouds, the means He employs to effect His coming; and by power and great glory, the results of it. And all these forces and forms must be spiritual; they must be of a nature similar to the subjects they are to act upon, and to the ends they are to accomplish.
The only way in which one mind can approach another is by a communication of its affections and thoughts. There may be a personal coming and presence, while there is no approach of thought and affection, which constitute the real person. This accords with common experience and common speech. Two people will meet personally to make a bargain, or to confer upon some subject of interest. If they cannot agree it is common to say, "We did not come near each other." If their views are very wide apart, they express the fact by saying, "We could not get in sight of each other." In the same manner, we speak of people being very near to us, though we may be separated by oceans, and of being distant, though they live in the same house. According to the same law of spiritual relation, the Lord is said to be far off and near to us; to go away from us, and come to us and dwell with us. When the Lord was on earth in person He did not get near to many of its inhabitants; He did not get in sight of the Scribes and Pharisees and of the great body of the Jewish people. They did not know Him. If He were to come in person again, He would get no nearer to men by doing it. He said to His disciples that it was expedient for them that He should go away, for if He went not away the Comforter could not come to them; plainly teaching that His personal presence was an obstacle to His spiritual presence. It is in accordance with all the laws of the Divine order, and the intellectual and spiritual nature of the human race, that the Lord, as a Divine Being, cannot really come to people in any other way than by communicating His truth in such a form that they can see it. With this idea of the Lord's coming and of the essential relations between Him and the human mind, let us examine the words of our text, and try to understand what the Lord himself says to us in them about the manner of making His Second Advent.
1. I invite your attention to the significance of the term "Son of Man" as our Lord Himself uses it. We find that the Lord is called by various names in the revelation He has made of Himself to people in His Word. He is called Jehovah, God, Jehovah of Hosts, God of Israel, Shaddai, the Rock, Creator, Former, Saviour, and Redeemer. In the New Testament He is called Jesus, Christ, the Lord, God, Son of God, Son of Man, Lamb of God, Prophet, Saviour, Master, and Teacher. All these names refer to the same person, and they are always used with the utmost precision, according to the subject treated. One name can never be substituted for another and express the same idea. This would be as impossible as it would be to substitute one figure for another of a different denomination, in a mathematical problem, and obtain the same answer. The Son of Man and the Son of God are not different persons, but the names express different qualities and relations of the same person, and they are never used interchangeably. When the Lord's divinity, His unity with the Father, His Divine power, Faith in Him, and life from Him are treated of, He calls Himself the Son, and the Son of God.
But He calls Himself the Son of Man when His passion, the Judgment, His coming, and, in general, when redemption, salvation, and regeneration are referred to. He is called the Son of God in relation to His Divine Humanity, and the Son of Man when what He is doing for the human race, and how He is received by them, and, in general, when His relations to humankind are referred to. This is clearly seen by reference to those passages in which He speaks of Himself as the Son of Man.
The ground for these different forms of expression lies in the fact that the Lord does not talk at random, calling Himself by different names merely for the sake of variety. Infinite wisdom, must use language with infinite precision. As the Lord is Divine truth, and it is by means of the truth that He comes to us, redeems, regenerates, and saves us, He calls Himself by a name which indicates this office, when He is performing it or speaking of it. This is evident from the passages of the Word in which He is called Son of Man.
He is called the Son of man when Judgment is treated of. For example, "When the Son of man shall come in His glory, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory, and He will set the sheep on His right hand and the goats on the left" (Matthew xxv. 32, 33). "The Son of man will come in the glory of His Father, and then He will render to every one according to his works" (Matthew xix. 28). "Watch ye, therefore, always, that ye may be accounted worthy to stand before the Son of man" (Luke xxi. 36). "The Father judgeth no one, but hath committed all judgment to the Son: because He is the Son of man" (John v. 22, 27). Here is an instance of the absolute precision with which words are used in the Sacred Scriptures. All judgment is executed by Divine truth. This the Lord Himself declares when He says, "If any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world. The word that I have spoken, that will judge him in the last day" (John xii. 47, 48). Again: "God sent not His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth in Him is not judged; but he that believeth not in Him is judged already." Here it is plainly declared that all judgment is committed to the Son, because He is the Son of Man, and that He as a Person judges no one; it is the truth that judges; and He is called the Son of Man when He exercises the office of communicating truth to use, plainly showing that the Judgment is not to be effected by a personal coming, but by a clear manifestation of Divine truth.
