The Puritans and the Promises
How are we to pray for the world-wide success of the gospel of Christ? How are we to plead the promises of Scripture?
The Larger Westminster Catechism Question 191 sums up the Puritan view.
What do we pray for in the second petition of the Lord’s prayer?
Answer: We pray that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, and the fullness of the Gentiles brought in.
In the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God we are directed to pray for:
The propagation of the gospel and the kingdom of Christ to all nations; for the conversion of the Jews, the fullness of the Gentiles, the fall of antichrist, and the hastening of the second coming of our Lord, for the deliverance of the distressed churches abroad from the tyranny of the antichristian faction, and from the cruel oppressions and blasphemies of the Turk. These statements do not suggest a chronological order of events but in the light of Puritan books on the subject the following order is suggested:
There are six paragraphs devoted to the Church in the Westminster Confession (chapter 25). The Congregationalist Savoy Confession re-arranges the material but adds the following in a separate paragraph.
As the Lord in his care and love towards his Church, hath in his infinite wise providence exercised it with great variety in all ages, for the good of them that love him, and his own Glory: so according to his promise, we expect that in the later days, Antichrist being destroyed, the Jews called, and the adversaries of the Kingdom of his dear Son broken, the Churches of Christ being enlarged, and edified through a free and plentiful communication of light and grace, shall enjoy in this world a more quiet, peaceable and glorious condition than they have enjoyed.
Promises concerning the future as comprehended by the main line Puritans I summarise as follows:
Promise 1 The Lord Jesus Christ will reign at the Fathers’ right hand until his enemies are made a footstool for his feet (Ps 110:1).
Promise 2 There will be a major conversion of the Jews as ‘godlessness is turned away from Jacob’ (Rom11).
Promise 3 The antichrist, meaning the papal system, will be overthrown (2 Thess 2:8).
Promise 4 This earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14).
Promise 1 – a Principle
The Lord Jesus Christ will reign at the Father’s right hand until his enemies shall become his footstool. Only then will he return to conquer our last enemy which is death.
Psalm 110:1, the most cited Old Testament text in the New Testament, is quoted by Paul when he declares that Christ must reign at the Father’s right hand until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:26). Only when he has vanquished his enemies will he return to conquer our last enemy which is death.
On Micah 4 George Hutcheson declares, ‘The time between the first and second coming of Christ is called “the last days” or the evening of the world. The days of the gospel are the last days, in which all things foretold by the prophets will be accomplished.’ There is one final period known as the last days from the first to the second advent of Christ. During this time Christ will employ his power increasingly to subdue his enemies and extend his Church among all nations.
In the Puritan tradition David Brown comments on the text of Daniel 2:35:
Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, and no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
‘Christ’s present existing kingdom has within itself all the resources by which it is destined to crush anti-christianism that obstructs its universal triumphs, and to win its way to the throne of the world.’
Progress to this end will be accompanied with conflict which is intimated by references to Christ’s enemies in Psalm 110:1,2: until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet, and, you will rule in the midst of your enemies.
The exaltation of Christ is basic to all the promises because every outpouring of power from on high proceeds from Christ. The LORD will extend your mighty sceptre from Zion: you will rule in the midst of your enemies. (Ps 110:2). The Lord’s response to the rebellion of kings and rulers is expressed in Psalm 2:6,: I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill, and on that basis the Son is invited, Ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession (v.8).
The Puritans understood the ascension of Christ in terms of the fact that he sat down at the right hand of God (Heb 1:3) He was exalted and received authority over the universe. The great commission is based on this empowerment of Jesus:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age or literally translated, every day to the end of the age. (Matt 28:16-20).
The Puritans viewed this commission as inextricably linked with the promises. For instance (Ps 47:5-7), God has ascended amid shouts of joy, , sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth. Matthew Henry sees here Christ’s ascension and his subsequent absolute dominion over all the earth until he returns in the same way as he ascended (Acts 1:9). On Daniel 7:13,14: In a vision I saw one like to the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him, Matthew Henry comments, ‘The kingdom of the Messiah shall be set up, and kept up, in the world in despite of all the opposition of the powers of darkness. Let the heathen rage and fret as long as they please, God will set his King upon his holy hill of Zion.’
On Hebrews 2:8: In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him, William Gouge deals fully and fairly with the fact that all things are very far from being put under Christ’s rule here on earth, but Gouge asserts that to the very largest and most pervasive extent they will be before Christ returns. In comparing the rule of Christ with that of the papacy, Gouge comments on the colossal pride of the Pope of Rome who arrogates to himself ‘supreme rule over purgatory, hell, heaven, and earth and he, the Pope, claims to be the supreme spiritual prince on earth to exercise power over the nations, authority to take power from one nation and give it to another’.
