The Thessalonian Christians had supposed that the coming of Christ was at hand. St Paul writes to warn them against such an expectation. Not that he discountenances their looking out for our Lord’s doming, the contrary; but he tells them that a certain event must come before it, and until that had arrived the end would not be. “Let no man deceive you by any means,” he says; “For the day shall not come,except there come a falling away first,”- and he proceeds”and” except first “that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.”
As long as the world lasts, this passage of Scripture will be full of reverent interest to Christians. It is their duty to be ever watching for the advent of their Lord, to search for the signs of it in all that happens around them; an above all to keep in mind this great ans awful sign of which St Paul speaks to the Thessalonians. As our Lord’s first coming had its forerunner, so will the second have its own. The first was “One more than a prophet,” the Holy Baptist: the second will be more than an enemy of Christ; it will be the very image of Satan, the fearful and hateful Antichrist. Of him, as described in prophecy, I propose to speak; and in doing so, I shall follow the exclusive guidance of the ancient Fathers of the Church.
I follow the ancient Fathers, not as thinking that on such a subject they have the weight they possess in the instances of doctrine or ordinances. When they speak of doctrines, they speak of them as being universally held. They are witnesses to the fact that those doctrines having been received, not here or there, but everywhere. We receive those doctrines which they thus teach, not merely because they teach them, but because they bear witness to all Christians everywhere then held them. We take them as honest informants, but not as a sufficient authority in themselves, though they are an authority too. If they were to state these very same doctrines, but say, “These are our opinions: we deduced them from Scripture, and they are true,” we might well doubt about receiving them at their hands. We might fairly say, that we had as much right to deduce from Scripture as they had; that deductions from Scripture were mere opinions; that if our deductions agreed with theirs, that would be a happy coincidence, and increase our confidence in them; but if they did not, it could not be helped-we must follow our own light. Doubtless, no man has any right to impose his own deductions upon another, in matters of faith. There is an obvious obligation, indeed, upon the ignorant to submit to those who are better informed; and there is a fitness in the young submitting implicitly for a time to the teaching of their elders; but beyond this, one man’s opinion is not better than another’s. But this is not the state of the case as regards the Fathers. They do not speak of their own Private Opinion; they do not say, “This is true, because we see it in Scripture”-but, “this is true, because in matter of fact it is held, and has ever been held, by all the Churches, down to our times, without interruption, ever since the apostles: “Where the question is merely one of testimony, viz., whether they had the means of knowing that it had been and was so held; for if it was the belief of so many and independent Churches at once, and that, on the ground of its being from the Apostles, doubtless it cannot be true and Apostolic.
This, I say, is the mode in which the Fathers speak as regards doctrine; but it is otherwise when they interpret prophecy. In this matter there seems to have been no catholic, no formal and distinct, or at least no authoritative traditions; so that when they interpret Scripture they are for the most part giving, and profess to be giving, either their own private opinions, or vague, floating, and merely general anticipations. This is what might have been expected; for it is not ordinarly the course of Divine Providence to interpret prophecy before the event. What the Apostles disclosed concerning the future, was for the most part disclosed to them in private, to individuals-not committed to writing, not intended for the edifying of the Body of Christ,-and was soon lost. Thus, in a few verses after the passage I have quoted, St Paul says, “Remember ye not, that when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” and he writes by hints and allusions, not speaking out. And it shows how little care was taken to discriminate and authenticate his prophetical intimations, that the Thessalonians had adopted an opinion, that he had said-what in fact he had not said-that the Day of Christ was immediately at hand.
Yet, though the Fathers do not convey to us the interpretation of prophecy with the same certainty as they convey doctrine, yet, in proportion to their agreement, their personal weight, and the prevalence, or again the authoritative character of the opinions they are stating, they are to be read with deference; for, to say the least, they are as likely to be right as commentators now; in some respects more so, because the interpretation of prophecy has in these times become a matter of controversy and party. And passion and prejudice have so interfered with soundness of judgment, that it is difficult to say who is to be trusted to interpret it, or whether a private Christian may not be as good and expositor as those by whom the office has been assumed.
