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The Latter­Day Glory and Second Coming: from Jonathan Edwards: A Mini-Theology by John H. Gerstner

By April 9, 2011Eschatology

The idea of the latter days was a controlling concept in Edwards’ thinking. His earliest Miscellanies (especially 26, 158, and 262) make reference to it. During the First Awakening he was discussing it in his preaching (for example, the April 1735 sermon on ‘Ruth’s Resolution’). Between the awakenings, in 1737, long before The Humble Attempt, he presented his people with a comprehensive yet urgent message, based on Ecclesiastes 11:2.1 He told his people that while some are presumptuous in fixing the exact time of the world’s end, others err in not being prepared for what is revealed. This much he assured them: These glorious times could not be very far off.

One of his most interesting sermons on this theme is on Isaiah 26:10­11. It is the only sermon on this Isaianic chapter devoted almost entirely to the latter days, and it deals with the destruction of the wicked at the time: ‘The obstinancy of some wicked men is such that means won’t turn them, nor will all the advantages enjoyed in God’s visible church make any effect upon them nor will any of God’s providential judgments or threatenings reclaim them.’2

The Great Awakening in Northampton made Edwards think that the latter days were rapidly approaching. Though his calendar of the Apocalypse did not call for the destruction of the Antichrist until 1866, in his sermon on Matthew 24:35 he indicates he was expecting the overthrow of evil in the world and the national conversion of the Jews.3

The British victory over the threatening French at Cape Breton in 1745 was seen as a sign of the end times. After giving a detailed account of the military success, Edwards exclaims: ‘The whole is wonderful from beginning to end. No parallel in history. We live in a day of wonders. Great reason to think that God is now about to fulfill the prophecies.’4

Negative and positive ‘signs’ were appearing, parallel to the first Advent. Negative indications (which were common excesses of revivals) included bodily effects, unusual events, noise, wide use of means, irregularities (including errors and delusions as well as counterfeits and scandals).5 Positive signs included the Spirit’s leading souls to Christ, operating against Satan’s kingdom, convincing of truth, and promising love and humility. Those who denied these signs were reminded that the Pharisees did not see the signs of their times either and were rebuked by the Lord; Edwards warned his people against hearkening to these deniers. In his sermon on Isaiah 27:13, Edwards speaks of the possible blowing of the Jubilee trumpet.6

Prayer should be poured out for the latter days in which the Spirit ‘will operate in a remarkable manner as a spirit of prayer.’7 In the Isaiah 62:6 sermon he urges saints to make their election sure by prayer for these days and urges ‘natural’ men to pray for their conversion at that time.8 Other virtues besides prayer will also appear. ‘In the future times of the church of God saints shall be like trees that are always green.’9 Love will abound, and glorifying God by word and deed will be characteristic

THE MILLENNIUM

We have seen how Edwards perceived the nearness and the signs and the necessary prayer preceding the coming of the latter­day glory, but what precisely was to be the nature of this Millennium? One important feature was the saints being recognized in the world; another, that it was the time of Christ’s ‘espousals.’

Edwards’ comments on the key biblical verse describing the Millennium (Rev. 20:4) and his concept of the meek inheriting the earth are interesting.

First, the Millennium will feature saints being recognized and exalted in this world where they had been so long persecuted. They are recognized in Christ by virtue of their union with him (Miscellany K). No details of this reign are given except that it is long and peaceful, though Satan is not completely overthrown.

Second, this will be the time of Christ’s ‘espousals.’ ‘The day of the commencement of the church’s latter day glory is eminently the day of Christ’s espousals, when as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so he will rejoice over his church.’10 So he interprets the wedding of the Lamb in Revelation 14 and 19, though it precedes the description of the beginning of the Millennium in chapter 19.

