THE SECOND EPISTLE to the THESSALONIANS
It was thought by Grotius, and it is also the opinion of Ewald, that what is termed the Second Epistle must have preceded the First. The best arguments by which this opinion can be defended, are the references in the Second Epistle to the teaching of the Apostle while ‘he was yet with them,’ and the absence of any allusions to the First Epistle. (See ch. ii. ver. 2.) These grounds are far from being conclusive. It is improbable (observe, however, 2 Thess, ii. 15) that a previous Epistle could have interposed itself between the visit of the Apostle and chapters two and three of the First Epistle. (Compare Acts xvii, xviii.) The allusions to the conversion of the Thessalonians also mark the First Epistle as commonly received to be the earlier of the two. But the opinion, though probably an error, may serve to remind us that, in one sense the Second Epistle anticipates the first; that is to say, it is based on the lesson which the Apostle had taught the Thessalonians, while he was yet with them, ii. 5. The subject of Antichrist was not new to them; they had been told who was meant, and what withheld him now, that he should be revealed in his own time. Whereas, in the former Epistle, he had led their minds exclusively to the heavenly vision, ‘the saints meeting in the air with Christ, and the dead whom he would bring with him.’
Something like a definite object is indicated in the second chapter of the Epistle. That object seems to have been to inform the converts, or rather to remind them of what they already knew, respecting the coming of Christ and the previous revelation of Antichrist, and ‘that which let.’ It might, indeed, be questioned here, as in Rom. ix—xi, compared with i—viii, whether the first chapter is introductory to the second, or the second supplementary to the first. But the particularity of the second chapter, and the nearness of that ‘which already worketh,’ as well as the earnestness of the Apostle’s language, tend to show that what is in form subordinate, is really the centre of the Epistle. As in 1 Cor. x, the thought which is nearest the Apostle’s heart is overlaid with what is merely introductory to it.
But whether there is or is not any doubt about the primary object of the Epistle, the mind and feelings with which the Apostle wrote are plainly impressed upon it, and hardly less so the state of the Church to which it was addressed. The aspect in which the Gospel presented itself to the Apostle, was not unlike that in which it was described by John the Baptist: ‘He shall burn up the chaff with fire unquenchable.’ Within the Church it might be possible to think only of the elect, whose prayers and hopes seemed to bring the day of the Lord nearer and nearer, until the horizon of earth melted away in the clouds of heaven. But it was impossible to turn away the sight from the aspect of the world itself, especially that portion of it which was on the confines of the Church, whether the Jewish persecutors, who harassed the Apostle in every city, ‘who pleased not God, and were contrary to man,’ or the wild forms of heresy or licentiousness which at one moment seemed to set themselves with giant force to arrest his course; at another time, by seductive influences to steal away the hearts of his converts. In the distance, too, were the heathen world mingling in the vision of sin; ripe for the revelation of wrath, no less than for the revelation of mercy. (Compare Rom. i. 8.)
The whole of the Epistle, like the Epistles of the imprisonment, is written under what may be termed ‘the feeling of persecution;’ that is to say, the sense of resignation, on the one hand, to the present will of God; on the other hand, a sure and certain hope that ‘times of refreshment’ were at hand. Such was the feeling of the Apostle himself, and he implies the existence of a similar feeling in the Church to which he was writing. Sadness and consolation, hope and fear, the array of glory and of terror, were present with them or passing before them. They were not living the common life of other men; they did not see with the eyes of other men.
A life thus divided between this world and another was naturally liable to become a life of excitement and disorder. Times of persecution needed extraordinary religious supports; the withdrawal of those supports, the momentary clouding of the heaven above, would from time to time lead to reaction. Those who sat ‘waiting for the day of the Lord,’ and in this very expectation perhaps neglecting their employments, had lost that quietness of mind which is given by daily occupation. The perils of such a state were not unknown to the Apostle. It might at any time pass into its opposite, the very good that was in it becoming only material for evil. Half organized as the Church was then, the only means of avoiding such dangers was to withdraw from the disorderly, in the hope that the shunning of their society might have a moral influence on them. And yet even this gentle discipline must be exercised with moderation, in the remembrance that a brother was a brother still. More urgently, and as a lesson more congenial to himself, does the Apostle seek to impress upon them his own spirit, the spirit of honest industry, the spirit of peace and order, which is at once his benediction and admonition to them.
GENUINENESS OF THE SECOND EPISTLE.
The second Epistle to the Thessalonians is not deficient in external evidence of its genuineness. As in the case of the former Epistle, the doubts that have been raised respecting it are based solely on an examination of its language and contents. They may be summed up under the following heads, the consideration of which will tend to establish the genuineness of the Epistle, as well as to throw light on its character and object:—
- i. Inconsistency with the First Epistle, in deferring the coming of Christ.
- ii. Doctrine of Antichrist, which is said to be an anachronism, either as indicating a later Montanist origin, or as betraying an allusion to later historical events.
- iii. The absence of situation and circumstance, as well as of traits of individual character.
- iv. The token at the end of the Epistle, which is the sign in all the Epistles.
- v. Likeness to, and difference from, the style of St. Paul.
i. Inconsistency with the First Epistle in deferring the coming of Christ, 1 Thess. v. 2, ‘Yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night;’ 2 Thess. ii. 3, ‘That day shall not come, except there come a falling away first.’ It may be replied, that no argument against the genuineness of writings of St. Paul is more unsafe than that from supposed inconsistency. No writer is more apt to present us with opposite views of the same subject, even in the same Epistle, or to modify one side of a precept or of an argument by the other. (Compare the treatment of the question of meats offered to idols in 1 Cor. viii; or of the Rejection of the Jews in the Epistle to the Romans.) The coming of Christ is a subject in which such a difference is most likely to appear, because it is future, and therefore necessarily indistinct. And the difference between the two passages is just similar to that which occurs elsewhere, even in successive verses of the same chapter and in the discourses of our Lord Himself.
ii. Doctrine of Antichrist: Supposed to indicate a later Montanist origin. To this it may be answered that the doctrine of Antichrist is not Montanist, but Jewish, and in its general outline is found in the writings of Philo and the Rabbis, no less than in those of Paul and John. (Compare, though later, 2 Esdras.) Even were there no express proof of its existence, it might have been safely conjectured, from the analogy of prophecy, to have followed the belief in Messiah’s kingdom.
iii. The absence of situation and circumstance, and of traits of individual character.
One Epistle has not as many historical allusions as another, or there is a difference of length in different Epistles. But the shortness of an Epistle, or the absence of historical allusions, does not prove it to be spurious; it only lessens or does away with a single proof of genuineness. In this case it may be argued further, that the tone of the Epistle agrees with what we gather from the Acts respecting the Spirit and feelings of the earliest believers, living ‘amid the things spoken of by the prophet Joel’; and that the early date of the Epistle offers a general coincidence with its Old Testament and prophetic character. Some value may be also attributed to the connexion of the First and Second Epistles. Arguments which are comparatively slight may be fairly set against slight objections. Lastly, considering the deep feeling which throughout marks the Epistle, it cannot be said to be devoid of character.