The principle that all judgment is effected by the truth applies to civil as well as to spiritual affairs. In all cases where people are under law, it is the law that condemns or acquits, and not any person. The judge merely pronounces the sentence of the law; he or she is only the instrument of the law, its spokesman. If a person violates a physical law, there is no need for a personal judge to pronounce sentence, or of an officer to execute it. The law does both. If I put my hand in the fire, or break my bones, or swallow poison, the violated law of my physical nature pronounces the sentence and executes the penalty. In the same manner, all Divine laws, and all the laws of our spiritual nature, need no judge or jury or executor. The law itself - "the words I speak unto you" - they shall judge you in the last day.
The Lord is also called the Son of Man when His coming is described, and for the same reason as when the judgment is spoken of, because He comes to us through the medium of Divine truth "Then will appear the sign of the Son of man." "They will see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven." In Daniel it is said, "I saw, and, behold, with the clouds of heaven the Son of man coming." In Revelation, "Behold, He cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see Him." The Lord Himself said to the high-priest, who asked Him if He was the Son of God, "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven."
When the Lord performs other offices for us He calls Himself the Son of Man, as when He is betrayed and suffers. It was only the human nature which He assumed, and had not glorified, that could suffer. It was that side of His nature which was related to the human race, that form of the Divine truth which was adapted to human comprehension, reception, or rejection. Consequently, we find Him saying, "The Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief-priests, and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn Him to death." "The Son of man came to give His life a ransom for many." "He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man." Many other passages might be adduced to the same effect. But enough have been quoted to show, beyond a doubt, that the phrase "Son of Man," means the Lord as the Word, as Divine truth, accommodated to human beings, coming to them to judge, to redeem, to reform, to regenerate, and to save, as it is received, or rejected. A personal coming could produce no other results.
2. Having thus ascertained the meaning of the terms by which the Lord is known in His coming, let us proceed to examine the manner of it. If the Lord comes to people as the Divine truth, what are we to understand by His coming in the clouds of heaven?
Clouds are a form of water. The letter of the Sacred Scriptures is the vehicle by which the Lord communicates His truth to us. The clouds of heaven are the natural representative of the letter of the Word. By the Lord's coming in the clouds of heaven is meant, therefore, a revelation of spiritual and Divine truth embodied in the letter of the Word. The literal sense is Divine truth clothed in natural language, in imagery derived from the material world, in bodily actions, in history, biography, parable, and miracle. The letter is not Divine truth itself. The history of the Jews is not Divine truth, as bodily actions and speech are not thought and affection. Their history is used to embody and convey Divine truth, as natural speech and physical action are employed to express human thought and affection. The Word in its letter is to Divine truth as clouds to the sun. As the clouds originate in the earth, so the letter of Revelation originated with humankind, in the states and conditions of the human mind, and, consequently, Divine truth was presented to people in a form adapted to their wants. The letter intercepts, modifies, refracts, and transmits the rays of Divine truth, as the natural clouds intercept, modify, and transmit the light of the sun. Divine truth is in the letter, as science is in the various forms of material substances - as the science of botany is in plants, or physiology in the human body.
