The History of the Doctrine of the Lord’s Return
March 25th, 1984 @ 8:15 AM
THE HISTORY OF THE DOCTRINE OF OUR LORD’S RETURN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-25-84 8:15 a.m.
And we welcome the great multitudes of you who share this hour with us in the First Baptist Church of Dallas on radio. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The History of the Doctrine of Our Lord’s Return. We have come to the section, in the great series on the doctrines of the Bible, we have come to the section entitled “The Second Coming of Christ.”
Next Sunday’s sermon will be entitled What Do the Prophets Say, What Do the Prophets Say. And this morning a review of the almost two thousand years history of the attitude and doctrinal development of the church concerning the second return of our Lord.
Our background text is in Matthew 24, verses 1-3, Matthew 24, the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus. Matthew 24:1-3:
And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and His disciples came to Him for to show Him the buildings of the temple.
And Jesus said unto them: See ye not all these things? verily, I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
And as He sat upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples came unto Him privately, saying: Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the world?
Then follows after the reply of our Lord concerning the end of the age [Matthew 24:4-51].
We are going to follow the assignment, the study this morning, in six sections; The History of the Doctrine of the Return of our Lord. First, we are going to look at the return of our Lord, the second coming of Christ, as taught in the New Testament. Then we are going to look at the return of our Lord as taught by the early church fathers in the pilgrim-persecuted and primitive church. Then we’re going to follow the doctrine of the return of our Lord as the message was drowned and denied by the lavish Imperial Roman Church. Then we’re going to study the doctrine of the return of our Lord as the hope of the morning stars of the Reformation. Then we’re going to speak of the doctrine of the return of the Lord as it was taught by the leaders of the Reformation. And then lastly we’re going to speak of the return of our Lord as it was preached and is being preached by the great revivalists of our last two centuries.
First; the return of our Lord as it is presented in the New Testament, in that first church. In the New Testament the first Christians believed in and looked forward to the imminent return of Jesus. The first church was pre-chiliastic and premillennial—in Greek the world for thousand is chilias, and the early church were chiliasts. The doctrine of Christ’s return to earth to reign a thousand years is called chiliasm, from chilias, a thousand years, which is mentioned six times in the first seven verses of the [twentieth chapter of] Revelation [Revelation 20:1-7].
When you turn from Greek to the Latin Church, the Latin term for the thousand years is called “a millennium.” What in Greek is chilias in Latin is millennium—mille, thousand; annus, years—so millennium, a thousand years. A premillennialist, a premillennarian, a pre-chiliast, is one that believes that Christ is coming before the millennium. A postmillennium, a post-chiliast, is one who believes that we’re going to preach in the kingdom of God, we’re going to convert the world, and then Christ will come at the end of the millennium. An amillennialist, an amillennarian, is someone who doesn’t believe in any of it; he spiritualizes the Scriptures, and he becomes rationalistic and spiritualizing in his attitude toward the Bible.
Now I’ve just said that the Scriptures, the first Christian church, was imminently pre-chiliastic and premillennial. They believed in the imminent return of our Lord. Jesus said, in John 14:3, “If I go…I will come again, and receive you unto Myself.” In Mark 8:38, “The Son of Man cometh in the glory of the Father with His holy angels.”
When Paul wrote his epistles in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, every chapter ends with some facet and a promise of the coming of our Lord, all five chapters in 1 Thessalonians, and all three chapters in 2 Thessalonians [1 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:16-17, 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-12, 2 :13-17, 3:16-18]. In the Book of Hebrews, Hebrews 9:28, “Unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time apart from sin unto salvation.” James, the Lord’s brother and the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, wrote in James 5:8, “Be ye also patient, stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.” Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:3-4, “There shall come in the last day scoffers, saying where is the promise of His coming?” Verse 9, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise” [2 Peter 3:9], verse 10, “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night” [2 Peter 3:10]. And the apostle John, of course, wrote the Revelation, the Apocalypse [Revelation 1:1-2].