It is the opinion of Ewald (Die Sendschreiben des Apostels Paulus), ‘that none of the writings of the New Testament have so much of the living freshness of the first age of the Gospel, or present so vivid a picture of the hopes of the first believers, as the Epistles to the Thessalonians. Their chief subject is the Apocalyptic vision in its first native power working on the minds of men, not yet formed into an artistic whole, as in the Book of Revelation. In other respects also a coincidence may be observed between the contents of the Epistle and the earlier stages of the Apostle’s life. Circumstances have not yet drawn out the sense of the opposition between Judaism and the Gospel. He preaches love and not faith; the words “righteousness” and “justification” never occur. He is contending with Jews or heathens (1 Thess. ii. 14-16); Jewish Christians (2 Thess. iii. 2? have not yet appeared on the scene’ (pp. 13-18).
iv. The token at the end of the Epistle, which is the sign in all the Epistles.
It is argued that at this date there were no forgeries, and therefore no reason for guarding against forgery, and that the Apostle had as yet written but one Epistle.
This is the strongest objection urged by Baur against the genuineness of the Epistle. In answer it may be remarked: (1) that the autograph salutation occurs in 1 Cor. xvi. 21 and Col. iv. 18; that it would require minute observation to have remarked this, and yet the Epistle to which it is supposed to be transferred, exhibits no imitation either in words or train of thought of those Epistles. (2) That it is most probable that the words of Gal. vi. 11, ‘Ye see in how large letters I have written to you with my own hand,’ are similarly a sign of the genuineness of that Epistle. It is true that to appeal to the allusion in 2 Thess. ii. 2 itself, as a proof of the existence of forged epistles in St. Paul’s time, would be [to reason in] a circle. (3) But the consistency of that allusion with the token of salutation, and the slightness of it, are presumptions of the Epistle having arisen from a real occasion. (4) The readiness to practise forgery and pious fraud in an age when such forgeries were apt to be thought innocent and laudable, can hardly be estimated. Compare Rev. xxii. 18-19. Lastly, the incidental character of the Epistles we have, leads us naturally to suppose that there were others also, which have not come down to us, and gives a rational meaning to the words ‘in every Epistle,’ even though occurring in one of the first of those extant.
v. Likeness to, and difference from, the style and writings of St. Paul.
The likeness is supposed to be such as betrays an imitator; the difference, such as renders it impossible that the epistle could have been written by St. Paul. But, on the other hand, it may be retorted that the difference is no greater than might naturally be expected in the same author writing at different times; and the likeness of a kind such as indicates the hand, not of an imitator, but of St. Paul himself.
(a) The examples of difference of style and language are very uncertain. The following expressions are quoted in confirmation of the objection :—
- 1. εὐχαριστεɩ̂ν ὀϕείλομεν i. 3, ii. 13, especially in the first passage, where it is weakened by καθὼς ἄξιόν ἐστιν.
- 2. ὑπεραυξάνει ἡ πίστις ὑμωˆν i. 3 is said to be inconsistent with καταρτίσαι τὰ ὑστερήματα τη̂ς πίστεως ὑμωˆν in 1 Thess. iii. 10.
- 3. αἱρεɩ̂σθαι, used of election in ii. 13.
- 4. καὶ διὰ τονˆτο, for διὰ τονˆτο, ii. 11.
- 5. Forced construction of ἐπιστεύθη τὸ μαρτύριον ἡμωˆν ἐϕ’ ὑμα̂ς i. 10.
- 6. πα̂σα εὐδοκία ἀγαθωσύνης, ἔργον πίστεως i. 11; ἐπιϕάνεια τη̂ς παρουσίας ii. 8; δέχεσθαι τὴν ἀγάπην τη̂ς ἀληθείας ii. 10; ἀξιώσῃ τη̂ς κλήσεως i. 11; καλοποιεɩ̂ν iii. 13.
Objections of this kind are, for the most part, matters of taste or feeling, about which it is useless to dispute. It may be observed on No. 1, that although εὐχαριστεɩ̂ν ὀϕείλομεν, i. 3, ii. 13, does not occur elsewhere in the writings of St. Paul, it cannot be regarded as unlike his style. The form of duty is one which all thoughts naturally take in his mind. He is under obligation, compulsion, &c., to do many things. Nor can any pleonasm or dilution of language be regarded as an evidence of the spuriousness of a writing of St. Paul’s age if it be not rather, as far as it goes, a proof of its genuineness. This latter remark strictly applies to No. 2, which reminds us of the amplification of language which occurs at the commencement of his other Epistles. Neither is the supposed inconsistency in this last-mentioned passage with 1 Thess. iii. 10 so great as the difference in tone of 1 Cor. i. 5-9 and the rest of the Epistle, the wavering and variation of which are themselves characteristic of the Apostle.
On No. 3 it may be observed, that although the word αἱρεɩ̂σθαι nowhere occurs in the New Testament in the sense of election, it has this sense in Deut. xxvi. 18, whence it is not unreasonable to suppose that St. Paul, or any other writer of the New Testament, may have transferred it to his own use. No. 4. There is no more objection to καί before διὰ τονˆτο than to any other pleonastic use of καί, such, for example, as that in Col. iii. 13. No. 5. Compare Rom. iv. 9 for a similar use of ἐπί. No. 6. Compare Eph. i. 5 for a pleonastic use of εὐδοκία: Eph. i. 3, 8 for a similar use of πα̂ς. Instances do not occur precisely parallel with the remaining examples; still, neither the want of clearness of expression in some of these, nor the pleonastic character of others, are at all inconsistent with the style of the Apostle.
(b) Against such supposed dissimilarities, it is fair to set also the resemblances in manner and phraseology to the Apostle’s writings. The following are characteristically, if not exclusively, St. Paul’s:—
The pleonastic and vehement mode of speaking of the faith and love of his converts, in i. 3, as elsewhere, at the commencement of his Epistles, yet, as in the Corinthians, passing into reproof of some at the close of the Epistle.
The antithetical turn of thought in ver. 6, 7, and real, though latent, parallelism with Phil. i. 28, 29.
The mode of connecting ἐνδοξασθη̂ναι with the word ἐν δόξῃ in i. 10; the echo of ἐνδοξασθη̂ναι in ἐνδοξασθῃ̂, ver. 12; the verbal connexion of ἐπιστεύθη with πιστεύσασιν in ver. 10; the reciprocal expression ἐν ὑμɩ̂ν καὶ ὑμεɩ̂ς ἐν αὐτῳ̑ in ver. 12.
The ἵνα in i. 11, and the more remote ὅπως in ver. 12, like Rom. vii. 13.
The anacoluthon in ii. 3.
The expression in ii. 3 μή τις ὑμα̂ς ἐξαπατήσῃ, like the warning in Eph. v. 6 μηδεὶς ὑμα̂ς ἀπατάτω κενοɩ̂ς λόγοις. The recurrence to his visit to them, as in Cor., Gal., Phil., 1 Thess.