The material clouds are not suitable vehicles for communicating spiritual truths. But they can represent them, even if they cannot become them, and we find that water in every form is employed in the Word as the exponent of truth. This is so evident in many places that every enlightened mind can see it. The conversation of our Lord with the Samarian woman at the well is a case in point. "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life" (John iv. 13, 14). The river of life, also, whose waters make everything live whithersoever they come, and which issue out of the throne of God, must be Divine truth. But these are not exceptional cases. The meaning is universal, whether the water is in the form of seas, or rivers, or clouds, or rain, or dew, or whatever may be its use.
Whenever it is recorded in the Old Testament that the Lord came to people to communicate His truth to them, and to lead them, He is generally represented as being encompassed in a cloud, as coming in a cloud. The Children of Israel were led through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud. When they were pursued by the Egyptians, the pillar of cloud came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel - beautifully representing the manner in which the Divine truth of the Word gives light to those who receive it and obey it, while it is clouds and darkness to those who reject it and live in evil.
When the Lord was about to give the law - that embodiment of Divine truth - He appeared to Moses in a cloud. "And the Lord said unto Moses, Lo, I come to thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear thee when I speak with thee, and believe thee forever" (Exodus xix. 9). "And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days" (Exodus xxiv. 15, 16). Why did the Lord surround Himself with this cloud? It could not be to excite terror, for there is nothing in a cloud peculiarly calculated to do that. Was it not that He might veil the glory of His Divine nature, and be able to draw near to the Israelites and not consume them? Was it not that He might come to them in a form adapted to their low condition, and in so doing represent the manner in which He will always come to men?
After the tables of the law were placed in the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses. At two different times, afterwards, the Lord is said to descend in a cloud and talk with Moses.
When Solomon had completed the temple, a cloud filled the house of the Lord so that the priests could not stand and officiate. In Isaiah (iv. 5) it is said, "The Lord will create upon every dwelling-place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defense."
In these and in many other passages of Scripture you will see the Lord comes to us, speaks to us, gives His law to us in clouds. A voice comes out of the clouds at the transfiguration. It is impossible for people to receive the truth in its highest form in unclouded brightness. Its glory must be veiled, and adapted to our state. The Lord must come to us in a cloud.
There is another class of passages in which clouds are mentioned that show conclusively that the material clouds cannot be meant by them. In Isaiah it is said, "Behold, the Lord rideth upon a swift cloud." This, of course, cannot be literally true. Is it a vague expression without any meaning? That way of revealing truth would not be worthy of infinite wisdom. If by cloud is meant the letter of the Word, it has a meaning consistent with our interpretation and its use in every other passage. To ride upon a cloud would be a mode of coming to people in His truth. Again, it is said, "Thy mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens, and Thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds." "For Thy mercy is great unto the heavens, and Thy truth unto the clouds." "Ascribe ye excellency unto God; His excellency is over Israel, and His strength is in the clouds." In these passages the Lord's faithfulness, truth, and strength are said to extend to, and to be in, the clouds. In their literal import these expressions convey no intelligible idea whatever. But if clouds denote the letter of the Word, the natural forms in which the Lord expresses spiritual truth, they state plain and credible facts. They reveal the comforting truth that the Lord's faithfulness in coming to us, in revealing His truth to us, extends to the Word in its very letter, that His truth is in it, and there can be no unmeaning phrases in it. Especially is it true that the Lord's strength, the power of His Divine truth in its application to us, is in the letter, for it reaches us there.
Time will not permit me to enter further into the particular and peculiar way in which clouds are employed in the Sacred Scriptures. But if we were to take up their use and nature in every respect, we should find the evidence constantly accumulating that water in every form will bear the meaning of truth; and that, by giving it this meaning, a world of significance will be found in many passages of the Word, which, in their merely literal sense, convey no spiritual or Divine idea to the mind. In whatever aspect we view the subject of clouds, we find them to be the vehicles of that Divine truth which is represented by the Son of Man. They are the chariots of the Lord, in which He comes to humankind in the power and glory of His Divine truth.