Edwards nowhere discusses the precise time of the Millennium, but he does state that it is to be taken literally. It is to be a Sabbath rest, meaning, for Edwards, that it is to follow the six thousand years of human history with the appropriate seventh day of rest (one thousand years).11 If not precisely a thousand years, at least it will be a ‘very long time.’12 Among other evidences of prosperity and affluence during the Millennium, there will be a population explosion.13

His comment on Revelation 20:4 in the Apocalypse Series explains the sense in which ‘martyrs under Anti­christ, might be said to rise and reign in the time of the Millennium.’14 A later reference in the same series merely asserts that saints do reign in the Millennium.15

Though not specifically mentioned in comments on Revelation 20:4, Edwards surely conceived of the Millennium as that period of time when the meek inherit this earth:

The meek (those that meekly and patiently suffer with Christ, and for his sake) shall inherit the earth: they shall inherit it, and reign on earth with Christ. Christ is the heir of the world; and when the appointed time of his kingdom comes, his inheritance shall be given him, and then the meek, who are joint­heirs, shall inherit the earth…. The saints in heaven will be as much with Christ in reigning over the nations, and in the glory of his dominion et that time, as they will be with him in the honour of judging the world at the last day. That promise of Christ to his disciples, Matt. 19:28, 29, seems to have a special respect to the former of these. In vs. 28 Christ promises to the disciples, the’ hereafter, when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, they shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of lsrael.16

THE MILLENNIUM AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

It is somewhat ironic that scholars writing two and a quarter centuries later see in Edwards’ millennial thinking a charter for American ‘manifest destiny.’ For Edwards, the hope was that America (that is, the colonies) would turn from its evil ways and seek the Lord even more earnestly than in her beginnings

Whether Edwards would have favored the American Revolution is difficult to determine. We know that he saw the Millennium as a time of liberty. The repudiations of Christianity as the official religion of the new republic could only have grieved him.

In general terms, Edwards conceived of Christ’s Second Coming as following the Millennium. This view was in sharp contrast to eighteenth­century premillennialists who saw it preceding the Millennium.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD

The kingdom of the Christ was at first the kingdom of the Jews, whose Messiah he claimed to be. When they rejected him, the kingdom of Christ was apart from the Jews, since only a few joined. It came then, Edwards says, in four stages. First, Matthew 16:28 indicates its coming in the fall of Jerusalem. Second, the kingdom comes with the fall of the heathen Roman Empire at the advent of Emperor Constantine (Rev. 6). The fall of the Antichrist as described in Daniel 7 and Revelation marks the third stage. Fourth, the fall of all the wicked and establishment of the righteous at the Day of Judgment is the final and perfect form of the kingdom of Christ. Formidable opposition appears at each critical stage: the Jews at the first, heathen and papal Rome at the second and third, Gog and Magog at the fourth. Each stage is a type of the last day, with a ‘resurrection’ occurring at each epoch.17

Edwards was persuaded that Christ would conquer both heathenism and Islam before handing over his kingdom to the Father,18 hence his well­known post millennialism. H. Richard Niebuhr saw this confidence in the sovereign power of God as what led to Edwards’ great millennial expectation and hope.19

The climax of the kingdom begins rather than ends at the Day of Judgment. Christ at that time shall deliver up his kingdom to the Father (Miscellany 434). Nevertheless, Christ will continue to reign, but in a different manner. At his Ascension, Christ was invested with kingly glory; at the Day of Judgment he will receive greater glory. At present, and until the Day of Judgment, Christ rules by delegated authority; after the judgment he will rule by virtue of his union with God. Now the Father reigns through his Son: then, with the Son and the saints sitting on Christ’s throne. the Father shall reign with both forever (Miscellany 7363. Christ will remain Mediator forever; so, the kingdom he delivers up is not his ‘mediatorial’ but his ‘representative kingdom’ (Miscellany 742).

This is Edwards’ Note on the Bible No. 158 on 1 Corinthians 15:28:

1 Cor. 15:28. ‘And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.’ Christ as Mediator has now the kingdom and government of the world so committed to him that he is to all intents and purposes in the room of his Father. He is to be respected as God himself is, as supreme, and absolute, and sovereign Ruler. God has left the government in his hands wholly now since his exaltation, that he may himself have the accomplishment and finishing of those great things for which he died. He is made head overall things to the church until the consummation and he is now king of the church, and of the world, in his present state of exaltation. He is not properly a subordinate ruler, because God hath entirely left the government with him, to his wisdom, and to his power But after Christ has obtained all the ends of his labors and death, there will be no farther occasion for the government’s being after that manner in his hands. He Will have obtained by his government, all the ends he desired; and so then God the Father will resume the government, and Christ and his church will spend eternity in mutual enjoyment, and in the joint enjoyment of God; . . . God will be respected as supreme orderer, and Christ with his church united to him, and dependent on him, shall together receive of the benefit of his government.20