The following parallelisms: 2 Thess. ii. 7 μόνον ὁ κατέχων, participle without a verb; so Rom. xii. 16, 17, 19. 2 Thess. ii. 10 τοɩ̂ς ἀπολλυμένοις; so 1 Cor. i. 18; 2 Cor. ii. 15. 2 Thess. ii. 12 εὐδοκήσαντες [ἐν] τῃ̂ ἀδικίᾳ; Rom. i. 32 συνευδοκονˆσι τοɩ̂ς πράσσουσι.
The defective antithesis in ii. 12.
The expressions 2 Thess. ii. 13 εὐχαριστεɩ̂ν πάντοτε; compare 1 Cor. i. 4 εὐχαριστωˆ τῳ̑ θεῳ̑ μου πάντοτε. 2 Thess. ii. 15 ἄρα οἠ̂ν, ἀδελϕοί; so Rom. viii. 12 ἄρα οἠ̂ν, ἀδελϕοί; Gal. iv. 31 ἄρα, ἀδελϕοί. 2 Thess. ii. 16 παράκλησιν . . . καὶ ἐλπίδα; Rom. xv. 4 τη̂ς παρακλήσεως τωˆν γραϕωˆν τὴν ἐλπίδα ἔχωμεν. 2 Thess. iii. 2 ἵνα ῥυσθωˆμεν; Rom. xv. 31 ἵνα ῥυσθωˆ.
The juxtaposition of παρακαλεɩ̂ν and στηρίζειν in ii. 17 as in Rom. i. 11, 12.
The echo of sound, rather than of sense, in πίστις and πιστός, in iii. 3, and of πιστός in πεποίθαμεν in ver. 3, 4; compare Rom. xii. 13, 14.
The expression in 2 Thess. iii. 6 παραγγέλλομεν . . . ἐν ὀνόματι τονˆ κυρίου; so 1 Cor. vii. 10 παραγγέλλω οὐκ ἐγὼ ἀλλ’ ὁ κύριος.
The words οὐχ ὅτι οὐκ ἔχομεν ἐξουσίαν iii. 9, which occur also in 1 Cor. ix. 4, there as a part of the main argument, but here incidentally; also the passage which follows, and the use of the word ἐπιβαρη̂σαι just before, in the same sense as ἀβαρής 2 Cor. xi. 9.
The sudden alternation from the language of severity to that of love, in iii. 14, 15; compare 1 Cor. v. and 2 Cor. ii. 6. 2 Thess. iii. 13 μὴ ἐκκακήσητε καλοποιονˆντες. So Gal. vi. 9 τὸ δὲ καλὸν ποιονˆντες μὴ ἐκκακωˆμεν. 2 Thess. iii. 16 ὁ κύριος εἰρήνης, towards the end of the Epistle. So Rom. xvi. 20; 2 Cor. xiii. 11; Gal. vi. 16.
The play of words (iii. 11), μηδὲν ἐργαζομένους, ἀλλὰ περιεργαζομένους. Compare Rom. i. 20, 28, ii. 1, &c.
THE SECOND EPISTLE to the THESSALONIANS
1Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the Church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the 1.2Lord Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1.3We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the of every one of 1.4you all toward each other aboundeth; so that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and 1.5tribulations that ye endure: which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which 1.6ye also suffer: seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble 1.7you; and to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with 1.8 his mighty angels, in fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not 1.9the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his 1.10power; when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe because our testimony you was believed in that 1.11day. Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the 1.12work of faith with power: that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 NOW we beseech you, brethren, the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering 2.2together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of the 2.3 Lord is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for except there come falling away first, and man of sin be revealed, the son of 2.4 perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself 2.5that he is God,—Remember ye not, that, when I was 2.6 yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth, that he be revealed 2.7in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy 2.9with the brightness of his coming: whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they 2.11might be saved. And for this cause God doth send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: 2.12that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
2.13BUT we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God chose you a firstfruits to salvation through sanctification 2.14of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory 2.15 of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the lessons which ye have been taught, 2.16 whether by word, or our epistle. Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation 2.17and good hope through grace, in every good
3Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it 3.2 is with you: and that we may be delivered from for all men have not faith. 3.3 But is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep 3.4you from evil. And we have confidence in the Lord touching you, that ye both do and will do the things 3.5which we command you And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ.
3.6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after 3.7the which received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not 3.8ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be 3.9chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you 3.10to follow us. For when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither 3.11 eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, Now them that are such we command and exhort Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. 3.13But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing. And 3.14if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may 3.15be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but 3.16admonish him as a brother. the Lord of peace himself give you peace always The Lord be with you all.
3.17The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which 3.18is the token in every epistle: so I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
ESSAY on THE MAN OF SIN
2 THESS. II.
Whether the prophecy of the man of sin is fulfilled or unfulfilled—whether it is to be explained from the immediate circle of the Apostle’s life, or from the distant future—whether it relates to an individual or to an idea, to the Pharisees or to the Gnostics—whether ‘the man of sin’ himself be Nero as Chrysostom imagined, or the impersonation of heresy as Theodoret and others, or the pope as the reformers, or the reformers as the pope, or Mahomet as the Greek Church, or the Emperor Caligula as Grotius, or Titus as Wetstein, or Simon Magus as Hammond, or Simon the son of Gioras as Usteri and Le Clerc, or Cromwell as Englishmen who were his subjects sometimes said, or the French revolution, or Napoleon, as the last generation, or some embodiment or power of evil which is yet to come, as was the opinion of several of the Fathers, and is also that of some modern writers;—whether ‘that which letteth, and he which letteth, and will let until he be taken out of the way,’ is the Roman Empire, which was likewise a common opinion of the Fathers, or the German Empire, as was maintained by the early opponents of the papacy, or the purpose of God that the Gospel should be first preached, as was held by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret, or the outpouring of spiritual gifts as Chrysostom inclined to think, or Nero as Wetstein, or Vitellius, who was proconsul of Judea in Caligula’s time, as Grotius, or Elijah the prophet, who ‘must first come’ according to the Jewish belief, or St. Paul himself as a recent interpreter;—whether the temple of God is the Christian Church or the temple at Jerusalem, or both, or neither, that is to say some temple hereafter to be built, or the temple of the human soul, a figure which the Apostle elsewhere employs;—whether the coming of Christ be His coming to judge the world at the last day, or the anticipation of that judgement on the Jews in the destruction of Jerusalem, or the one the lesser, the other the greater fulfilment of the same prediction;—are some of the principal questions which in ancient or modern times have been raised by interpreters respecting the second chapter of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians.