John Owen on Hebrews 1:8: But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last forever, and righteousness will be the sceptre of your kingdom” unites this promise with other Old Testament promises such as Isaiah 9:7: Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end, and in support of this cites many similar promises such as the aforementioned Daniel 7:14 but also Micah 4:7; Psalm 72:7,17: Psalm 145 :13 and 1 Corinthians 15:24-27. Owen refers too to the promise of the sceptre which will be given to Christ and cites the promises of Genesis 49:10; Numbers 24:17; Isaiah 14:5 and Zechariah 10:11.
These promises find their fulfilment in the description of Revelation 11:15: The kingdoms of the world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.
And again Ephesians 1:20-23: Christ has been seated at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in that to come.
Thomas Goodwin on Ephesians 1:20-23 declares his view that all Israel shall be saved which will result in blessing for the Gentiles as life from the dead (Rom 11:15). With regard to unity Goodwin suggests that up until that time Christians will never agree but then Zechariah 14:9 will be fulfilled: The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. This corresponds to Jesus’ words in John 10:16.
This first promise involves a principle which concerns the present reign of Christ over the whole period of time between his first and second comings. In the last days the mountain of the LORD’S temple will be established as chief among the mountains (Isa 2:2). Christ will not return to reign on earth and do for us what he has commanded us to do ourselves. Puritan teaching is designed to correct the errors of premillennialism and dispensationalism.
Promise 2 – a Programme
There will be a major conversion of the Jews as ‘godlessness is turned away from Jacob’ (Rom 11). This is part of a programme as we will see.
The best-known Puritan expositor of Romans was Elnathan Parr. Parr was educated at Eton, graduated at Cambridge in 1597 and exercised a powerful ministry at Palgrave in Suffolk. He died about 1632. Parr’s commentary on Romans was published in 1620. His exposition on Romans chapters 9 to 11 and on 11 in particular is constraining.
He argues along these lines: God’s rejection of the Jews is neither total nor final. The drift of the passage is to comfort believing Jews, admonish the Gentiles and safeguard them from arrogance. Paul has shown at the conclusion of chapter ten that the Lord has stretched out his hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people, whereas the Gentiles who did not seek him were found by him (Rom 10:20,21). This leads to the question, ‘Has God cast away his people?’
Paul answers with a strong negative, God forbid! He points to his own example, I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham from the tribe of Benjamin. Paul answers too by making an accurate distinction that the Jews are in a special way God’s people, a people whom he foreknew. Furthermore Paul answers the objection by citing an example from the days of Elijah when in spite of apostasy the Lord reserved 7,000 who had not bowed to Baal. In Paul’s day then there was a remnant chosen by grace.
Parr: ‘When he comes to verse eleven Paul shows that the rejection of the Jews is not final but that the multitude (I say not every individual) shall be generally called before the end of the world, that Jews and Gentiles shall make one sheepfold and one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ.’
In application Parr: ‘God is infinitely good, who out of the greatest evil, the sin of the Jews, can bring so great good, as the salvation of the Gentiles and Jews. He makes treacle out of our poison and never would suffer any evil to be, if he knew not how to bring good out of it.’
In exposition of verse 12 Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles: how much more their fullness? Parr says, ‘The conversion of the Jews shall be our riches. Gain is pleasing to hear of, but more to have it. We shall be gainers by their conversion. Knowledge shall then increase upon us as waters cover the sea. Blessed are the eyes of them which shall behold that time. Let us pray and long for the revealing of such riches, and in the meantime mourn the hardness of the Jews, and cry unto God on their behalf, saying, O Lord, How Long? Return, O Lord and visit thy ancient people with salvation.’
Parr continues, ‘The casting off of the Jews was our calling but the calling of the Jews shall not be our casting off but our greater enriching in grace.’ Parr sees in the conversion of the Jews a new multiplication of Gentile believers. He quotes Ambrose: ‘The world shall then be a golden world rich in golden men.’ And in respect of graces Parr suggests, ‘They shall then in more abundance be rained down upon the Church.’
On Romans 11:15: For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? Parr declares, ‘The calling of the Jews shall bring an addition of happiness to the world, that is, it shall be revived, to have more life, spirit, vigour, vivacity put into it, both in regard of Jews and Gentiles. Many that are now seduced by papists and Muslims shall then embrace the gospel.’