By the aid of this key to the interpretation of Scripture, which unlocks the meaning of every passage in which clouds occur, we can see why the Lord is represented as coming in clouds, as surrounded with clouds. They are the natural representative of the letter of the Word, by means of which He comes to us in His Divine truth. They represent a lower form of the same truth expressed by the Son of Man. There is the same fitness in this correspondence that there is between the natural actions and peoples’ thoughts. We come to one another by means of these actions and expressions. The people of one age come to people in all ages and places by their writings. Plato and Homer and Milton and Shakespeare come to us in this way. Every man and woman who has expressed a true thought or pure affection is coming, and will continue to come, to others as long as literature shall endure.
Whether this principle be true or not, it accounts for all the facts, and gives a beautiful and profound spiritual meaning to many passages of the Word, which, in the letter, have no meaning, and it presents the most cogent reasons for the forms in which the Lord has come to the human race, for which there seemed to be no grounds in the Divine or in human nature.
But it may be objected, "Does not this interpretation explain away the meaning and destroy the force of those passages which predict His coming? Is this a real coming with power and great glory? Is it as real a coming, and as well adapted to secure the purposes of the Lord in the creation and salvation of the human race, as a personal advent would be?" There is abundant evidence that it is a much more real and powerful coming, and much better calculated to effect the subjection of all of us to the dominion of truth and love, than a personal coming could be.
We have, indeed, the best of evidence that there is no special power in a personal advent to secure obedience to the Divine will. The Lord once came in person, and very few believed on Him - His own nation rejected and crucified Him. It is true, we may conceive of His coming with more power and glory; but instead of accomplishing His purposes to bring all people into obedience to Him, such a manifestation would defeat it. A person is not brought into obedience by killing them. Their heart is not won by terror, or their understanding enlightened by physical commotion. We must not forget the nature of the human mind. Omnipotent power cannot force into the human mind what it cannot receive. It cannot compel a person to love. A person may be terrified, blasted, consumed, but that does not regenerate, and save, and fit them for heaven.
But let us examine the nature of true power and glory, and see if the clear manifestation of the Divine truth, which, we have endeavored to show, will constitute the Second Coming, does not comprise all real power, and must not promote to the fullest extent the true glory of the Lord.
1. What is power, and how is it manifested in its greatest fullness ? Our ideas of power may be very natural, superficial, and imperfect. We are in danger of taking too material a view of the subject. We may measure power too much by the physical changes, the noise and commotion attending it. We look at Niagara, and we are awed by the irresistible force of the swift and terrific plunge of waters. But there is no more power in the fall than there is in the force which holds the peaceful lake sleeping in its bed in a valley among the hills. If the fall is irresistible, what must be the extent of that power which drew this mighty current of water up from ocean and land? We read of earthquakes and volcanoes that shake the solid earth and bury cities in ruins, but what is the power which causes such ruin compared with the forces which hold the earth together? which bind with invisible bands the particles of the diamond and steel together? We read of hurricanes so tremendous in their force that they lift large bodies into the air, topple down houses, and sweep the giant trees of the forest before them as the mower's scythe the grass. But who thinks of the power which holds all material bodies to the earth, which lifts the forests and clouds above it, in opposition to the force of gravity? There is more power exerted in one summer's day, in the growing grass, in weaving the leaf, opening the blossom, and ripening the harvests, than all the animal and mechanical force man ever applied to use.
But let us go a step farther, and think of the power which moves the planets in their orbits, which creates and keeps in perpetual play the countless suns and systems of suns in the material universe. Here is no hurry, no bustle; no noise, no agony of effort. Every planet and sun moves smoothly and silently on its way. Here we see an exhibition of true power in the material universe.
Is there not a much fuller and nobler manifestation of power in the creation and preservation of this world than there would be in its destruction? Suppose that those descriptions of great physical commotions which, it is said, will attend the Second Coming were literally true? Suppose there were rending rocks, and opening graves, and falling stars, a general tumult and terror among the nations, a universal conflagration in which the heavens were rolled together as a scroll, and the whole material universe rushed to ruin, would that be so great an exhibition of power as we see before us, every day, in the preservation and orderly movements of all this grand and beautiful creation Reason and common sense can return but one answer to this question.