Most of these questions may be set aside, as having no real bearing upon the interpretation of the Epistle. They are not found but brought there. When it is remembered that at this period of his life, as the words of the Epistle imply, St. Paul himself expected ‘to remain and be alive’ (1 Thess. iv. 17) in the day of the Lord, and that he expressly states that the coming of Christ was to be preceded by Antichrist, and that the coming of Antichrist was again restrained by that which let, it is clear that the vision of the future must be confined within narrow bounds, that is, within ten, twenty, or thirty years at the utmost, if it be not that the acts of the drama are contemporary, or certainly very near, ‘for the mystery of iniquity already worketh.’ It is not, therefore, in the wider sphere of the history of the world, but in the life of the Apostle, in the cities of Asia or Judea, perhaps at Rome in the days of Caligula or Nero, that we must look for the events, or shadow of events, which form the basis of the prophecy.
It is necessary to warn the reader, that we are not about to add another to the multitude of guesses which exist already. Our inquiry will relate rather to the style and structure of the prophecy, than to the opinions of interpreters respecting the facts which may be regarded as its fulfilment. The real facts may not have been recorded; they may have been too minute to be observed by us; they may also have been transfigured before the spiritual eye, until they are no longer recognizable as historical events. What we are attempting is not the solution of a riddle, or the reading of a hieroglyphic, but the comparison of one part of Scripture with another; and the comprehension of it, if possible, not in the letter but in the spirit.
And although it is true that there may be a disadvantage in excluding from our consideration all those topics from which the study of this remarkable passage has hitherto derived its interest and zest, let us pause to remember also how many dangers are avoided. We shall run no risk of attributing an exaggerated importance to the history of our own time. We shall be under no temptation to point the words of St. Paul against an ancient enemy. We shall have no inclination to adapt the proportions of lesser events to the main event or figure which we make the centre of our system. We may hope to escape the charge which has been brought against writers on these subjects, that they explain ‘history by prophecy.’ There will be no fear of our forging weapons of persecution for one body or party of Christians to use against another. We shall be in no danger of losing the simplicity of the Gospel in Apocalyptic fancies. Our own opinions, perhaps even changes of opinion, will not be imposed on others as an interpretation of Scripture, with a degree of authority which is only the veil of their extreme uncertainty. All these reproaches, however unconsciously and innocently they may be incurred by good and learned men, are injuries to the truth and dishonours to the word of God.
‘The man of sin’ is not a mere detached prophecy. It formed a leading subject of the Apostle’s teaching. He introduces it with express reference to the fact, that on his visit to the Thessalonians he had warned them of it; and this not only in general terms, but with special mention of the times of his appearing, and the influences by which his revelation was withheld. ‘Remember ye not, that when I was yet with you I told you these things?’ What he had told them is contained in the description which precedes, and which is definite and precise; that man of sin, ‘the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.’ All this was not new to the Thessalonian converts; they even knew of that which withheld, that he might be revealed in his own time. The Apostle adds a few other traits in the verses which follow; ‘whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power and lying signs and wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish.’
The sources of our information are so limited, that we are able to pronounce at once that we know of no person or power existing in the lifetime of the Apostle, to which most of the above features will apply. We cannot say that ‘the man of sin’ was Caligula, whose reign had terminated about twelve years before this; or Nero, who had just mounted the imperial throne, or Simon the son of Gioras, the leader of the fanatics at Jerusalem, who had hardly come forth into public view; still less Vitellius, Vespasian, or Titus. Such guesses are only more probable than the wider ones, because they relate to persons who were actually or almost within the horizon of the Apostle’s eye; but they are inconsistent with the general character of the prophecy, and offer no remarkable coincidences with its details. In any succession of historical events, it is possible to find war and peace, order and anarchy, a king and an usurper, a lawless force and a restraining power. General resemblances of this kind prove nothing; the good and evil of every age find an expression in the language of prophecy. In times of crisis or revolution men naturally apply the words of the Apostle to themselves. Even the quiet tenor of ordinary life has been ‘set on fire’ by the torch of enthusiasm. But we must not confuse the original meaning of the prophecy with the application of it which is on the lips of the preacher after 1800 years. The vision of evil which the Apostle saw was around and very near him; it hung like a cloud over the first age of the Church; it cannot be dispersed in generalities; we look in vain for it in the distant future.
If, confessing that no known person or event agrees with the description of the prophecy, we try another method, and interpret the second chapter of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians entirely from itself, we shall probably infer that by the terms ‘man of sin,’ ‘son of perdition,’ St. Paul has in view a real person, and that by his ‘sitting in the temple of God’ is meant literally his enthronement in the temple at Jerusalem. The grossness of the delusion which is attributed to his followers falls in with such an interpretation. The word ‘apostasy’ is a further indication that the new God or teacher stands in some relation either to Judaism or Christianity. He is not a mere ordinary individual coming forth from the crowd and practising an imposture, any more than he is a statue of wood or stone, but the author or symbol of some new form of spiritual evil; — a false Christ or false prophet, a Simon Magus, an Elcasai, or a Barcochab. The way has been preparing for him, underground in the hearts of men; he is waiting for his appointed hour. The founder of a false religion, claiming divine honours, announcing himself as the new God of the Jewish Temple, influencing the minds of men by every sort of magic art and spiritual deception, would most adequately correspond to the description of the Apostle. Such a one, he would seem to say, was to exist for a short time, and then vanish away, not before the superior power of truth, but before the actual force of Christ and His angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance.
Natural as such an interpretation may appear, it would probably be erroneous, and for this reason, that, like many other interpretations of prophecy, it would rest too much on the words themselves, without considering the style of the language or the parallelisms in St. Paul’s own writings. The first question respecting all prophecies is, whether the language of them is figurative or literal, or how far figurative and how far literal. Figurative language will commonly detect itself, as in the trumpets, vials, numbers, of the Book of Revelation. The very symmetry of it will indicate its true nature. Events in history are not carried on by sevens, or by twelves; nor are they exactly limited by periods of time. Nor are the powers of nature or the kingdoms of this world divisible into four or ten. Accordingly, in such instances, we readily separate the framework and compartments of the picture from the life and motion of the figures. But there are other passages in which the form and the thought are more closely united, in which the garment clings to the person, and cannot be put off without destroying the life of the prophecy. Interpretation of prophecy will, in these cases, be an imperfect analysis of what it is really impossible to analyse. Especially will this be so where the figures are traditional, and have acquired from use and familiarity a sort of permanent and apparently historical character. The vision of events themselves is then circumscribed by the circle of prophetic symbols.
Taking in this important element, we find in Ezekiel and Daniel, in the discourses of our Lord respecting the end of the world, in the Epistles to the Thessalonians and to Timothy, as well as in the Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude and in the Book of Revelation, a series of images of the evil which was to come upon the world in the latter days, all together furnishing a sort of chain of prophecy between the Old Testament and the New, which gradually extends and seems to pass from the realms of history into the spiritual and unseen world. One of the first links in this chain is Ezekiel’s description of Gog and Magog, the symbol of the tribes of the North, whom God will bring against the land of Israel, that He may be glorified in their destruction (xxxviii. 16, 17). This prophecy, which is the beginning of many others, itself implies that it was not uttered by Ezekiel for the first time: ‘Art thou he of whom I have spoken in old time by my servants the prophets of Israel, which prophesied in those days many years that I would bring thee against them?’ (Compare Jer. ii—iv.) The minds of the Jewish prophets in Babylon had been led to dwell on the powers of the North, since the Scythian tribes had spread themselves over Asia. Where could they find a more striking image of the power of God than in this mighty people, ‘covering’ the world ‘like a cloud,’ and suddenly, like a cloud, passing away—which had probably in Josiah’s reign overspread Palestine itself? They had almost been seen by Ezekiel in the days of his youth, and the remembrance of them had stamped themselves for ages on the Eastern world. His prophecy of them is little more than history, inspired only by the consciousness that there is One that ruleth among the children of men. There is no indication that Gog is other than a person, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. Nor is there apparently any form of spiritual evil that is symbolized in him; he is but the great enemy of Israel, who comes up with all his hosts against the people of God.