On Romans 11:16: For if the first fruit be holy, the lump is also holy, Parr answers an objection. ‘How can the nation of the Jews before called rebellious now be called holy? Answer: There is a double holiness, first of regeneration, second of the covenant. In regard to the first they are rebellious; in regard to the second they are holy.’
On the crucial verse 26: And so all Israel shall be saved Parr refutes the idea that in this phrase Israel stands for all the elect. Parr writes: ‘That all the elect shall be saved? Who ever doubted that? But of the calling of the Jews there is doubt. He calls their salvation a secret or mystery but there is nothing mysterious about all the elect being saved. He shows that there is an unbroken reference to Israel/Jacob, that is, ethnic Israel.’ From verses 25-28 Parr concludes, ‘Before the end of the world the Jews in regard to their multitude will be called.’ In this he is followed by Matthew Poole and Matthew Henry.
William Greenhill in his commentary on Ezekiel 39:25-29 says, ‘There is a day of mercy to come for the Jews, even all of them,’ and he cites Romans 11:15-27 and Zechariah 10:6.
The way in which they will be brought to repentance and the depth of that repentance is described by George Hutcheson on Zechariah 12:10-14.
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son each clan by itself… (Zech 12:10-14). Writes Hutcheson, ‘Here is held forth the future conversion and repentance of Israel, the full accomplishment whereof was not that which we read of in primitive times in Acts, but is yet to be accomplished when all their families concur in this work.’ He continues, ‘The conversion of the Jews or Israel unto the Messiah is not to be of some few only, but national of the body of the people, and there will be real repentance among them for all the land shall mourn and all the families that remain, men and their wives.’
Matthew Henry expounds Isaiah 19:25 which tells of a highway like an M1 motorway from Egypt through Israel to Assyria, a dual carriageway from Cairo to Jerusalem to Baghdad. ‘The Gentile nations shall not only unite with each other in the gospel-fold under Christ the great Shepherd, but they shall all be united with the Jews. When Egypt and Assyria become partners in serving God, Israel shall make a third with them (v. 24) they shall become a three-fold cord, not easily broken; the ceremonial law, which had long been the partition- wall between Jews and Gentiles shall be taken down, and then they shall become one sheep-fold, under one shepherd. Thus united, they shall be a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, v 24, 25. Israel shall be a blessing to them all because of them, as concerning the flesh Christ came; and they were the natural branches of the good olive, to whom did originally pertain its root and fatness, and the Gentiles were but grafted in among them, Rom 11:17.’
The likelihood of so great a miracle as the conversion of the Jews on a large scale seems incredible. Parr agrees: ‘But it is now almost sixteen hundred years ago since they were cast off. Is it likely that after so long a time they should be called? Answer: Yes: for the Gentiles lay longer under their own infidelity, and yet at last received grace and were called.’
We might add that there have been Gentile nations so securely locked up in darkness that it seemed totally out of the question that they should be entered by missionaries let alone turned to Christ. Robert Morrison, the first missionary of the modern age to go to China, was compelled to confine himself to working in the Portuguese island of Macau off the coast of China. China was impenetrable. Yet it is estimated even by the enemies of Christ that China today, the most populous nation on earth, has at least fifty million Christians. Another example is Korea. At the beginning of this century the gospel barely existed in Korea yet today that nation is one the greatest missionary-sending countries on earth.
The exposition by Parr of Romans 11 suggests three ingatherings each larger than the former and here we detect the emergence of God’s programme.
1. The first ingathering – Jews and a few Gentiles.
2. The second ingathering – Gentiles and a few Jews.
3. The third ingathering – Jews and Gentiles in abundance.
‘The web of providence’, suggests Charles Hodge on Romans 11, ‘is wonderfully woven; good and evil is made with equal certainty to result in the promotion of God’s gracious and glorious designs.’
‘If there was no mystery, no plan of infinite wisdom, then it would be inappropriate to conclude with a hymn of wonder and adoration. Appropriately the hope of a truly universal salvation leads to a hymn of praise of our Creator, the unknowability of his ways, and the certainty that he cannot be deterred from the accomplishment of his purpose.’
Will Elnathan Parr’s exegesis stand up to close scrutiny? The critical point is ‘And so all Israel shall be saved’ (verse 26). William Hendriksen outlines in detail three views. First that this means all the elect, second that it means all the elect Jews, and thirdly the view that has just been expounded by Parr. Hendriksen takes the ‘and so’ to mean: in this way all the elect will be saved. Frederic Godet shows that the Greek does mean and thus or in this way, but ‘this way’ refers to the immediately preceding context which is the fullness of the Gentiles’ a fullness that has its effect and impact on the Jews, and so, in this way, all Israel will be saved.