The text of the Apocalypse is the seventh verse of the first chapter, “Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him” [Revelation 1:7]. In chapter 4, verse 1, he is raptured up to heaven, a type, a symbol of our gathering to the Lord, our being caught up to the Lord in heaven [Revelation 4:1]. And in chapter 19, verse 11, the Lord returns to the earth with His saints [Revelation 19:11-16], and the Apocalypse ends with the beautiful benediction, 22:20, “He which testifieth these things saith: Surely, surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus” [Revelation 22:20]. There is no doubt but that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the church of the first century, was a pre-chiliastic, premillennial church.
Number two: the church of the fathers in the early persecuted, primitive congregations. The Didache , the teaching of the twelve apostles, discovered in 1873, some assign it to a date as early as a100 AD, this document was written just about the time that the Apocalypse was written. From the fourteenth chapter the Didache says, “Watch for your life’s sake. Let your lamps be not quenched nor your loins unloosed. Be ye ready for ye know not the hour in which the Lord cometh.” Sounds like the doctrine of the New Testament, doesn’t it? The Didache has a benediction that ends with Maranatha, “The Lord cometh.” That’s the way the apostle Paul ended 1 Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 16:22. We’re following the doctrine of the return of our Lord through that first primitive church.
Number two, the Epistle of Barnabas: it was found at the close of Codex Sinaiticus, discovered by Tischendorf in 1859 in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai—the Epistle of Barnabas. It is written about 130 AD in Alexandria. It’s not written by our Barnabas itself, it’s one of those pseudonyms. But it was written early, it was addressed to Christians. And in it, it says the Sabbath rests will come when the Son of Man shall appear and destroy the lawless one. The true Sabbath is the Sabbath of the one thousand years. Then all will have been sanctified completely when Christ comes back to reign.
Third: Clement of Rome. Many think that this is the Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3. He wrote two letters to the church at Corinth. In the first letter he says, “Let us be followers of those who went about in sheepskins and goatskins, preaching the coming of Christ.” In his second epistle to the church at Corinth, he said, “Let us every hour expect the kingdom of God because we know not the day of His appearing.”
Number four: the Shepherd of Hermas. Many believe that he’s the Hermes mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:14. This also was discovered by Tischendorf when he discovered Codex Sinaiticus in the monastery on Mt Sinai. The Coptic Church of Africa received this Shepherd of Hermas as canonical in the third century. Hermas writes that in a vision he was told, quote, “Go tell the elect of the Lord that this beast, the imperial persecutor, is a type of the great tribulation that is coming.”
Number five: Ignatius. Ignatius was a disciple of Peter and of John. He was pastor of the church at Antioch. He was thrown to the lions in the Coliseum in 107 AD. On his journey from Antioch around to Rome, where he was thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, he wrote letters along the way. And one of his letters he addressed to Polycarp who was pastor of the church at Smyrna. He said in that letter to Polycarp, “Be every day better than another. Consider the times and expect Him who is above all time.”
Polycarp was the disciple of John. He was the pastor at Smyrna, and he was burned at the stake there in 155 AD. All of his writings have perished, but some of his sentences have been quoted by other fathers. And this is one: “If we obey Christ, we shall receive the age to come. Christ will raise us from the dead, and we shall live and reign with Him. The saints shall judge the world.”
Papias: Papias was a friend of Polycarp and one of the disciples of John. Papias was pastor at Hierapolis, which is just across the Lycus River from Laodicea. Only fragments of his writings remain. But here is one quoted by the early church historian Eusebius, quote: “There will be a millennium, after the resurrection from the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established in the earth.”
Justin Martyr: Justin Martyr was born in Shechem in ancient Samaria. He was born in 89 AD. He was martyred in 163 AD, so his name Justin the Martyr. In his book Dialogue with Trypho he wrote, quote, “I and all other Christians know there will be a resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, built, adorned, broadened, as the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel and others declare.”