Later in the series are the prophecies of Daniel, respecting the little horn and the kings of the North and South (vii and xi), which, though retaining a certain degree of resemblance to the prophecy of Ezekiel, present also a striking difference. It is a difference in spirit as well as in style and subject. We seem to have advanced another step in the revelation of God to man; with the vision of the kingdoms of this world mingles also the vision of the final judgement. Every one admits and loves to trace the connexion between the evangelical prophecies, as they are often termed, and the Gospel itself. But perhaps it has not been equally observed that the Apocalyptic prophecies are also a link of connexion between the Old Testament and the New. As the former anticipate the moral and spiritual nature of the kingdom of Christ, so do the latter anticipate the universality of the Gospel. No two books of the Old Testament itself bear a closer resemblance to each other, than the book of Daniel, the Apocalypse of the Old Testament, and the book of Revelation, which may be termed by its Greek name the Apocalypse of the New. Were the one placed at the end of the Old Testament, and the other at the beginning of the New, they would seem, more than any of the canonical writings, to bridge the chasm which separates, or appears to separate, the two parts of the Sacred Volume. Both alike differ from the older prophecies, in extending the purposes of God to all time and to all mankind. The earlier history of the Jews was itself a kind of prophecy, the earlier prophecies were a kind of history of the Jews and their neighbours. There was a time when other nations seemed to be out of the way, and only occasionally to share in the mercies and judgements of God. But now the prophet lifted up his eyes east and west, north and south, to all countries of the earth, and saw in the history of the world the prelude to the final judgement.
This is the kind of difference which separates the two prophecies of Daniel from that of Ezekiel respecting Gog and Magog. The one is a part of the history of the Jews; the other is a prophecy of the latter days, an anticipation of the judgement to come. That of Ezekiel is the germ of the other, and stands in the same relation to it, as the vision of the dry bones, in the same prophet, to the description of the general resurrection in the seventh and twelfth chapters of Daniel, or the vision of the Temple and the portions of the tribes, to the new Jerusalem and the 144,000, in the Book of Revelation. In Ezekiel we have not yet burst the bonds of the temporal dispensation; in Daniel we already pass within the veil into another world. They occupy different places in Jewish history, the very dispersion of the Jews in Asia and Egypt tending to break down the force of local feelings, and leading them to include all nations within the circle of God’s providence.
Parallel with this enlargement of the symbols of prophecy is the new and nobler meaning which is given to the worship of the tabernacle and to the Jewish history, in the Epistle to the Hebrews. A light is shed on both, derived, perhaps, from a wider experience of mankind, yet not the less coming down ‘from the author and father of lights.’ First the prophets, then the law, become instinct with the life of the Gospel. The only difference is that in prophecy the new takes the place of the old, in a more gradual and less perceptible manner. The law is done away in Christ; the temple made with hands is destroyed, that another temple, not made with hands, may be raised up; and the discourses of Christ respecting the end of the world, gather together in one all the threads of Old Testament prophecy.
Thus, through the whole of the books of Scripture, from the earliest to the latest, the spirit of prophecy might be said to be changing with the increasing purpose of God to man. But though the spirit changed, the imagery remained the same. The two prophecies which have been referred to, present more than one minute similarity with the second chapter of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians; as, for example, the insolence and impiety of the king ‘who shall exalt and magnify himself above every god,’ xi. 36, which may be compared with 2 Thess. ii. 4, ‘Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God or worshipped,’ and ‘the pollution of the sanctuary of strength, and the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place,’ xi. 31, quoted by our Lord, which recalls ‘the man of sin sitting in the temple of God;’ also the words ‘have intelligence with them which forsake the holy covenant,’ which are a periphrasis for ‘the apostasy.’ It is not quite certain, nor is it important for our object to know, what was the original meaning of the passages of Daniel; but whether they allude to the kings of Syria and Egypt, or in part also to the Romans, to relate to some unknown course of events, their original meaning in the Book of Daniel has no necessary connexion with their use and application by the Apostle. We might say, in the language of Bossuet, that St. Paul spoke by the spirit of Daniel, as St. Peter spoke by the mouth of Joel on the day of Pentecost, or as St. John himself spoke by the spirit of Ezekiel in Rev. xx. 8, where the names Gog and Magog are retained, though the meaning is generalized. Many other instances may be found in which the general subject is changed, though the ornaments remain. The same symbols which once referred to the Temple or to the tribes of Israel, are again employed, without any precise meaning, of the Church and the world at large.
It does not, therefore, follow, because the words of the prophecy of Daniel, or of our Lord, refer to the Romans, that they necessarily received this explanation from St. Paul, any more than in the Book of Revelation, because mention is made of the hundred and forty and four thousand of the tribes of Israel, it follows that salvation was first to be given to the house of Israel. The forms of good and evil are idealized in the language of prophecy. The same images are handed down from one generation of prophets to another; but the state of the world, which is symbolized by them, may change and become different. As in the interpretation of prophecy, many successions of events have, in different ages of the world, been thought to correspond with the words of Daniel, or of the Apocalypse; so with the prophets themselves, there is a growth and adaptation of the same prophecy to various stages of human history. Not only are there many mirrors of the meaning of prophecy in the history of the world, but more than this—the last prophecy is itself, as it were, the glass through which the prophet looks forward into the future.
Hence the imagery of a prophecy in the New Testament will not be the clue to its true nature. Nay, it may be very far removed from it, sometimes even absolutely opposed to it. For it may refer to what is literal and historical, but the thing signified in the New Testament may be spiritual and ideal. Ordinary quotations from the Old Testament are to be explained by their context in the New Testament, not by their place in the Old. The same rule is applicable to the prophecies of the Old Testament when transferred to the New. In both, the spirit has commonly taken the place of the letter, the evangelical truth has lighted up the prophetic symbol. So that the true key to the interpretation of a prophecy of St. Paul, is not the meaning of the same imagery in the Old Testament, but the character of his own writings, ‘Non, nisi ex ipso Paulo, Paulum potes interpretari.’ The special sense is to be gathered from those points which he has distinct from the Old Testament, rather than those which he has in common with it. We do not feel certain that the man of sin, sitting in the temple of God, is more than a personification of the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet; suggested, perhaps, by the worship of the Emperor which St. Paul had seen in the cities to which he had travelled, or by the attempt of Caligula, a few years previously, to place his statue in the temple at Jerusalem. But he that ‘letteth, and will let, until he be taken out of the way,’ and the lying signs and wonders, with which the man of sin was to be accompanied, are traits which are peculiar to the Apostle, some of which are found elsewhere in his Epistles. Here, then, whether we are able to discern it or not, is something which we may naturally look for, not in the clouds of heaven, but in the history of the Apostolic age.
In many other places of the New Testament, and even of the writings of St. Paul himself, mention occurs of strange forms of evil. It is observable that all of them are spiritual. There are differences in the description of them, not unlike the difference which we may suppose to have existed between the author of the Epistles in which they are spoken of, St. Paul, and St. John; but they nowhere convey the impression that they represent political changes or revolutions in the kingdoms of men. The one Apostle is, as it were, hastening, amid many impediments, to the coming of the day of the Lord; the other is calmly waiting for the events that must shortly come to pass. Both seem to feel the evil of the world as a sign of ‘the last time;’ the one, near and present, as if involved in the conflict; the other, far off, separated from it rather than warring with it. Already there are many Antichrists, says St. John, and ‘Antichrist is he that denieth the Father and the Son.’ So in the first Epistle to Timothy, iv. 1-3, it is said, ‘that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.’ Compare 2 Tim. iii. 1. The Apostle appears to apprehend the same danger in Col. ii. 8, 16. And in the Second Epistle of Peter, ii. 1; iii. 3, there is the same pervading idea of the latter days, in which ‘false prophets shall rise up, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, denying the Lord that bought them.’ The evil of which the New Testament prophecies speak, is not the idolatry of the heathen, nor the conquests of great empires, but the apostasy of sometime believers, or the fanaticism of the Jews. Of something of this kind, not of Roman governors, or Jewish high priests, the Apostle is speaking when he says: ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places.’ The temporal Antichrist, like the temporal Israel, has passed into a spiritual one.
Such passages are a much safer guide to the interpretation of the one we are considering, than the meaning of similar passages in the Old Testament. For they indicate to us the habitual thought of the Apostle’s mind; ‘a falling away first,’ suggested, probably, by the wavering which he saw around him among his own converts, the grievous wolves that were entering into the Church of Ephesus, Acts xx. 29; the turning away of all them of Asia, in 2 Tim. i. 15. When we consider that his own converts, and his Jewish opponents, or half converts, were all the world to him, that through them, as it were in a glass, he appeared to himself to see the workings of human nature generally, we understand how this double image of good and evil should have presented itself to him, and the kind of necessity which he felt that Christ and Antichrist should alternate with each other. It was not that he foresaw some great conflict, decisive of the destinies of mankind. What he anticipated far more nearly resembled the spiritual combat in the seventh chapter of the Romans. It was the same struggle, written in large letters, as Plato might have said, not on the tables of the heart, but on the scene around; the world turned inside out, as it might be described; evil as it is in the sight of God, and as it realizes itself to the conscience, putting on an external shape, transforming itself into a person.
Separating the prophecy, then, into two parts, its external form and internal meaning, the one part is to be explained from the Old Testament; that is to say, it is the repetition of the images of Ezekiel and Daniel, which naturally receive a more precise character from the associations of the time in which St. Paul lived; while the other part, or inward meaning, is to be illustrated by other passages in St. Paul’s own writings, in which he speaks of the perilous times of the latter days; of false prophets transforming themselves into Apostles of Christ; of Satan transfigured into an angel of light; of religious licentiousness; of all them of Asia falling away from him. Of all these opponents of the Gospel the man of sin is the concentrated image; they are already working, but are at present underground, not yet bursting forth to envelop mankind. Gnosticism, or Orientalism, or Judaism, the evil of the world as it awoke to the consciousness of higher truths, the swarming heresy of an age of religious excitement, and the persecution of the followers of Christ and His Apostles, all probably, as in the Book of Revelation, mingled in the vision ‘of the things that should shortly come to pass.’
Thus there are altogether four elements which enter into the conception of the man of sin:—(1) the traditional imagery of the elder prophets; (2) the style of the Apostle and his age; (3) the impression of recent historical events—which supply the form; (4) the state of the world and the Church, and the consciousness that, where good is, evil must ever be in aggravated proportions, which supply the matter of the prophecy.
Still we have not made a nearer approach to the true interpretation of ‘him that letteth,’ an expression on which no light is thrown, either by the writings of St. Paul, or by the symbolical language of the Old Testament. We cannot err in supposing that it intimates St. Paul’s belief that the coming of Antichrist was not yet. Though already working, it was restrained by a superior power. The Thessalonians were exhorted not to be troubled in mind, as though the day of the Lord was at hand, for it was to be preceded by the manifestation of the man of sin. But it was still further delayed by the interposition of ‘him that letteth.’ So far all is consistent. Christ, Antichrist, the restrainer of Antichrist, are the triple links of the chain by which the world is held together. In what person or thing to find the last of the three is the point of difficulty.
No stress can be laid on the use of the masculine, ‘him that letteth,’ because it is immediately followed by that of the neuter, ‘that which letteth,’ and may be accounted for by parallelism with the man of sin in a preceding verse. More truly might it be argued that the use of the neuter excludes the idea of a person. Nero might have been ὁ κατέχων, but could not have been τὸ κατέχον. The double use of the masculine and the neuter in some degree favours the interpretation of the prophecy which identifies the Roman empire with the restraining power. For some interpretation seems to be required which is applicable to a thing as well as to a person, as, for example, in the case of the Roman empire, τὸ κατέχον and ὁ κατέχων may contain an allusion to the empire and to the emperor. A more important circumstance than this strikes us in the examination of the passage: it is the apparent secrecy which the Apostle observes in speaking of the restraining power. It is an enigma which he will not reveal, which he had explained while he was yet with them, and dare not now write ‘with pen and ink.’ It reminds us of the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation. It recalls the words of Daniel, xii. 10: ‘None of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand.’ It quickens our curiosity to know what that power could have been, which was contemporary with the Apostle, and which he would not openly mention to his converts.
Two answers suggest themselves; conjectures, it is true, because it is impossible to do more than form conjectures which may be consistent or not inconsistent with the spirit of the prophecy; but they are not, however, to be rejected on that ground, if nothing better can be offered. The first is the Roman empire; the second, the Jewish law. According to the view which separates the traditional form from the substance of the prophecy, it would be no fatal objection to the first of these two interpretations, that the figure of Antichrist himself is taken from the image of the Roman emperors sitting in the temples as gods, while he that letteth is again the Roman emperor regarded from a new point of view. More real is the difficulty of supposing that St. Paul could have expected that, within a few years, the solid frame of the Roman empire was to break up and pass away. It is unlikely that he should have even taken the kingdoms of this world into the horizon of his spiritual vision. To say that the heresies of the Ebionites or Nicolaitanes were restrained by the continuance of the Roman government, would be farfetched: the two are not ‘in pari materiâ.’ It might remove this difficulty if we could suppose the revelation of the man of sin to represent the rebellion of the Jews, but would leave the original one, how to account for the mystery which the Apostle observes about him which letteth. More natural is it to explain ‘that which letteth’ as the Jewish law, the check on spiritual licentiousness which for a little while was holding in its chains the swarms of Jewish heretics, who were soon to be let loose and sweep over the earth. Whatever other objections may be entertained to the last of the two interpretations, it has, at any rate, the advantage of consistency. It does not confuse the spiritual and historical, or take us away from the world of the human heart of which the Scripture speaks, to the world of objects and events.