Now to turn to the passage in question, which I shall examine by arguments drawn from Scripture, without being solicitous to agree, or to say why I am at issue, with modern commentators: “That Day shall not come, except there come a falling away first.” Here the sign of the second Advent is said to be a certain frightful apostasy, and the manifestation of the man of sin, the son of perdition-that is, as he is commonly called, Antichrist. Our Saviour seems to add, that the sign will immediately precede Him, or that His coming will follow close upon it; for after speaking of “false prophets” and “false Christs,” “showing signs and wonders,” “iniquity abounding,” and “love waxing cold,” and the like, He adds, “When ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.” Again He says, “When you shall see the Abomination of Desolation…stand in the holy place…then let them that be in Judea flee into the mountains.” Indeed, St Paul also implies this, when he says that Antichrist shall be destroyed by the brightness of Christ’s coming.
First, then, I say, if Antichrist is to come immediately before Christ, and to be the sign of His coming, it is manifest that the Antichrist is not come yet, but still to be expected; for, else Christ would have come before now.
Further, it appears that the time of Antichrist’s tyranny will be three years and a half, or, as Scripture expresses it, “a time, and times, and the dividing of time,” or “forty-two months,”-which is an additional reason for believing he is not come; for, if so, He must have come quite lately, his time being altogether so short; that is, within the last three years, and this we cannot say he has.
Besides, there are two other circumstances of his appearance, which have not been fulfilled. First, a time of unexpected trouble. “There shall be great tribulation, such as was not from the beginning of the world to this time, nor ever shall be; and except those days should be shortened, there should be no flesh saved.” This has not yet been. Next, the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world for a witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come.”
Now it may be objected to this conclusion, that St Paul says, in this passage before us, that “the mystery of iniquity does already work,” that is, even in his day, as if Antichrist had in fact come even them. But he would seem to mean merely this, that in his day there were shadows and forebodings, earnests and operative elements, of that which was one day to come in its fullness. Just as the types of Christ went before Christ, so the shadows of Antichrist precede him. In truth, every event of this world is a type of those that follow, history proceeding forward as a circle ever enlarging. The days of the Apostles typified the last days; there were false Christs, and risings, and troubles, and persecutions, and judicial destruction of the Jewish Church. In like manner, every age presents its own picture of those still future events, which, and which alone, are the real fulfillment of the prophecy which stands at the head of them all. Hence St John says, “Little children, it is the last time; and as you have heard that the Antichrist shall come, even now are there many Antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” Antichrist was come, and was not come; it was, and it was not the last time. In the sense in which the Apostles’ Day might be called the “last time,” and the end of the world, it was also the time of Antichrist.
A second objection may be made as follows: St Paul says, “Now you know what withholds him, that he (Antichrist) may be revealed in his time.” Here a something is mentioned as keeping back the manifestation of the enemy of truth. He proceeds: “He that now withholds, will withhold, until he be taken out of the way.” Now this retraining power was in early times considered to be the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire (it is argued) has long been taken out of the way; it follows that Antichrist has long since come. In answer to this objection, I would grant that he “that withholds,” or “hinders,” means the power of Rome, for all the ancient writers o speak of it. And I grant that as Rome, according to the prophet Daniel’s vision, succeeded Greece, so Antichrist succeeds Rome, and the second coming succeeds Antichrist. But it does not follow hence that the Antichrist is come: for it is not clear that the Roman Empire is gone. Far from it: the Roman Empire in the view of prophecy, remains even to this day. Rome had a very different fate from the three other monsters mentioned by the Prophet (Daniel), as will be seen by his description of it. “Behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with the its feet: and it was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.” These ten horns, an Angel informed him, “are ten kings that shall rise out of this kingdom” of Rome. As, then, the ten horns belonged to the fourth beast, and were not separate from it, so the kingdoms, into which the Roman Empire was to be divided, are the continuation and termination of the Empire itself,-which lasts on, and in some sense lives in the view of prophecy, however we decide the historical question. Consequently, we have not yet seen the end of the Roman Empire. “That which withholds” still exists, up to the manifestation of its ten horns; and until it is removed, Antichrist will not come. And from the midst of those horns he will arise, as the same Prophet informs us: “I considered the horns, and behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.”