There are those who say that all this is wishful eschatological thinking that cannot be proven, but Edwards insists the opposite is the case. This eschatological pattern is the only rational possibility and therefore proves Christianity true (Miscellanies 743, 745, 952). All revolutions of time and history are obviously for the man who understands them. So, man must remain or nothing would come of all these revolutions. All this confirms the Christian revelation that the world is coming to an end and man will continue. Otherwise it would all come ‘to nothing from which it was made’ if ‘he that is carried in the chariot doesn’t remain after he is brought with so much labor and vast ado to the end of his journey, but ceases to be as the chariot itself does.’21

THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST

Edwards’ devotion to the latter day glory and the Millennium only increased his zeal for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. All that preceded, however glorious, was but preparation for and anticipation of that grand event of the eschatological timetable. Even Christ’s coming triumphantly on the white horse as depicted in Revelation 19 was but the prelude to the glorious latter days and Millennium. Nothing but the even more glorious Second Coming itself could up stage such splendor.

Though persuaded that Scripture does not allow the calculation of the exact date of the Parousia, Edwards was insist tent that it did indicate the general period. The fullest development of this is in an unpublished sermon on John 1:10.22 The application is especially interesting. The prophecies make us believe, said Edwards in 1741, that the coming of Christ is not far distant. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that Christ’s reception, or lack of it, at the Second Coming will parallel his first coming.

What signs, Edwards inquires, will distinguish the return of Christ? Paralleling his procedure in Religious Affections, he first enumerates signs that do not prove the Second Advent, such as bodily effects, noise, irregularities, delusions, counterfeits, and scandals. Positive indications are the Holy Spirit leading people to Christ, his operation against Satan’s kingdom, convincing of truth, and pouring out of the spirit of love and humility. The Devil will try to deceive, to be sure, but there are some things he could not do if he would and some he would not if he could. The sermon concludes abruptly with a warning against the unpardonable sin which opponents risk. To his own people, he says: ‘I warn against hearkening to them.’23

It is rather interesting that this great postmillenniarian, all his great expectations for the future notwithstanding, believed only few would be saved. ‘This world,’ he wrote, ‘is like a sinking ship’ (Miscellany 520).

But whenever Christ returns, it will be a great day of rejoicing for the saints. ‘Christ, at his first coming, came to bear the sins of his people for the procuring of their salvation. At his Second Coming, he will appear without bearing any sins for the bestowment of salvation.’24 That is the reason all saints love Christ’s return. At his first coming his glory was under a veil but it is unveiled at the Second Coming as he will be revealed in both his divine and human natures. Therefore, ‘ ’tis the character of true saints to love the appearing of Jesus Christ at the last day,’25 even though (and especially though) they will probably be suffering persecution when the Parousia occurs. ‘ ‘Tis probable many of the saints at that time will be found suffering persecution, for there are several things in Scripture that seem to hold forth that the time when Christ is coming shall be a time when wickedness shall exceedingly abound and the saints be greatly persecuted,’26

This is a rather surprising way of putting the matter. Elsewhere Edwards had indicated that following the Millennium would be the greatest tribulation the church was ever to know.

A CRITICAL QUESTION ABOUT THE SECOND COMING

At this point we may notice a critical concern of Edwards. Much scholarship then and now contends that the apostles taught that the Second Coming of Christ would occur in their own generation, not at a much later date following a thousand­year glory era.

