Christ Coming as the Son of Man

Luke 21:27.---'And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.'

Some Christian conceptions make difficulties for the reason, such as the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Trinity; others make difficulties for the imagination, such as the Last Judgment, the Second Coming of Christ, and Immortality. But when imagination falters, reason can still go on, and when reason fails, faith is still unexhausted. We need to remember these distinctions, because some Christian conceptions are often regarded as impossible to reason, when they are only impossible to the imagination. It is so with the whole Christian conception of the future. We cannot imagine the conditions which might prevail in another world. We must expect, therefore, that the future will be left to faith and hope, and we must not expect that it can be mapped out or clearly imagined. But without hope for the future, nothing human can live. It is a natural instinct which Christianity has greatly intensified, and it is an instinct which has a meaning and some answering reality. What is the Christian hope for the future? It was once perfectly clear. There was a confident expectation that Jesus was coming again to earth, this time throned in splendor, acknowledged and worshipped by all. Then those whom this world counted worthless would be exalted to positions of authority and would reign with Christ. This hope buoyed up the first two Christian centuries and kept the Church alive through the ages of persecution. The Christian often encouraged one another with these words: we shall soon be reigning!

This hope was not realized; the first generation passed away and the skies remained silent and unbroken. We find even within the limits of our New Testament an echo of complaint at the postponement of Christ promise. Gradually the thought of the Church adapted itself to the disappointment. It was the actual experience of Christ's presence and the truth of His teaching that prevented any falling away when the first generations passed without the literal hopes of the Church being realized. This at any rate is eternal and will survive whatever the future may hold, or however long time may endure.

Gradually various interpretations of Christ's words were put forth. The Second Coming of Christ was interpreted to mean His coming through death, when He come to each one of us to receive us to Himself; or His words were taken to refer to the Last Judgment which was to take place at the end of the world [or correctly---age]. And these have been the explanations generally favored by the Church. A small but earnest section of Christians has preserved all down the ages the hope of a more literal fulfillment of Christ's promise, and from Scripture references has worked out a scheme which provides for a sudden and mysterious return of Christ which is to precede both His coming to reign on the earth and the Last Judgment.

In considering the meaning of Christ's words we may notice three things.

1. It is not conclusive that Jesus expected to return in a personal visible form. It will be admitted that the difficulty of understanding what He meant by 'Son of man' should at least prevent dogmatic assertion in one direction as in another. But it is surely more than accidental that He always chose to speak of His return in the third person, and that He never said in so many works, 'I shall return in power and great glory.' Then are we to make no use of the fact that in Daniel, which is the origin of this phrase, the Son of man does not mean an individual, but a kingdom? When we remember that the great theme of Christ's preaching was a Kingdom, and when we recall His mysterious identification of Himself with little children, His disciples, and those in need or distress, we can see that such an interpretation of the phrase is only in line with the general interest of His mind. Then we posses actual examples of how Christ Himself interpreted apocalyptic language. He held that Elijah had already come in the person of John the Baptist. When His disciples returned from a successful mission of preaching and healing, He exclaimed: 'I beheld Satan fallen as lightning from heaven.' This latter is a peculiarly instructive example and can be used as a clue to the interpretation of similar imagery applied to the coming of the Son of man.

2. The promise might be interpreted rather as the coming of the Son of man in great spiritual upheavals and in the rise of a new humanity. If we take it this way there are then two things we can explain: first, that the words of Jesus do seem to indicate many comings, and as our text indicates, a coming which is a process rather than a single event; second, that one of those comings was to take place in that generation. When Jerusalem fell, ancient moulds of thought were broken in men's minds as completely as were the walls of the city and the Temple. The Jewish people, with many Christians among them, were scattered like dust among the nations, and with their Old Testament culture they prepared a way for Christ into the heart of heathendom. Thus, in the life of that generation, as Jesus promised, men saw the Kingdom of Heaven coming with power.

A similar crisis on a wider scale was the fall of the Roman Empire. Again the moulds of custom an stereotyped thought were broken, and an opportunity of fresh entry for the Truth of Truths occurred. One of the direct results was an outburst of missionary fervor on the part of the Church towards the wild and barbarian peoples of Northern Europe. There was a great return of Christ to the souls of men---the foundations of Western Christianity were laid afresh.

In the twelfth century there occurred that terrible event, the irruption of Mohammedanism. Yet among its results was a great diffusion of learning. Scholars were driven from the cultured East to the uncultured West. Thus there occurred the Renaissance, that great rebirth of learning, leading straight to the Reformation. The French Revolution also and the Napoleonic wars saw a new liberty rise from the ashes of more than one European tyranny. That impulse crystallized itself in the democratic institutions of our own country, and led straight on to the Anti-Slavery movement.