Expositors who endorse Parr’s interpretation are Charles Hodge, Robert Haldane, John Brown of Edinburgh, H G C Moule, Frederic Godet, W G T Shedd, Prof John Murray, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, C E B Cranfield, James Dunn and Thomas R Shreiner in his recently published commentary on Romans.
What about the prospect of Romans 11 being fulfilled today? This is the era of the Gentiles. During the 20th century there has been an unprecedented multiplication of evangelical churches in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Apart from a few Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia where every form of Christianity is fiercely persecuted, evangelical churches exist in every nation in the world. Would this be a fullness of the Gentiles? What about the present locality of Jews? In spite of the holocaust, which was a Satanic effort to annihilate the Jews, they have survived and in the Diaspora are found universally, especially in major cities world-wide such as Johannesburg, Sydney, Buenos Aires and New York where they form about one third of the population.
Since 1948 Jews have returned from a world-wide Diaspora to Israel. In 1967 the prophecy of our Lord was fulfilled: Jerusalem shall be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled (Luke 21:24). Today there are Christian churches in Israel. This year when a Reformed pastor baptised twelve converts to be added to his church of about 300, it caused such concern that it was even debated in the Knesset (Parliament) of Israel and caught the attention of the mass media which gave opportunity for Jewish converts to testify on national TV as to how they came to faith in Jesus.
There is much more today to encourage prayer for the fulfilment of the promises of Romans 11 than there was in the 17th century. Yet we do well to heed the wonderful counsel of Francis Turretin: ‘As to the quality and extent of that conversion, whether it will be national and universal of all or particular of some; whether simultaneous or successive; and how, by what means and in what time it will go forward, is safer to be unknown than to be rashly defined, the Holy Spirit stamping this mystery with his seal.’
Promise 3 – The antichrist defeated
In ten sermons on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 Thomas Manton describes the antichrist. This antichrist will be defeated and then finally destroyed at the second coming of Christ. The apostle Paul warns, Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come , except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition , – whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth (verses 2 and 8, KJV). ‘With the spirit of his mouth’ is a quotation from Isaiah 11:4b. The Greek of verse 8 is anelei to pneumati tou stomatos autou. Anaireo means to do away with, to abolish, to condemn to death, or to annul. It is translated ‘will destroy’ in the RSV, ‘will overthrow’ in the NIV, and ‘will consume’ in the KJV and the NKJV. In 2 Thessalonians 2 the promise is that this antichrist will be destroyed by the spirit of his mouth, which we take to be the Word of God (Isaiah 11:4b).
For linguistic reasons and style 2 Thessalonians 2:1-11 can be called ‘the little apocalypse’. The language is similar to that of the apocalyptic chapters of Daniel (chs. 6-12) and the book of Revelation. Hence when it describes the man of sin it is within the context of a developing situation, representative of a system that emerges from the mystery of iniquity. For instance the harlot in Revelation 17 is symbolic of a system and is not a specific woman.
Following Thomas Manton and other Puritan expositors such as Henry Wilkinson I will outline the salient points.
1. The apostasy is from apostolic Christianity. John says, They went out from us but they were not of us (1 John 2:19). The nature of antichrist is apostasy from Christianity not paganism. This is not a pagan or heathen opposition. So you can rule out Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Saddam Hussein or president Gaddafi.
2. This antichrist pretends to be the real Christ but is counterfeit. Antichrist in the text implies opposition but its primary meaning is not against. First and foremost anti means IN PLACE OF. Antikeimai is the present participle of the verb antikeimai, to set oneself in the place of by taking the place of another. Anti in Greek usage means instead or in the place of. For instance, ‘If your son asks for a fish will he (anti) in the place of it give him a serpent’ and Matthew 2:22, ‘Archelaus was reigning (anti) in the place of his father Herod.’ This antichrist takes the room or place of Christ. He becomes the vicar (substitute) of Christ on earth.
According to the Oxford Universal Dictionary vicar means one who takes the place of another while vicarious means to take the place or supply the place of another person. Jesus Christ sent the Holy Spirit to be his vicar on earth (John 14:15-30; 16:1-16). The work of the Holy Spirit is described in Romans 8:1-17. It is out of the question for any human to be the vicar of Christ. Jesus did not appoint Peter in his place. God the Holy Spirit took his place.