Up to the time, then, when Antichrist shall actually appear, there has been and will be continual effort to manifest him to the world on the part of the powers of evil. The history of the Church is the history of that long birth. “The mystery of iniquity does already work,” says St Paul. “Even now there are many Antichrists,” says St John,-“every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God; and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, of which you have heard that it should come, and even now is already in the world.” It has been at work ever since, from the time of the Apostles, though kept under by him that “withholds.” At this very time there is a fierce struggle, the spirit of Antichrist is attempting to rise, and the political power in those countries which are prophetically Roman, firm and vigorous repressing it. And in fact, we actually have before our eyes, as our fathers also in the generation before us, a fierce and lawless principle everywhere at work-a spirit of rebellion against God and man, which the powers of government in each country can barely keep under with their greatest efforts. Whether this which we witness be that spirit of Antichrist, which is one day at length to be let loose, this ambitious spirit, the parent of all heresy, schism, sedition, revolution, and war-whether this be so or not, at least we know from prophecy that the present framework of society and government, as far as it is the representative of Roman powers, is that which withholds, and Antichrist is that which will rise when this restraint fails.
It has been more or less implied in the foregoing remarks, that the Antichrist is one man, an individual, not a power or a kingdom. Such surely is the impression left on the mind by the Scripture notices concerning him, after taking fully into account the figurative character of prophetical language. Consider these passages together, which describe him, and see whether we must not so conclude. First, the passage in St Paul’s Epistle: “That day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the Son of perdition, who is the adversary and rival of all that is called God or worshipped; so that he sits as God in the Temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God…Then shall that Wicked One be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming…whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power and signs and lying wonders.”
Next, in the prophet Daniel: “Another shall arise after them, and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings. And he shall speak great words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time, and times, and the dividing of time. But the judgment shall not sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and destroy it unto the end.” Again: “And the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exult and magnify himself above every God, and shall speak marvellous things against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the indignation be accomplished…Neither shall he regard the God of his Fathers, nor the Desire of women, nor regard any god; for he shall magnify himself above all. But in his estate he shall honor a god of forces, and a god whom his fathers knew not shall be honor with gold and silver, and with precious stones, and pleasant things.” Let it be observed, that Daniel elsewhere describes other kings, and that the event has shown them certainly to be individuals,-for instance, Xerxes, Darius, and Alexander.
And in like manner St John: “There was given unto him a mouth speaking great things, and blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His Name, and His tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven. And it was given to him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them; and power was given him over all people and tongues and nations. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in th book of life of the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world. ”
Further, that by Antichrist is meant some one person, is made probable by the anticipations which, as I have said, have already occurred in history, of the fulfilment of prophecy. Individual men have arisen actually answering in a great measure to the above description; and this circumstance creates a probability, that the absolute and entire fulfillment which is to come will be in an individual also, the most remarkable of these shadows for the destined scourge appeared before the time of the apostles, between them and the age of Daniel, viz., the heathen king Antiochus, of whom we read in the book of Maccabees. This instance is the more to the purpose, because he is actually described (as we suppose) by Daniel, in another part of his prophecy, in terms which seem also to belong to the Antichrist, and, as belonging, imply that Antiochus actually was what he seems to be, a type of that more fearful future enemy of the Church. This Antiochus was the savage persecutor of the Jews, in their latter times, as Antichrist will be of Christians. A few passages from the Maccabees will show you what he was. St Paul in the text speaks of an apostasy, and then of Antichrist following upon it; and thus is the future of the Christian Church typified in the past Jewish history. “In those days went there out of Israel wicked men, who persuaded many, saying, Let us go and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: for since we departed from them we have had much sorrow. So this device pleased them well. Then certain of the people were so forward herein, that they went to the king, who gave them licence to do after the ordinances of the heathen; and made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do mischief.” Here was the falling away. After this introduction the enemy of truth appears. “After that Antiochus had smitten Egypt, he returned again,…and went up against Israel and Jerusalem with a great multitude, and entered proudly into the sanctuary, and took away the golden altar, and the candlestick of light and all the vessels thereof, and the table of the shewbread, and the pouring vessels, and the vials, and the censers of gold and the veil, and the crowns, and the golden ornaments that were before the temple; all which he pulled off. And when he had taken all away, he went into his own land, having made a great massacre, and spoken proudly.” After this he set fire to Jerusalem, “and pulled down the houses and the walls thereof on every side…Then built they the city of David with a great and strong wall,…and they put therein a sinful nation, wicked men, and fortified themselves therein.” Next, King Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people, and everyone should leave his laws: so all the heathen agreed according to the commandment of the king, Yea, many also of the Israelites consented to his religion, and sacrificed unto idols, and profaned the sabbath.” After this he forced these impieties on the chosen people. All were to be put to death who would not “profane the sabbath and festival days, and pollute the sanctuary and the holy people, and set up altars, and groves, and chapels of idols, and sacrifice swine’s flesh and unclean beasts,” and “leave their children uncircumcised.” At length he set up an idol, or, in the words of history, “the abomination of desolation upon the later, and built idol altars throughout the cities of Judea on every side…and when they had rent in pieces the books of the law which they found, they burnt them with fire.” It is added, “Howbeit many in Israel were full resolved and confirmed in themselves not to eat anything unclean, wherefore they chose ather to die…and there was very great wrath upon Israel.” Here we have presented to us some of the lineaments of Antichrist, who will be such and worse than such, as Antiochus.