So we are prepared by Christ's teaching to view the upheaval of war in our own time. Believing Christ's interpretation of history, we can see all the travail of our time bathed in the light of a great hope. Understand this, it seems that humanity has struck its tents and is again on the march.

In interpreting Christ's words as the promise of a Divine Society we are not turning to an easy interpretation, for there is no room for pessimism and despair in our age over this expectation of a Divine race. There seems to be more original sin in the body politic than in the individual soul. The more people there are, the greater seems the struggle for existence. The greater available wealth, the greater the temptation to avarice. Society is worse than the individuals who compose it. The ethics of a nation are always considerably below even the average standard of morality which governs its members.

The attempt at better social organization hardly promises to fulfill the hopes that some place upon it. The socialization of enterprise and industry gives no guarantee of efficiency or honesty. It is not to be wondered at that there are some who are never tired of girding against governments, some who utterly disbelieve in democracy, and some who despair of the value of legislative reforms.

But this attitude cannot be justified. It has taken psychology to teach us how much each one of us owes to society. We are what we are because we have grown up in contact with others, and because of our relationships with them. The illustration of a man on a desert island, which old fashioned theorists were so fond of using, is vitiated by the fact that he could not remain a man. The fact on which Robinson Crusoe was founded was that of a man who, when he was rescued, had forgotten his mother tongue. Religion owes more than we have realized to a communal sense and to fellowship. It cannot long exist in isolation. 'The man who never mixes with the crowd knows nothing.' Christianity needs the gathering together of two or three at least; Christianity finds a Church essential. Therefore there can be nothing in the social organism which is beyond redemption.

But the Divine Society needs to be prepared for. We need a new preaching of the Kingdom as both immanent and imminent. Down in every man's heart there is a desire to be right with others, which if allowed power and room would bring about the ideal state. There is nothing in the nature of men, nothing in our contact with the material, which need finally contradict that hope. Indeed our social relations and our dependence upon the material are part of God's plan for securing that we shall never wander entirely from the true line of progress. His laws work here when we try to disown them, and through man and matter He has sacramental channels which are beyond our power to close. If once righteousness was made the end of social order, there would be no more anxiety for the things of food and clothing. All these would be added by natural law, in plenty and freedom for all.

Can the Kingdom of God ever fully come on earth?

Two thousand years have done so little, progress is so slow, there are so many set-backs. Doubtless; but what would have been the course of this world without Divine manifestation and the Divine program of Christianity? The Kingdom of God does not come by coercion or display. It is worth waiting for. And there are signs. It matters not in what direction one looks, the past century has done more than all the centuries that precede. Every event in history brings the Kingdom nearer.

That vicious circle of despair of which we hear so much nowadays ['Man has always been that way'; 'Man always will be that way'; 'The world never changes'] does not exist. It is an optical illusion.

The line of progress is often interrupted, but if we set aside all sentimental prejudices and render a sober judgment upon the record of the last twenty thousand years [the only period about which we posses more or less concrete information], we will notice an indubitable if slow rise from a condition of almost unspeakable brutality and crudeness to a state which holds the promise of something infinitely nobler and better than what has ever gone before, and even the ghastly blunder of war cannot shake the firm conviction that this is true.

But even then, can this earthly dwelling-place of ours offer any final home for the Kingdom of God? It is the dogmatic prophecy of science that the universe is running down, that the sun is losing its heat, and that the day will come when human life will be impossible on this planet. Must we not look elsewhere for the fulfillment of God's purposes, above this world, and only beyond death? We have to remember that Christ taught us to pray that the will of God might be done on earth as in heaven. The apostolic expectation looks for a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness, and the closing vision of our Scriptures sees the holy city descending out of heaven, and God come down to dwell on earth among men. It may be only our imagination that fails. The division between the two worlds may gradually break down, when men are ready for it. The discovery that the visible world depends upon invisible forces, and the extension of man's sensuous appreciation which psychology seems to forecast, both work from opposite directions towards some extraordinary consummation.

The development of man's spiritual perceptions may bring all heaven before our eyes and give to us the presence of God nearer than the angels can bear it. Not only faith but reason must hold that reality is richer than our thoughts of it can ever be. If Christ is not to come in physical form floating upon the clouds of heaven, it is only because He is going to come in ways far more impressive and glorious, which these expressions can only faintly imagine. That out of such a world as this He stepped at last is promise that God has other and greater things in store, in which existence shall be justified and we shall smile back through our tears at our illusions, fears, and pains.

Then let us build for the future, keep our lamps burning and our garments white, and be as those who expect God to surprise us by the revelation of His purpose and the end of His creation.

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