Irenaeus: Irenaeus lived 125 to 200 AD. He was pastor of the church at Lyons, Gaul, what we call France today, and Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp. Here you have three men who’ve joined hands. First you have [John] who lay on the bosom of our Lord at the Lord’s supper [John 13:25, 21:20]. Then you have his disciple Polycarp who repeats the sayings of John, who repeated the sayings of Jesus. Then you have Irenaeus who’s a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, who was a disciple of Jesus. You have an unbroken testimony. And Irenaeus writes:
When Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months and sit in the temple at Jerusalem.
And then the Lord will come from heaven, in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man to the lake of fire, but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, the rest, the hallowed seventh day.
[from Adversus Haereses, St. Irenaeus]
And last I have chosen Tertullian. Tertullian was the greatest of the Latin fathers. He was the son of a centurion. He lived 160-240 AD. He was born in Carthage in North Africa. He was an eminent lawyer, a brilliant man. And he wrote, “We do confess that a kingdom is promised us on earth before that in heaven. After its one thousand years are over, there will ensue the destruction of the world and the conflagration of all things at the judgment.”
These are just some of the ancient church fathers. As you can see, they reflected the exact teaching and doctrine of the New Testament writers. They were pre-chiliastic and premillennial, and they were waiting for our Lord’s return from heaven.
Now we go to the third section in the history of the church. Then came Constantine. He was Roman emperor from 306-337 AD. Then came Constantine, the Roman emperor, and the story of his seeing the shining cross in the sky with the famous sign, “en HOC signo vinces”—“In this sign, conquer,” and he said he saw a sign of the cross. Constantine was an adroit and ambitious politician. He saw in the Christian church a powerful ally for his personal advancement. His conversion paid off wonderfully and handsomely. He was received as the defender and promoter of the faith, whom heaven had raised up to exalt the church.
Immediately the change in the church was terrific and catastrophic. It was cataclysmic and phenomenal, as if a magician’s wand could have evoked no mightier change than the change came over the church. From being persecuted and despised, the church became the admired and adored lap dog of the court. Men of all classes, from the highest dignitary to the lowest slave rushed into her arms. As it became fashionable in the court to become a Christian, it became honorable in the hut to display the cross. The whole pagan world was baptized into the Christian church. Temples, basilicas, priests, liturgy, rituals, images, relics, everything, the whole religious Greek world became Christian.
The church found herself facing a new creation. No longer poor but laden with wealth and worldly honors, she saw clearly that the main thing that the doctrine of pilgrimage and separation from the enticements of the world would displease the emperor and the pagan masses. Such a procedure might do when she was poor and persecuted but not now that she was rich and lordly. Satan offered the church the kingdom of this world if only she would bow down before him, and the church accepted the worldly power and support, and the union of church and state was the burial of true Christianity.
Dante in his Inferno refers to this time. He says:
Ah, Constantine, of how much ill was cause.
Not thy conversion,
But those rich domains
That the first Roman bishop received of thee.
Then the church rejected the millennial doctrine of the Bible and suppressed millennial literature. The new doctrine opposed the teaching of a personal reign of Christ upon earth. Augustine himself, once a millenarian, took up the new principal and carried it to the full. He taught, and the rest followed, that the church was the kingdom, that the millennial dates from the conversion of Constantine, that we’re living in it now, and the coming of Christ is not to be expected but in a spiritual way. The personal presence of Christ is no longer needed. The millennium has come without Him. The imperial church has overcome the world, and may I add, as the scarlet whore she rides on the back of the beast, the prophecy in Revelation 17:3-7.
As long as the pilgrim, persecuted church looked heavenward, where her Lord lived [Acts 1:9-10], as long as she remembered that her citizenship was in glory [Philippians 2:20], she looked forward to the second coming of Christ [Hebrews 9:28]. But now in wealth and in prosperity, stretching her limbs upon ivory couches, sitting in her palace in the sun, she said, “I am a queen. I shall see no sorrow; my kingdom has come” [Revelation 18:7].
What of the doctrine of the return of our Lord? Council after council denounced any attempt to revive so unsettling a promise. Having spiritualized and allegorized the Holy Scriptures under Augustine, making all its golden promises apply to the Roman Church, the Word of God was discounted and reckoned as a thing safe only in the hands of the priest, to be read only at his direction. The knowledge of the Word of God perished among the people. Ignorance, darkness, hopelessness, superstition reigned supreme. The dark ages of Western Christian civilization had come.