The history of the apostate emperor Julian, who lived between 3oo and 400 years after Christ, furnishes us with another approximation to the predicted Antichrist, and an additional reason for thinking he will be one person, not a kingdom, power, or the like.
And so again does Mahome, who propagated his imposture about 600 years after Christ came.
Lastly, that Antichrist is one individual man, not a power,-not a mere ethical spirit, or a political system, not a dynasty, or succession of rulers,-was the universal tradition of the early Church. “We must say,” writes St Jerome upon Daniel, “what has been handed down to us by all the ecclesiastical writers, that, in the end of the world, when the Roman Empire is to be destroyed, there will be ten kings, to divide the Roman territory between them, and an eleventh will rise up, a small king, who will subdue three of the ten, and thereupon receive the submission of the other seven. It is said that ‘the horn had eyes, as the eyes of a man,’ lest we should, as some have thought, suppose him to be the evil spirit, or a demon, whereas he is one man, in whom Satan shall dwell bodily. ‘And a mouth speaking great things;’ for he is the man of sin, the son of perdition, so that he dares to ‘sit in the Temple of God, making himself as God.’ ‘The beast has been slain, and his carcass has perished;’ since the Antichrist blasphemes in that united Roman Empire, all its kingdoms are at one and the same time to be abolished, and there shall be no earthly kingdom, but the society of the saints, and the coming of the triumphant Son of God.” And Theodoret: “Having spoken of Antiochus Epiphanes, the prophet passes from the figure to the antitype; for the antitype of Antiochus is Antichrist. As Antiochus compelled the Jews to act impiously, so the man of sin, the son of perdition, will make every effort for the seduction of the pious, by false miracles, and by force and by persecution. As the Lord says, “Then will be great tribulation, such as never was from the beginning of the world till this time, nor ever shall be.”
What I have said upon this subject may be summed up as follows:-that the coming of Christ will be immediately preceded by a very awful and unparalleled outbreak of evil, called by St Paul an Apostasy, a falling away, in the midst of which a certain terrible Man of sin and Child of perdition, the special and singular enemy of Christ, or Antichrist, will appear; that this will be when revolutions prevail, and the present framework of society breaks to pieces; and that at present the spirit which he will embody and represent is kept under by “the powers that be,” but that on their dissolution, he will rise out of their bosom and knit them together again in his own evil way, under his own rule, to the exclusion of the Church.
It would be out of place to say more than this at present. I will but insist on one particular circumstance contained in St Paul’s announcement which I have already in part commented on.
It is said there will “come a falling away, and the man of sin will be revealed.” In other words, the Man of Sin is born of an Apostasy, or at least comes into power through an Apostasy, , or is preceded by an apostasy, or would not be except for an apostasy. So says the inspired text: now observe, how remarkably that course of Providence, a seen in history, has commented on this prediction.
First, we have a comment in the instance of Antiochus previous to the actual events contemplated in the prophecy. The Israelites, or at least great numbers of them, put off their own sacred religion, and then the enemy was allowed to come in.
Next the apostate emperor Julian, who attempted to overthrow the Church by craft, and introduce paganism back again: it is observable that he was preceded, nay, he was nurtured, by heresy; by that first great heresy which disturbed the peace and purity of the Church. About forty years before he became emperor, arose the pestilent Arian heresy which denied that Christ was God. It ate its way among the rulers of the Church like a canker, and what with the treachery of some, and mistakes of others, at one time it was all but dominant throughout Christendom. The few holy and faithful men, who witnessed to the Truth, cried out, with awe and terror at the apostasy, that Antichrist was coming. They called it the “forerunner of the Antichrist.” And true, his shadow came. Julian was educated in the bosom of Arianism by some of its principle upholders. His tutor was that Eusebius from whom it partisans took their name; and in due time he fell away to paganism, became a hater and persecutor of the Church, and was cutoff before he reigned out the brief period which will be the real Antichrist’s duration.