Good and evil seem often to lie together flat upon the world’s surface. At other times they start up, like armed men, and prepare for the last struggle. There is a state in the individual soul, in which it has entered into rest, and has its conversation in heaven, and is a partaker of the kingdom of God. There is a state also in which it is divided between two, not unconscious of good, but overpowered by evil, living in what St. Paul terms the body of death. There is a third state in which it is neither conscious of good nor overpowered by evil, but in which it ‘leads the life of all men’ acting under the influence of habit, law, opinion. All these three states have their parallels in the history of the world. In all of them, whether in the individual or in the world, whether arising out of the purpose of God or the nature of man, there sometimes seems to be a kind of necessity which will not suffer them to be other than they are. The first is that state for which the believer looks when the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of God and Christ. The second is that state of the world, seen also to him, but unseen to men in general, in which, in the language of prophecy, ‘the wicked is revealed,’ in which the elements of good and evil separate and decompose themselves, in anticipation of the final judgement. The third is that fixed order of the world in which we live, which surrounds us on every side with its restraints, social, legal, moral, which, if it be not very good, is not very evil; which ‘letteth and will let’ as long as human nature lasts. Such ‘a let’ to the evil of men was the Roman empire; such ‘a let,’ even when it had lost its inspired character, was the law of the Jews. Whether either of these, or both of them combined in the same way that in the Book of Revelation Rome and Jerusalem combine to form the image of the last enemy, suggested to the Apostle the thought of ‘that which let;’ whether the political order of the world, which was typified by them, seemed to him for a time to interpose itself against the manifestation of the man of sin, is uncertain. Such is a natural adaptation for us to make of the words of the prophecy; it is also a consistent interpretation of them when translated out of the symbolism of Ezekiel and Daniel into more general language. To suppose that there is to be some greater deluge of evil than any that has already poured over the world, at the fall of the Roman Empire, or in the tenth century, some louder shriek of the human race in its agony than at the destruction of Jerusalem, to be heard again at the expiration of two thousand years, adds nothing to the credibility of the Apostle. Least of all can we imagine him to refer to a ‘gigantic’ development of the human intellect, which is at present believed to be held with a chain by the governments of mankind. Such opinions draw us away from the healthy atmosphere of history and experience into the unseen future; they project to an unimaginable distance, what to the Apostle was near and present. No test can be applied to them; their truth or falsehood, when we are in our graves, we shall never know. They gain no additional witness from the willingness of their authors to stake the inspiration of Scripture on the historic certainty of the event. So long as we delight to trace coincidences, or to make pictures in religion; so long as the human mind continues to prefer the extraordinary to the common, such interpretations of prophecy, in forms more or less idealized or refined, adapted to different age or capacities, will never fail. But the Spirit of prophecy in every age lives not in signs and wonders, but in the divine sense of good and evil in our own hearts, and in the world around us.
ON THE PROBABILITY that MANY OF ST. PAUL’S EPISTLES HAVE BEEN LOST
Ἐν πασῃ̂ ἐπιστολῃ̂—‘In every Epistle.’
—2 Thess. iii. 17.
These three words, dropping out by the way, open a field for reflection to those who maintain the genuineness of the Epistle in which they occur, because they imply, or at least make it probable, that St. Paul wrote other Epistles, which were never reckoned among the Canonical books, and of which all trace must therefore have disappeared in ecclesiastical history, even in that early age in which the Canon was beginning to be fixed.
Other expressions in the writings of the Apostle lead to the same inference. In the second chapter of the Epistle from which they are taken, which it is important to observe is almost the earliest of those extant, and the words of which cannot therefore refer to the Epistles which are familiar to us, he twice speaks of ‘a letter as from us,’ as a common and possible occurrence (ver. 2, 15). In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, x. 10, the Apostle supposes his adversaries to say ‘that his letters are weighty and powerful;’ to which he replies in the next verse, ‘Such as we are in word by letters when absent, such will we also be in deed when we are present.’ Is it likely that the Apostle is here referring to the First Epistle only? The words of 1 Cor. v. 9, ‘I wrote unto you in the epistle,’ probably allude, notwithstanding the tense, to the letter which he was writing at the time, and have, therefore, nothing to do with our present inquiry. But the general character of both Epistles to the Corinthians leads to the conviction that he was in habits of correspondence with the teachers of the Church of Corinth. It appears also from 1 Cor. xvi. 3 that he was intending (although the intention in this instance was not fulfilled) to send messengers with letters of introduction, as we term them, to the Church at Jerusalem;—letters of Christian courtesy, of which one only—the short Epistle to Philemon—has been preserved to after-ages. Similar occasions must often have occurred in the course of a long life and ministry; St. Paul did not cease to be St. Paul in his feelings towards others, because what he wrote in the privacy of the closet was not destined to be read afterwards by the whole Christian world. Once more, in the Epistle to the Colossians, iv. 16, the Apostle enjoins the Churches of Colossae and Laodicea to interchange the letters which they had received from him. It is only a conjecture, and one which is not favoured by the similarity of the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians, that the Epistle here referred to as the Epistle to the Laodiceans is the extant Epistle to the Ephesians. Here then are signs of another lost Epistle. The allusion in the Second Epistle of St. Peter, iii. 15, 16, ‘Even as our beloved brother Paul also, according unto the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction,’ may be mentioned also, though it has only a general bearing on our present subject.
(ii) The character of the Apostle is a further presumption on the same side of the question. He who lives in himself the life of all the Churches, who is praying for his converts night and day, and who allows no other concerns to occupy his mind—of such an one is it reasonable to suppose that, during his whole ministry, to all his followers in many lands, he would write no other Epistles but those which have come down to us? One might have thought that every year, almost every month, he would have found some exhortation to give to them; that he would have received news of them from some quarter or other touching divisions which required healing, or persecution under which his children needed comfort, or advances of the truth which called for his counsel and sympathy. One might have thought that his affection for them, and his extreme (may we call it?) sensitiveness to their feelings towards himself, would have led him to make use of every opportunity for writing to them or hearing from them. He who had no rest in his soul until he had sent Timothy to know their state, could not have borne to have passed a great portion of his life without knowledge of them or intercourse with them. But if so, the Canonical Epistles or Letters cannot be the only ones of which the Apostle was the author. For, including the Pastoral Epistles, their number is but thirteen, not one in two years for the entire active portion of the Apostle’s life, and these very unequally spread over different periods. Of the first ten or fifteen years no Epistle is extant; then two short ones begin the series; after an interval of some years succeeded by another short one: then in a single year follow the three larger Epistles together, more than half the whole: lastly, in the years of his imprisonment, we have not much more than a short Epistle for every year. Is it likely that there were no others?—or are we suffering ourselves to be imposed upon by the fear of disturbing a natural but superficial impression?