There’s a whole lot more to this doctrine of the second coming of Christ than you realize. The whole turn of the theological world and the whole message of the church is dependent upon it.
Now we come to the fourth section: on the morning stars, the precursors of the Reformation. First, Joachim of Florence, who lived in 1130 to 1202, he was the abbot of Calabria. Calabria is the heel of the Italian boot. He resigned his position of abbot to study the Scriptures, and he preached great sermons from the Apocalypse. He preached the coming millennium, beginning with the personal advent of Christ [Matthew 25:31].
Second, Peter Waldo, who died in 1179; don’t know when he was born. In some of those Wal—He was the founder of the Waldensians; there are Waldensian Christians today—in some of the Waldensian congregations they required the people who wanted to join the church to memorize the entire New Testament before they were accepted as members. How would you deacons like to do that? Isn’t that amazing? They preached conversion and consecration and the coming of the Lord. They were martyred by the thousands and the thousands.
Number three, John Wycliffe, 1324-1384. He was called “the morning star of the Reformation.” He wrote a book entitled The Last [Age] of the Church. He regarded the Redeemer’s appearing as the object of the hope and constant expectation of the true church. He translated the Bible into English. He escaped martyrdom, but in 1428 upon the demand of Pope Clement VIII his body was dug up and burned, and his ashes were thrown into the River Swift. And then I say the River Swift runs into the Avon, and the Avon runs into the Severn, and the Severn runs into the ocean, and the ocean laves the continents of the world—and thus, I say, the picture of the doctrines of John Wycliffe, teaching the Bible, spread over the whole world.
One of the followers of John Wycliffe was John Huss of Bohemia, and Jerome of Prague. I’ve stood there at the great tremendous monument where those two men were burned at the stake.
Then Savonarola of Florence, 1452-1498, he was the bugle blast that ushered in the Reformation. He preached from the Apocalypse; he preached the return of Christ; he preached the tribulation; he preached the judgment of God and the wrath of God. I have read time and again that it is impossible to describe the preaching of Savonarola.
The great cathedral in Florence is called the Duomo. I wanted to go there and stand, just to say I’d been in the place where Savonarola preached. Thousands crowded into the Duomo of Florence to hear them. He was like John Chrysostom, critics coming to scorn, to report his sermons, drop their pens to weep in repentance and contrition. He was a mighty Pentecostal revivalist.
Rome was stirred. Savonarola refused the bribe of a cardinal’s hat. He was excommunicated; he was horribly tortured; he was hanged in the public square of Florence until he died—then his body burned to ashes. These are the morning stars of the Reformation.
And one other, William Tyndale, 1480-. The refrain of Savonarola in Florence was picked up by William Tyndale in England. He said, “I’m going to make it possible for every plowboy in England to know the Word of God.” And he was strangled; he was burned at the stake, but he wrote, “Christ and His apostles taught no other thing than to look for the coming of our Lord any hour.”
Now I haven’t time; I have to quit. The Reformation—I say one of these days we’re going to get me a planet and a soapbox, and we’re not going to stop—Martin Luther, a great millennialist, John Calvin, a great millennialist, John Knox, a great millennialist.
If you have been to Oxford, there when you enter the main entrance of Oxford, you’ll see a great monument to Ridley and Latimer, the two bishops, great reformers who were burned right there at Oxford. Hugh Latimer was one of the greatest preachers of all time and the most fearless exponent of the Reformation.
The Anabaptist—ana is the Greek word for again—and when anyone was converted out of those universal state churches where they sprinkled infants, the Anabaptist baptized them ana, again; they really baptized them. They were martyred by the thousands, and without exception they were all premillennialists.
Then the Baptists: and I have the confession of faith here that I wanted to read concerning the coming of Christ that they presented to King Charles II. Then I have a section on the great revivalists, the great revivalists; John Wesley, preaching the coming of our Lord; Charles Wesley writing his hymns:
Trusting in the literal Word,
We look for Christ on earth again:
Come our everlasting Lord,
With all Thy saints to reign.