And thirdly, another heresy arose, a heresy in its consequences far more lasting and far-spreading; it was of a twofold character; with two heads, as I may call them, Nestorianism and Eutychianism, apparently opposed to one another, yet acting towards a common end: both in one way or other denied the truth of Christ’s gracious incarnation, and tended to destroy the faith of Christians not less certainly , though more insidiously, than the heresy of Arius. In spread through the east and through Egypt, corrupting and poisoning those Churches which had once, alas! been the most flourishing, the earliest abodes and strongholds of revealed truth. Out of this heresy, or at least by means of it, the impostor Mahoma sprang, and formed his creed. Here is another Shadow of the Antichrist.
These instances give us warning:-Is the enemy of Christ, and His Church, to arise out of a certain special falling away from God? And is there no reason to fear that some such Apostasy is gradually preparing, gathering, hastening on in this very day? For is there not at this very time a special effort made almost all over the world, that is, every here and there, more or less in sight or out of sight, in this or that place, but most visibly and formidably in its most civilized and powerful parts, an effort to do without religion. Is there not an opinion avowed and growing, that a nation has nothing to do with Religion; that it is merely a matter for each man’s conscience?-which is all one with saying that we may let the Truth fail from the earth without trying to continue it in and on after our own time. Is there not a vigorous and united movement in all countries to cast down the Church of Christ from power and place? Is there not a feverish and ever-busy endeavour to get rid of the necessity of Religion in public transactions? for example, an attempt to get rid of oaths, under the pretense that they are too sacred for affairs of common life, instead of providing that they be taken more reverently and more suitably? an attempt to educate without Religion?-that is, by putting all forms of religion together, which comes to the same thing;- an attempt to enforce temperance, and the virtues which flow from it, without Religion, by means of Societies which are built on moral principles of utility? an attempt to make expedience, and not truth, the end and the rule of measures of State and the enactments of Law? an attempt to make numbers, and not the Truth, the ground of maintaining, or not maintaining, this or that creed, as if we had any reason whatever in Scripture for thinking that the many will be in the right and the few in the wrong? An attempt to deprive the Bible of its one meaning to the exclusion of all others, to make people think that it may have an hundred meanings all equally good, or in other words, that it has no meaning at all, is a dead letter, and may be put aside? an attempt to supersede Religion altogether, as far as it is external and objective, as far as it is displayed in ordinances, or can be expressed by written words,-to confine our inward feelings, and thus, considering how variable, how evanescent our feelings are, an attempt, in fact, to destroy Religion?
Surely, there is at this day a confederacy of evil, marshaling its hosts from all parts of the world, organizing itself, taking its measures, enclosing the Church of Christ as in a net, and preparing the way for a general Apostasy from it. Whether this very Apostasy is to give birth to Antichrist, or whether he is still to be delayed, as he has already been delayed so long, we cannot know; but at any rate this Apostasy, and all its tokens and instruments, are of the Evil One, and savour of death. Far be it from any of us to be those simple ones what taken in that snare which is circling around us! Far be it from any of us to be seduced with the fair promises in which Satan is sure to hide his poison! To you think he is so unskilful in his craft, as to ask you openly and plainly to join him in his warfare against the Truth? No; he offers you baits to tempt you. He promises you civil liberty; he promises you equality; he promises you trade and wealth; he promises you a remission of taxes; he promises you reform. This is the way in which he conceals from you the kind of work to which he is putting you; he does so himself, and induces you to imitate him; or he promises you illumination,-he offers you knowledge, science, philosophy, enlargement of mind. He scoffs at times gone by; he scoffs at every institution which revers them. He prompts you what to say, and then listens to you, and praises you, and encourages you. He bids you mount aloft. He shows you how become as gods. Then he laughs and jokes with you, and gets intimate with you; he takes your hand, and gets his fingers between yours, and grasps them, and then you are his.
Shall we Christians allow ourselves to have lot or part in this matter? Shall we, even with our little finger, help on the Mystery of Iniquity, which is travailing for birth, and convulsing the earth with its pangs? “O my soul, come not thou into their secret: unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united.” “What fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion has light with darkness? Wherefore, come out from among them, and be you separate,”…lest you be workers together with God’s enemies, and be opening the way for the Man of Sin, the Son of Perdition. (DISCUSSIONS AND ARGUMENTS by John Henry Cardinal Newman. public domain work)
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