We are liable to the same mistake in our estimate of civil, intellectual, aid moral power. We associate with it restraint, resistance, violence; we measure it too much by the noise and tumult caused by it. We think of kings governing a powerful nation, leading armies to battle, or moving vast multitudes of people to noble or shameful deeds, according to their will. We are too sensuous in our measure of power. We are too prone to take Alexander and Caesar and Napoleon as types of power and human greatness.
But, in the moral as well as in the spiritual world, true power is quiet and noiseless in its operations. There is more power in an idea than in all the muscles and bayonets and rifled cannon in the world. Plato and Socrates were the embodiments of a greater force, and have exerted more influence upon the world, than all the warriors of Greece and Rome. Shakespeare has moved more hearts, lifted more burdens for the weary sons of toil, and exerted more real power over men than all the kings and heroes on the roll of English fame. James Watt has done more to enrich and give power to England and to the world than all her kings and princes and titled nobility. True power lives, grows, extends, and multiplies itself. There is more power in a live acorn than in a forest of dead oaks.
But what is the embodiment of the greatest and most beneficent power in this world ? What has done the most to restrain the lusts of men? to civilize and enlighten humanity? What has quickened the human mind, stimulated invention, extended the domain of science, by which people have gained control over the material world, and penetrated the secrets of its most powerful forces? Where is the center and source of that mighty power which, like vernal heat, is penetrating every mind and quickening every human faculty? What is the strongest thing in this world? Here it is. It is the Bible. Much as it has been misunderstood, superficially as it has been known, greatly as its truths have been perverted, it has still been the largest embodiment of power in humanity. It has caused the difference between the first and the [twenty-first] centuries. Its truths are higher and purer than those contained in any other book; they appeal to principles, they move to action profounder deeps in the human heart. They are more widely diffused; they penetrate and imbue literature. Every book is pure and useful in the degree it embodies the principles contained in the Sermon on the Mount. They come in contact with more minds, and wherever they go they heal, they quicken, they save, like that pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb. I repeat it. The Bible is the embodiment of the greatest power in the world.
If such has been and still is its power, imperfectly and superficially as it has been understood, what may we not rationally hope will be the effect of its Divine truths when they break forth from the letter as the sun from the clouds! The Bible is Divine truth itself. It contains all the principles of the Divine nature, all the laws of the Divine order, and, consequently, as man was made in the likeness and image of God, it embodies all the principles of man's nature, all the possibilities of his being, and the sure methods of unfolding them. The letter is to the truth itself, as the thick cloud which encompassed Sinai was to the majestic and glorious presence of Him who gave the law, and whose face they could not behold and live. People have mistaken the cloud, illumined by the few rays of truth which struggled through it, for the sun in the heavens above it. If these few rays, refracted, perverted, and obstructed, as they have been by human ignorance and folly, have done so much to vivify and guide human power to noble ends, what must be the result when the true laws of our nature are discovered and obeyed? when the mysteries of life are revealed and its enigmas solved? By the opening of the spiritual or genuine sense of the Word, the Son of Man - the Divine truth in its human form and relations - is coming to the human race to reveal to them their own spiritual nature, the reality and nature of the spiritual world, which has been but little more than a name; to show them in clear light the nature of life, of death, of heaven and hell, of the relations of the life in this world to the eternal life in the spiritual world. It is coming to do this in a light so clear that people cannot only say we believe, but we know their truth; and it is coming with an authority which is the voice of God Himself. Can any one conceive that the Lord could come in any greater power to accomplish the purposes of His infinite love? A personal coming, even if attended with all the flaming splendors and terrific convulsions usually associated with it, would not compare in power with the silent, unobtrusive, all-pervading, omnipresent influence of such a manifestation of the truth. Truth is power everywhere, in every form. Look over the civilized world, and see what miracles the truths of natural science have wrought. In these miracles we have a perfect example of the power of Divine truth, to regenerate and save men, when it shall find a rational lodgment in the human mind.
Let us observe, also, that this idea of power is perfectly in harmony with the interpretation of the clouds, and the Son of Man. It is, indeed, the effect of the Divine truth coming in the clouds of heaven, the letter of the Word.
2. But the Lord is also coming with "great glory." What is the true idea of glory, especially when applied to the Lord? Is it not too often regarded as the pomp and splendor of power? Is it not associated with exulting hosts of angels, with magnificence of attire and majesty of presence? Is it true glory to dazzle, to terrify, to subjugate, to destroy? Especially, can we conceive it to be compatible with the Divine glory to make a display of power to such poor, blind worms as we are? True glory, even among us mortals, is not sensuous display. The glory of a king is not the regal splendors of his court. It does not consist in purple and, gold, but in the wisdom with which he rules.
Suppose the Lord should come with myriads of angels; that the heavens were filled with the splendors of His presence; that the earth shook, and all faces gathered blackness; that his enemies trembled and fled, and cried to the mountains and rocks to fall on them and hide them from His awful presence; and that the whole material universe was dissolved! Would that be as glorious as to preserve all these worlds, to clear away the obstructions to the reception of His love, to plant new truths in the hearts of men, to save the lost, restore the fallen, multiply human souls, and fill them with blessedness?
But it is not in this sense that the word glory is used here. The Lord does not seek glory of men. When He asked that His name might be glorified, He did not seek renown or any earthly honor. By glory is meant the Divine truth as it is manifested in heaven. As that truth is received in the understanding it enlightens and exalts. It impresses the Divine likeness upon humankind. The human race’s true glory consists in the reception of the Divine truth, and in a life according to it. The Lord comes to us in glory just to the extent that He comes in the truth, and He comes to us and teaches us by means of the Sacred Scriptures.
Thus it is that He is coming in the clouds of heaven, and that He will continue to come with increasing power and glory, until His Divine truth illuminates every understanding, and His love glows in every heart. He is coming, and will continue to come until all science and art and literature shall be devoted to heavenly purposes, and every form of human industry shall be imbued and ennobled with a heavenly spirit. He is coming, and He will continue to come until love to God and man become the ruling motive of human action in business, in society, in church and state; until every home shall become a little heaven upon the earth, the nursery of angels, and the scene of their oft-repeated and welcome presence. Then will this in truth become a new earth, and a new heaven will encompass and shine over it.
If there was time to take a wider view of the subject, to examine a greater amount of Divine testimony, and to enter more into detail in the bearings of collateral subjects which are intimately related to it, we should find the truth we have endeavored to state confirmed at every step. But enough has been said to show that the doctrine, which teaches that the Second Coming of the Lord consists in a new and fuller revelation of Divine truth through the opening of the spiritual meaning of the Word, is eminently rational, and fully in accordance with Scripture when correctly understood; that it accords with all the known methods of the Divine operations, and, in whatever aspect viewed, is in harmony with the ends of the Divine love in the creation of man, and the methods of infinite wisdom in accomplishing them.
It is a great theme; it has many aspects, and is wide-sweeping in its consequences. It involves the profoundest principles of human knowledge, and the most intimate relations of the Lord and the human race. But if we have found the genuine truth in relation to the subject, it will grow clearer the more fully we examine it. Every new aspect in which we can view it, will add to its brightness; every step we take in investigating it, the way must grow plainer. All truth, natural, spiritual, and Divine, is in harmony. There is no collision in Divine laws. If it be true that the Lord is coming in a clear showing of the Divine truth embodied in the Sacred Scriptures, to regenerate and save humanity, and to establish His kingdom on the earth, we shall see proofs of it in human history. If we watch, as He has commanded us, we shall see Him in His power and glory in everything around us.