[from Short Hymn 1407 on Ezekiel 37:25, Charles Wesley]
Then George Whitefield; Lord in heaven, they said he could pronounce Mesopotamia and the people would be brought to tears. What a marvelous preacher!
Augustus Toplady, who wrote the “Rock of Ages,” and the two great preachers and marvelous friends who lived and labored on the opposite sides of the Atlantic, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who died in 1892, and Dwight L. Moody, who died in 1899. In my library I have a book by Charles Haddon Spurgeon entitled, Twelve Sermons on the Second Coming of Christ; and then, Dwight L. Moody.
Then last of all, I’ve just received as you have, the volume of Billy Graham on Approaching Hoofbeats: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And in the closing chapter of Billy Graham, our fellow church member here, he calls it “The Grand Finale.”
Christ’s triumph over Antichrist and the forces of evil will be a reign of Jesus and His saints of all ages over all the earth. There can be no new world under present conditions. Something dramatic must happen to alter man and the earth. That leaves us with one absolute certainly about the future: Christ is the Prince of Peace with the government upon His shoulders. Without the Messiah, the human enterprise crashes into darkness forever. But thank God, thank God the Messiah is coming! He saves individuals today. In the great tomorrow He will remake all creation.
That is the teaching of the Word of God. That is the teaching of the men who preached the Word of God. And that brings revival to any church, to any congregation.
I should have taken time to quote from Dwight L. Moody. He was speaking of the deadness of the church, and he said, “There’s nothing that will wake up the church like the preaching of the second coming of our Lord” [2 Peter 3:11-13]. “Our citizenship,” Paul says, “is not here, it’s in heaven” [Philippians 3:20]. Our inheritance is not here, it’s there [1 Peter 1:3-4]. And our eternal home is not here, it’s there.
If it were here, we’d soon leave it. But in the glory to come, it’s our reward and our inheritance forever and forever. And that’s the doctrine that you hear from this pulpit. God bless us as we embrace it, look forward to it. Goodness, people, if all that awaits us is death and the grave and the despair of the midnight, “we of all men,” Paul says, “are most miserable” [1 Corinthians 15:19]. But our future is bright and light and filled with the glorious promise of God. Jesus is King [Revelation 17:14, 19:11]; He reigns [Timothy 6:15], and He is coming again [Acts 1:11; John 14:3].
Now we’re going to sing us a song. And as we sing the invitation appeal, in the balcony round, there’s time and to spare, coming down one of these stairways; on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, God has spoken to me today, and I’m giving my heart in faith and trust to the Lord” [Ephesians 2:8]. A family coming, a couple, or just you: “Pastor, today I’m going to reconsecrate my life to Jesus.” We’re going to have a consecration service at every one of these hours. As the Spirit shall open the door, answer with your life, while we stand and while we sing, while we stand and while we sing.
OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE RETURN OF OUR LORD
I. The church of the New Testament
A. Believed in and
looked forward to imminent return of Christ
are pre-millennial (John 14:3, Mark 8:38, 1 and
2 Thessalonians, Hebrews 9:28, James 5:8, 2 Peter 3:3-4, 9-10, Revelation 1:7,
4:1, 19:11, 22:20)
II. The church fathers in the early
persecuted, primitive church
Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, letters of Clement of Rome, The Shepherd of Hermas
B. Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias,
Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian
III. Imperial Roman church
A. Church became
admired, laden with wealth and worldly honors
B. Rejected millennial
IV. Precursors of the Reformation
A. Joachim of Florence,
Peter Waldo, John Wycliff, John Huss, Jerome
B. Savonarola, John
Chrysostom, William Tyndale
V. Leaders of the Reformation
A. Martin Luther, John
Calvin, John Knox
B. Nicholas Ridley,
Hugh Latimer, Anabaptists
VI. The great revivalists
A. John Wesley, Charles
Wesley, George Whitefield, Augustus Toplady
B. Charles Haddon
Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody