THE RETURN OF THE LORD AND WORLD-WIDE EVANGELISM

 

BY S. W. ZWEMER, D. D.

 

It is only modern rationalism and unbelief which, after denying Christ's virgin birth, His bodily resurrection and ascent into heaven, mock at the promise of His return, saying, "From the day that the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation."  Let them mock! The Christian Century says in a remarkable article on the "War and Second Coming" (Aug. 18, 1943): "It is interesting to note the growth during these past years of the new apocalypticism.  This is found mainly in scholarly circles; pre-millennialism is a lay theology.  But both share the mood which we find beginning with Jewish writings twenty-one centuries ago: a sense of hopelessness as to the achievement of good in history or by human effort, the belief in the existence of powerful forces of evil and their dominance over humanity and the course of events, and the conviction that human hope must rest upon a final, decisive and irresistible act of God."

 

Dr. Deismann, the great New Testament scholar, declared that "for the past thirty years the discernment of the eschatological character of the gospel of Jesus has more and more come to the front in international Christian theology ... We to-day must lay the strongest possible stress upon the eschatological character of that gospel which it is the practical business of the Church to proclaim, namely, that we must daily focus our minds upon the fact that the Kingdom of God is near, that God with His unconditional sovereignty comes through judgement and redemption, and that we have to prepare ourselves inwardly for the Maran-atha the Lord cometh." All earnest Christians of every school of theological thought seem agreed that we face to-day an eschatological crisis.  The day of the Lord is at hand.  We hear the same note of warning from many voices.  Professor D. R. Davis, of England, concludes his recent book, Divine Judgement in Human History, with the words: "Repent! - that must be the burden of the Christian message."

 

THE UNFINISHED TASK OF THE CHURCH

 

In view of all this it is not remarkable, therefore, that those who look eagerly for Christ's second advent are most eager also to complete the task of evangelism.  "The gospel [of the kingdom] must first be preached unto all nations for a witness."  The law of priority always produces a crisis.  There is no stronger incentive to immediate evangelism than the imminence of Christ's return.

 

In a day when the pillars of western civilisation are crumbling, when the foundations of society seem tottering, and when sword and famine and pestilence walk abroad, we must preach a message that is otherworldly, or we have no message at all.  To-day's evangelism must be, in the words of Adolf Harnack, "in the midst of time for eternity by the strength and under the eye of God."  The older generation of evangelists was not ashamed of a gospel that dealt with eternal issues.  They preached a message that bridged death and revealed eternal glory or eternal woe.  Evangelism that preaches Christ's resurrection and His return goes far beyond social reformation or new-world plans or political blueprints.  We can no longer go to the East to share the social and cultural benefits of the West, for the whole of so-called Christian culture stands at a period of terrible crisis, every section of it under God's judgement.  We are compelled by the present situation to "look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness."

 

A LIVING HOPE FOR A DESPAIRING WORLD

 

The return of Christ is the living hope for a despairing world.  It tells of the dawn of an eternal morning after the night of gloom.  As Jesus said to John in lonely Patmus: "Fear not; ... I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forever more." Because he lives, we shall live also.  We are not ambassadors of a dead Hero, but of Him who was "declared to be Son of God with power ... by the resurrection [out] from the dead," to whom "all power is given ... in heaven and in earth."  And who is coming again.  Then "they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever."  "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt."

 

When the gospel of the resurrection lays hold on our minds and hearts, we begin to see the meaning of Barth's penetrating words: "Eternity is not the prolongation of time.  Eternity is the unknown which in Jesus Christ has broken into our world."  According to this conception, eternity is, as it were, the hidden, the other side of time. Time is empty, impoverished eternity.  Eternity is time filled full. There comes a year, there comes an hour when things grow earnest, when some crisis comes.  That means eternity is flooding into time, as a mountain freshet after storm floods the dry bed of a stream. The fullness of time is the crisis.  Christ's return will be the crisis of all human history and its final consummation.  Then cometh the end."

 

THE STRONGEST INCENTIVE TO MISSIONS

 

This hope of Christ's imminent, personal, visible return is the strongest possible incentive to missions.  It sounds the note of urgency.  Those who are filled with the hope of His coming are also on fire for the world-wide evangelism.  Of this fact the cloud of witnesses is evidence absolute and convincing.  Great church theologians, great pioneer missionaries, and many ardent evangelists are among them: Dean Alford, Delitzsch, Auberlen, Bishop Ellicott, Vanoosterzee, Bengel, Godet, Bonar, Bickersteth, Pentecost, Whittle, Lord Radstock, Hammond, Nunhall, Muller, A. T. Pierson, Moody,J. Hudson Taylor, R.E. Speer, and many others.  All of them held the pre-millennial view and held it soberly - with their loins girt about and their lights burning.

 

There are different views of the "times and seasons" which the Father only can reveal in His own time and way.  But even our post-millennial brethren do not deny the second advent.  Even the a- millennial group, who reject dispensationalism and the millennium idea, hold just as firmly that Christ will return from heaven to judge the world.  The greatest danger is not the discordance between these views of the time of the advent, but rationalistic unbelief which denies and derides Christ's second coming altogether.  The fullness of time for the coming of our Saviour at Bethlehem was a fullness of preparation, of expectation, and of despair.  So doubtless will be the signs of the approaching end of the age and the second appearing of the Lord from heaven.  All things are ready - the world is in despair, the Church is expectant.

 

THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATION OF THIS BELIEF

 

Unless a Christian doctrine has practical effect in our lives, it is a dead letter.  For example, there is no particular benefit in a mere intellectual belief in the deity of Christ unless with Thomas we are willing to call Him "my Lord and my God."  It has occurred to me that there is perhaps no doctrine which has received such prominence in recent years, both in print and in discussion, and at the same time so little is emphasised in practical life, as the doctrine of the second coming.

 

Some have been very clever at preparing a timetable of prophetically events and suggesting the hour when we may expect our Lord.  A man may know all about the timetable, and yet miss the train!  Some are not living as if they were anxious to be found ready for that return.  Pre-millennial teaching demands above everything else other-worldliness, a sense of stewardship, and a supreme sense of the urgency of our task.  There is no other event in history which will have such absolute, immediate, and startling effect on all property values as the rending of the sky and the return of our Lord.

 

Are all of us ready for His coming and faithful stewards of His blessings?  Were men's hearts ever so expectant of a climax and a crisis in history as now?  Are not the signs of which Jesus spoke in the Gospels, and which usher in the day of the Lord, on the front pages of our newspapers?  Were the opportunities for evangelism ever so great as now?  Apart from His coming again is there any hope for this disillusioned, stricken, war-torn world?  An age, which is drinking the bitterest waters of all historical eras.  In a day when the judgement of God has melted into burning lava and is pouring through the ruins of man's proudest achievements, let the prophetic trumpet-call of repentance pierce the tormented soul of man.

 

Jesus came; Jesus is coming again.  To accept these two statements, which are the shortest summary of the New Testament, with all they imply of faith and hope and glory, would fill us with the joy of the early Christians and their devotion.

 

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