When Pope Pius XII was crowned pope in 1939 the words intoned were: ‘Receive this tiara adorned with three crowns that thou mayst know that thou art the father of princes and of kings, the ruler of the world, the Vicar on earth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.’ Pope Urban claiming to be vicar of Christ on earth in 1095 set in motion the bloody crusades based on principles of violence which contradict absolutely the Prince of Peace. The whole world has been adversely affected by those terrible crusades. Jews and Muslims were massacred. But Jesus said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ not ‘Go and slaughter all nations.’
3. This antichrist will exalt himself exceedingly. The Greek term for exalting himself is vital: huperairomenos which means brimming over or exalted above measure (see 2 Cor 12:7). The antichrist takes his seat in the temple of God. This cannot be the Temple of Jerusalem which was completely demolished in AD 70. The word for temple used in 2 Thessalonians is naos, a term used frequently in the book of Revelation in an idealistic or spiritual way referring to the spiritual sanctuary of God rather than to a physical building. It is also used by Paul to refer to the people of God. We are the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16). Describing the coronation of Pope Pius XII in 1939 Roman Catholic biographer John Cornwell says that no expense was spared for the ceremony, the first to be filmed in entirety and the first to be broadcast to the entire world. It took place in St. Peter’s Square. ‘The intention seemed not so much to bring the Pope among the people as to distance him and elevate him, to amaze the world.’
4. This antichrist is called the man of lawlessness (v.3) and the lawless (v.8). The title of the lawless one (ho anomos) can mean one who sins with impunity but that is not the primary meaning of this title. The Pope, by his own self-estimation, is the supreme arbiter of moral values on earth. As Roman Catholic historian Thomas Bokenkotter defines it, ‘The Pope can be judged by no man but by God alone; no earthly power can claim independence of the Pope, and insofar as any act has moral implications, it is subject to his judgement.’
5. This antichrist was already in preparation at the time of Paul’s writing. For the mystery already operates (to gar musterion ÃªdÃª energeitai).What was this power or principle already at work? In his letter to the Galatians Paul expressed his astonishment that so soon there was defection from justification by faith alone to dependence on works. In place of a free gift there is engendered dependence on a system of works which depend on the mass administered by priests, auricular confession, the doctrine of purgatory and merit associated with celibacy, the latter described by Paul as a doctrine of devils (1 Tim 4:1,3).
6. The antichrist was to be held back for a time. If Paul had written ‘imperial Rome’ and it fell into the hands of the Jews who opposed him they would have used it to accuse him. The Jews at Thessalonika accused Paul and Silas of opposing Caesar’s decrees saying that there is another king, one called Jesus (Acts 17:7). It was Imperial Rome that stood in the way of antichrist and his bid to be supreme.
The Puritans understood Daniel chapters two and seven to mean that we are to think in terms of rising and falling empires. In other words it takes epochs for God’s purposes to unfold. The antichrist of 2 Thessalonians 2 is the same antichrist described in Daniel 7. An antichrist would arise out of the fourth great empire which was Rome.
7. The antichrist will work according to the operation of Satan with all power and signs and wonders (dunamei, semeiois kai terasin), the same terms used to describe the work of the apostles of Jesus (Heb 2:4; 2 Cor 12:12). These however are pseudos, counterfeit, a lie! It is noteworthy that the Popes give credence to the Marian apparitions which attract huge followings.
8. The Puritans saw the antichrist depicted as a woman and a city. The Church is depicted as a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (Rev 12). In Revelation 21 she is a bride coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. Metaphorically this beautiful woman is the holy city, the new Jerusalem. The Puritans saw the contrast between this faithful woman and the unfaithful whore. The contrast between the holy city of Jerusalem and the corrupt and adulterous city of Babylon full of demons is obvious (Rev 18).
The antichrist is described as a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that is covered with blasphemous names. The title written on her forehead is MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. This harlot woman is drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus (Rev 17:1-6). The harlot sits on seven hills which universally is known as the city of Rome (Rev 17:9).
By way of summary we follow Matthew Henry’s outline for Revelation 17:1-6. Observe of this woman: i Her appearance, arrayed in purple and scarlet and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, ii Her residence, Rome, iii Her name, Mother of harlots, iv Her diet, the blood of the saints
The Reformers and Puritans were unanimous in seeing 2 Thessalonians 2 as descriptive of the papacy. The Puritans not only agreed about this but they decided that it was important enough to inscribe into the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 26 on the Church, paragraph 6.
There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession, chapter 26, on the Church paragraph 4, has the same wording as the above but adds the promise, Whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming. As in the Westminster Confession 2 Thessalonians 2:3-9 is cited in support of this.
Samuel E. Waldron in his exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith states that the confession is false at this point and without adequate basis. Mr Waldron’s opinion is defective. He makes no attempt to work at the principles of apocalyptic interpretation. He provides no exegesis and no examination of the testimony of history.
Leon Morris in his commentary on 2 Thessalonians finds it difficult to believe that a succession of Popes is in view and suggests we need to look to the end of time when a sinister antichrist fulfilling the criteria of the passage will appear. Morris suggests that this view ‘seems to have arisen more from hostility to the papacy than from exegetical considerations’. Morris hardly gives a fleeting glance to the Greek text. There is a difficulty in his mind because the Man of Sin seems to refer to one person. In answer to that we recall that this is apocalyptic language. The harlot in Revelation 17 is representative and symbolic of a system and is not a single specific woman.
To date the papacy has been serviced by about 260 Popes all of whom by their unbiblical claim to represent Christ as vicar have fulfilled the office of antichrist. The office of the papacy has served to proclaim new doctrines which cannot in any way, shape or form be supported by the Bible and which are antithetical to the gospel: purgatory (593), worship of images and relics (786), celibacy of the priesthood (1079), the Inquisition established (1184), sale of indulgences (1190), transubstantiation (1215), adoration of the wafer (1220, cup forbidden to the people at communion (1414), tradition placed on an equal footing with the Bible at the Council of Trent (1545), Apocryphal books added to the Bible at the Council of Trent (1546), immaculate conception of the virgin Mary (1854), the infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith and morals (1870), the assumption of the virgin Mary bodily into heaven (1950).
The Roman Catholic teaching on the Mass, the Priesthood Confession, Penance and Baptism combine to form a system of salvation which is antithetical in all its parts to the free gift of salvation, union by faith with Christ, justification by the express declaration of the Father and sanctification by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8; 2 Thess 2:13).
I will refer now to three expositors in the Puritan tradition who expound 2 Thessalonians 2.
1. Francis Turretin, (1623-1687), of Geneva, was esteemed as the successor to John Calvin in theological competence. Turretin’s works are in three volumes (2,400 pages).
The Display of Antichrist is not included in these three volumes but can be obtained from the www.
There are 14 sections titled disputations.
Disputation 6: Apostasy is a key trait. Turretin points out that the Popes would have us believe that the apostasy is a political movement, but that is impossible because the apostasy described is from the faith (1 Tim 4:1).
Disputation 8: He counterfeits Christ. Here Turretin points to the fact that the Pope authorises cultic worship in the form of papal processions, the crucifix being displayed as a symbol of his high office. He points to the fact that Jesus was carried by a donkey but the Pope is borne on high by princes. A modern illustration of Turretin’s contention is that of Cardinal Pacelli when he visited Buenos Aires in the Pope’s name in 1934. A wheeled contraption was drawn by hundreds of priests in white robes bearing Pacelli through the streets as he knelt before the exposed Eucharist.
Disputation 13: Distinguishing signs of Antichrist: cruelty and violence, greed and debauchery. Here Turretin presses home the abuses of immorality, of the sale of dispensations, money-making jubilees, the sale of indulgences, or the Taxae Canellerae, where vile crimes are absolved for monetary payment. He reminds us that Popes have sought to make the whole world accountable to the papacy and liable to taxation to scrape together wealth.
Disputation 14: Roman Catholic Testimony: The Pope is Antichrist. Turretin recalls the fact that Pope Gregory I declared, ‘I say confidently that anyone calling himself universal priest, or desires to be so called shows himself, by this self-exaltation, to be the forerunner to the Antichrist because by this display of pride he sets himself to be superior to others.’ (This was motivated by the fact that John of Constantinople usurped the title Ecumenicus which the Pope coveted for himself.) This is still relevant. More recently Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) more than any other papal official of his generation helped to enhance the ideology of papal power. A brilliant lawyer, Pacelli (Pope Pius XII) redrafted the Church’s laws to consolidate papal authority.
Turretin recalls the testimony of Arnulf, bishop of Orleans, who wept over the wretched state of the Church and in particular the time when the harlots Theodora and Marozia actually ruled the impotent Church, thrusting monsters into the Pontifical Seat. The consumption (the destruction of the errors and harmful practices) of antichristian Rome, says Turretin, goes on little by little through the preaching of the everlasting gospel by which his tyrannical empire has been greatly diminished and weakened until it shall be utterly destroyed at the glorious appearing of Christ, 2 Thessalonians 2:8.