(iii) The Epistles which are extant, with the exception of the Epistle to the Romans, are unlike the compositions of one who in his whole life wrote only ten letters. They are too lively and draw too near to the hearts of men. Those especially to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians (compare Philemon) imply habits of familiar intercourse between the Apostle and the distant Churches. Messengers are passing from him to them, and he is minutely informed of their circumstances. There is no trace of ignorance on the Apostle’s part of what is going on among them. There is none of that natural formality which grows up in letters between unknown persons. Would the Apostle have written to a Church which he only addressed once in his life in a style which is more like talking than writing?—and without the least allusion anywhere to the singularity of the circumstance of his writing to them?
But if, as the allusions which have been mentioned and the reason of the thing, and the style of the extant Epistles themselves, lead us to suppose, St. Paul wrote other Epistles, which have not been handed down to us, then many reflections arise in our minds, some of which have an important bearing on the interpretation of Scripture.
1. It has been observed that within a single year of his life the Apostle wrote the Epistle to the Romans and the two Epistles to the Corinthians, which are in quantity equal to more than half the whole of his Epistles, and not much short of a seventh portion of the entire New Testament. Nor is it certain that these were the only Epistles written by him in the same year: the reverse is more likely. Now suppose we take this as the criterion of the probable amount of his lost writings, and that during each year of his ministry, which extended over a period of at least twenty-five years, he wrote an equal quantity—though it would not be true to say that ‘the world itself would not contain the books that would have been written,’ yet the result would have been a volume three times the size of the New Testament. There is nothing extravagant in this speculation, although there is no proof of it; the allusions to lost Epistles make the idea extremely probable. Nor would any one think it extravagant if the Apostle had not been one of the Canonical writers, whose writings we are accustomed to regard as supernaturally preserved to us.
2. Suppose, further, that in a distant part of the world, in some Syriac, or Armenian, or Aethiopic transcript, or even in its original language, buried in the unexcavated portions of Herculaneum or Pompeii, one of these lost Epistles were suddenly brought to light: with what feelings would it be received by the astonished world! The return of the Apostle himself to earth would hardly be a more surprising event. There are minds to whom such a discovery would seem to involve more danger than the loss of an Epistle which we already have. It is not impossible that it might be suppressed or ever it found its way to the Christian public. Suppose it to escape this fate; it is printed and translated: with what anxiety do men turn over its pages, to find in them something which has a bearing on this or that controverted point! If touching upon disputed matters, is it too much to conceive that it would not find equal acceptance with disputants on both sides—supposing that it favoured one of them rather than the other? Time would elapse before the new Epistle would find its way into the language of theology. There would be no Fathers or Commentators to overlay it with traditional interpretations. It is strange but also true that it could never receive the deference and respect which has attached to those more legitimate Epistles in the possession of which the Christian Church has gloried for above eighteen centuries. And some one standing aloof might ask whether any article of faith which such an accident might disturb could be necessary to salvation.
3. Another supposition may be raised of the discovery not of one but of many lost Epistles of St. Paul, which suggests a new question. Would the balance of Christian truth be thereby altered? Not so. A moment’s reflection will remind us that the servant is not above his Lord, nor the disciple above his Master. If we have failed to gather from the words of Christ the spirit of the Gospel, a new Epistle of St. Paul would hardly enlighten us; if we are partakers of that spirit we have more religious knowledge than it is possible to exhaust on earth. The alarm is no sooner raised than dispelled. The chief use of bringing the supposition before our minds is to remind us of the simplicity of the faith of Christ. It may help to indicate also to the theological student the nature of the problem which he has to consider in the interpretation of Scripture, at once harder and easier than he at first supposed—easier because simpler, harder because beset with artificial difficulties. Were the Epistles bearing the name of St. Paul not ten but thirty in number, a great change would take place in our mode of studying them. Is it not their shortness which provokes microscopic criticism?—the scantiness of materials giving rise to conjectures, the fragmentary thought itself provoking system? Words and phrases such as ‘justification by faith without the works of the law’ could not have had such a powerful and exclusive influence on the theology of aftertimes had they been found in two only out of thirty Epistles. Theories and constructions soon come to an end when materials are abundant; ingenuity ceases to make an attempt to fill up the blanks of knowledge when the mind is distinctly conscious that it is dealing not with the whole but with a part only.
4. No difference is made by the supposition which has been raised respecting the extant Epistles considered as a rule of life and practice. Almost any one of them is a complete witness to the Author and Finisher of our faith; a complete text-book of the truths of the Gospel. But it is obvious that the supposition, or rather the simple fact, that Epistles have been lost which were written by St. Paul, is inconsistent with the theory of a plan which is sometimes attributed to the extant ones, which are regarded as a temple having many parts, even as there are many members in one body, and all members have not the same office. A mistaken idea of design is one of the most attractive errors in the interpretation of Scripture no less than of nature. No such plan or unity can be really conceived as existing in the Apostle’s own mind; for he could never have distinguished between the Epistles destined to be lost and those which have been allowed to survive. And to attribute such a plan to an overruling Providence would be an arbitrary fancy, involving not inspiration, but the supernatural selection and preservation of particular Epistles, and destructive to all natural ideas of the Gospel. It is a striking illustration of what may be termed the incidental character of Christianity, that (not without a Providence in this as in all other earthly things) some of the Epistles of St. Paul, in the course of nature, as if by chance, are for ever lost to us; while others, as if by chance, are handed down to be the treasures of the Christian world throughout all ages.
5. There is no reason to suppose that those Epistles of St. Paul which have been preserved were more sacred or inspired than those which were lost, or either more so than his discourses in the synagogue at Thessalonica during ‘three Sabbath days,’ at Athens, at Corinth, at Rome, or the other places in which he preached the Gospel. The supposition of the lost Epistles indefinitely extends itself when we think of lost words. Of these it might be truly said, ‘that if they were written every one, even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written.’ The writings of the Apostle, like the words of our Saviour, are but a fragment of his life. And they must be restored to their context before they can be truly understood. They do not acquire any real sacredness by isolation from the rest. It would be a loss, not a gain, to deprive the New Testament of its natural human character—instead of receiving a higher and diviner meaning, it would only be reduced to a level with the sacred writings of the Asiatic religions. ‘So Christ and his Apostles went about speaking day after day,’ is a truer and more instructive thought than ‘these things were formally set down for our instruction.’ Nor does it really diminish the power of Scripture to describe it, as it appears to the eye of the critical student, as a collection of fragmentary and occasional pieces. For these fragments are living plants; the germ of eternal life is in them all; the least of all seeds, when compared in bulk with human literature, they have grown up into a tree, the shade of which covers the earth.