Edwards went into a detailed refutation of this doctrine, now taken as axiomatic by naturalistic critics. In a nineteen­point argument he showed that the apostles, and Christ, taught no such doctrine.27

  1. The ‘we’ (1 Thess. 4:15f.) does not necessarily refer to that generation (literally understood) but to ‘dead Christians, who will not be left behind when Christ returns.’
  2. Uncertainty about the time of Christ’s return is seen in the reference to his coming ‘as a thief in the night.’
  3. Genesis 50:25 has Joseph foretelling that ‘God will surely visit you’ (not meaning that generation of Jews) ‘and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.’
  4. That Paul did not mean that his generation would be alive at the Second Coming is clear in 2 Thessalonians 2:1­3.
  5. There is no evidence of a change in Paul’s mind, be cause 2 Thessalonians was written shortly after 1 Thessalonians and while he was still at Athens.
  6. First Corinthians 6:14 says that Christ ‘will raise up us’ implying ‘our’ death.
  7. Second Thessalonians is so clear and pointed that statements elsewhere must be seen in its light.
  8. We must take expectancy passages in this light (that Christ’s coming meant the salvation of the church, not that the return would be in their time).
  9. Biblical ‘at hand’ did not necessarily mean ‘at that specific time’ as is seen by Haggai 2:6, 7, Malachi 3:1, Isaiah 39:17,18, and Revelation 1:3.
  10. Peter’s ‘thousand years is as a day’ did not disappoint the saints, because they knew that Christ would come for them at death.
  11. First Corinthians 10:11 shows that many things in the Old Testament times were done for examples centuries later in New Testament times.
  12. First Peter 4:7: ‘The end of all things is at hand.’ The explanation for this is given in 2 Peter 3:7,8: The heavens and earth are being kept in store for the appointed time.
  13. John 21:22 shows that Christ did not say that he would return before John’s death.
  14. Revelation 3:11, 12, and 20 seem to expect Christ to come quickly, but the following seventeen chapters show the successive ages that will occur before Christ returns.
  15. The church grew strong rather than weak when Christ did not return, showing that Christians were not disillusioned but prepared.
  16. Matthew 25:5 says the ‘bridegroom’ (Christ) ‘tarried.’
  17. Luke 17:22 and 18:8 show that when Christ speaks of his coming the reference is to special providence: the fall of Jerusalem (cf.17:37; 19:13­15). The apostles asked about the ‘time of his coming’ and Christ referred to the fall of Jerusalem. When Christ referred to the end of the world it is associated with final judgment, judgment, which was not to follow the fall of Jerusalem. After that, the Jewish dispersion and time of the Gentiles were to occur.
  18. ‘In that generation’ refers to the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70).
  19. Christ predicted the calling of Gentiles (Matt.21:41, 43), which the parables showed would be gradual. He also predicted the dispersal of Jews in all nations (Luke 21:24) before his return.

Notes

1. Sermon on Ecclesiastes 11 :2, ‘We ought to prepare for whatever changes may come to pass.­ December 11,1737 (after an earth quake on December 7).

2. Sermon on Isaiah 26:10, 11, September 1740.

3. Sermon on Matthew 24:35, ‘That God never fails of his word,’ Winter­Spring 1727.

4. Sermon on 2 Chronicles 20:20 29, ‘When any of God’s people have been forth to war and God has remarkably appeared to fight for them and return them to the people and house of God in prosperity, it is an occasion that requires much praise and thanksgiving to God.’

5. Sermon on John 1:10.

6. Sermon on Isaiah 27:13,June 1741.

7. Ibid.

8. Sermon on Isaiah 62:6, April 1741.

9. Sermon on Isaiah 41:19, ‘In the future glorious times of the church of God in this world, the saints shall be like trees that are always green,’ June 1742.

10. Works, 2:31.

11. Sermon on Ecclesiastes 11:2 (see note 1).

12. Ibid.

13. Jonathan Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings, ed. Stephen J. Stein (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 342 343.

14. Ibid., 166.

15. Ibid., 178f

16. Works, 2:31.

17. Ibid.,1:384,385.

18. Note on I Corinthians 15:24 in Edwards’ blank Bible.

19. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1937).

20. Works, 2:800.

21. Miscellany 867, in The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards from His Private Notebooks, ed. Harvey G.Townsend (Eugene, Ore.: University of Oregon Press,1955),263.

22. Sermon on John 1:10,11, ‘Christ came to world and church by his Spirit and h is human presence,’ July 1741.

23. Ibid.

24. Sermon on Hebrews 9:28, March 1749/50.

25. Sermon on 2 Timothy 4:8, May l752, June l752.

26. Sermon on John 1:10,11 (see note 22).

27. Works, 2:466f.

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