2. Charles Hodge, leading American Presbyterian theologian of the nineteenth century, in his Systematic Theology wrote about twenty pages on the antichrist. He takes 2 Thessalonians 2 as descriptive of the papacy. Hodge explains that the antichrist is religious in character; he sits in the temple of God which is not true of any worldly power. ‘It was not true of Antiochus Epiphanes, who is regarded as the type whence the prophetic portrait of Antichrist was drawn. It is not true of the Roman emperors.’ ‘The popes claim the honour that is due to God alone. They exalt themselves above God.’ ‘Rome is sustained by ‘lying wonders’ a history of apparitions of the Virgin Mary and of saints and angels and miracles of every possible description from the most stupendous to the most absurd.’ Hodge gives sound advice that while recognising that many Roman Catholics past and present are true believers, we must expose the papal system as rotten. There is a difference between the core and the circumference. The core comprising the Pope and the curia is corrupt in doctrine. On the circumference are many sincere souls to whom the call is made, Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues (Rev 18:4).
3. Christopher Wordsworth, the bishop of Lincoln, in 1880 published a work on 2 Thessalonians 2. The called this work, Is the Papacy Predicted by St Paul? Wordsworth takes up every Greek word and examines it from all sides in context. In his application Wordsworth asks these questions:
1. Did any great, domineering power appear in the world of the dissolution of the Roman Empire?
2. Did any such power come up in its place?
3. Has it continued from that time to this?
4. Has it been continued by a succession of persons?
The answer to these four question is in the affirmative. Wordsworth cites an eminent Roman Catholic historian and statesman, Duc de Broglie, who stated that the Popes mounted the throne made void by the Caesars. In his scholarly A Concise History of the Catholic Church Roman Catholic historian Thomas Bokenkotter in a spirit of exultation tells us that ‘when the world was cracking at the seams, Leo stood forth as a Pope of commanding character and genius and dramatically and successfully asserted the supreme authority of the papacy’. ‘Pope Leo’, declares Bokenkotter, ‘formulated a doctrine of papal primacy that was to weather all storms and guide the policy of all subsequent Popes.’
Finally on the promise that God will destroy the antichrist with the breath of his mouth I will suggest three strengths which commend the Reformed and Puritan view of 2 Thessalonians 2.
1. This teaching is relevant
In a thoroughly practical way 2 Thessalonians applies to the whole history from the time of the apostles to the end of time. The apostle warned of a system which was already in the making and which was soon to be unveiled. It is unlikely that this passage is irrelevant to all except one generation on the lookout for one man at the end of the age.
2. This teaching is encouraging
By 1517 the papacy threatened to dominate the world. The gospel of justification by faith alone was buried out of sight. At that time the Word of God was used by the Reformers in a mighty way to re-establish the primacy of Scripture and defeat the antichrist. The Reformed and Puritan view engenders optimism because of the promise that the Word will demolish false teaching and the false system of the papacy. Nations will continue to be rescued from Popish darkness. We are to spurn a mentality of defeat. Rather we are to go out to battle and win peoples and nations for Christ. 3. This teaching is practical
The 20th century has been characterised by the Ecumenical movement and by muddled thinking about the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy. It is true that a great change has been taking place in Roman Catholicism. The Bible which was formerly disallowed is now allowed to run among the common people. This came about by pressure from evangelical Christianity rather than from reform within Roman Catholicism. Whole nations which until recently were locked up under the tyranny of Popish superstition now enjoy religious freedom. This has been brought about by political liberation rather than from the magisterium of Rome. Much heresy which is totally destructive of the way of salvation such as transubstantiation, Mary worship, and the doctrine of purgatory has accrued in the Roman system. None of this heresy has been repudiated. The decrees of the Council of Trent, which anathemetise those who hold to justification by faith alone, have not been repudiated. The Reformed and Puritan teaching is extremely practical, warning us not to compromise with the papacy.
Promise 4 – Promulgation
This earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14).
John Owen contemplated a time in the future when there would be multitudes of converts. Among the texts he gives in support of this is Isaiah 66:8,
Who has ever seen such things? Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment? Yet no sooner is Zion in labour than she gives birth to her children.
He anticipated the subjection of nations throughout the whole world to the Lord Christ quoting Revelation 11:15, The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ.
In his commentary on Psalm 72 David Dickson enlarges on the effects of Christ’s reign. He expounds nineteen benefits that will ensue as the gospel spreads further and further among men until all nations will call Christ blessed. Through rulers Christ will judge the poor of the people, save the children of the needy and break the oppressor in pieces. How extraordinarily relevant this is when we think of so much oppression in the world today through corrupt and cruel regimes. Dickson understands these blessings to be brought about through outpourings of the Holy Spirit. For he shall come down like rain upon the mown grass, as showers that water the earth (v 6). He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth (v 8 and Zech 9:10b)
Isaiah 11:1-9 is one of the most striking promises of the increasing rule of Christ over all the earth. The outline is as follows:
1. The king comes up from humble origins – from the royal stump of Jesse 11:1,2
2. The character of his government – he will reign with justice 11:3-5
3. A mighty spiritual transformation will be wrought by him – the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea 11:6-9
Isaiah uses illustrations of wild animals to describe the work of regeneration in humankind:
The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,, the cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox (11:6,7)
Says Matthew Henry: ‘Unity and concord as well as safety and security are suggested by these figurative promises. Men of the most fierce and furious dispositions who used to bite and devour shall have their temper so strangely altered by the efficacy of the gospel and grace of Christ that they shall live in love even with the weakest, and such formerly that they would have made easy prey of.’
‘There shall be a wonderful sweetening of men’s tempers by the grace of God. The effect of it shall be tractableness and a willingness to receive instruction.’ Henry cites Calvin who understood by ‘a little child shall lead them’ that there would be a willing submission to humble ministers of Christ, even from the strongest men. The cause of all this, suggests Henry, is the knowledge of God. It is spiritual knowledge permeating the souls of men and women that results in a disposition to peace. Thus they live in love, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, which shall extinguish men’s animosities. This knowledge follows regeneration. Henry notes that in the time of Moses true knowledge of God was circumscribed but now in the new covenant ‘they all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest’ (Heb 8:11).
In Western Europe where Christianity is in steady decline these promises of the universal success of the gospel seem impossible. They seem to be the province of those who live in cloud cuckoo land! Yet it is all too possible to be restricted in our thinking by our own environment and country. We must avoid the mistake some Puritans made during 1640 to 1660, a time of civil war and great change, of viewing England as the centre of the fulfilment of be see well illustrated by Patrick Johnson’s book Operation World many great nations are being born in terms of spiritual understanding and Church growth. England, a small nation, though exceptionally privileged over 2000 years, is not the epicentre of God’s purposes on earth. In terms of spiritual understanding and Church growth, huge nations such as Nigeria, Russia, China, India and Brazil are emerging today (Isa. 66:8). Who is to say that these will not one day send out great missionary armies in the way Korea is presently doing? The seeds which anticipate a world-wide harvest continue to be planted.
Isaiah 66:8 commented on above is a reminder of how quickly revival can bring multiplication, transformation and maturity as on the day of Pentecost. But generally spiritual progress takes a long time. It takes epochs for God’s purposes to be fulfilled. We are reminded of this by the rise and fall of empires described in Daniel chapters 2 and 7.
1. The Puritan theology of the promises will safeguard us from compromise with the papacy
The promise that the antichrist will be destroyed reminds us of the sinister nature of that enemy and promotes a correct attitude toward Roman Catholics and Roman Catholicism. We must resist forgetfulness or revisionism (the distortion of history). The details of 2 Thessalonians 2 have been enacted in the history of the papacy. There is the murderous Mafia-like behaviour of the bad Popes. There is the persecution and martyrdom of multitudes of Waldenses, the appalling record in torture and barbarity of the Spanish Inquisition putting to death multitudes of believers all in the name of Christ. Part of the catalogue of evil committed is the massacre of the French Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day. On hearing the news, the Pope ordered that the Te Deum be sung. How relevant is the text, drunk with the blood of the saints (Rev 17:6). Then there is the devilish doctrine of celibacy which accounts largely for the atrocious immoralities of the monasteries and nunneries, abominable things and the filth of her adulteries (Rev 17:4).
The most barbarous crime of the antichrist was committed this century in the holocaust of the Serbian people of Croatia in 1941. This was with the complicity of Pope Pius XII. Even the Nazis were shocked by the cruelty of Franciscan monks as they led this genocide.
2. The Puritan theology is alive and well and can answer objections
There are pressing doubts and objections to the Puritan view of these promises of God. In our minds is Luke 18:8: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? If he returned to day he would find more believers than at any former time in history but would he find the kind of persevering faith of the widow woman which makes up the parable? What about Jesus’ warning about the narrow and broad way and the few that are saved and the many that are lost? (Matt 7:13,14). The Puritans struggled themselves and there are struggles and conflicts which are peculiar to every generation. These stern personal warnings of our Lord apply equally to all believers whether they live in times of great spiritual awakening or in times of depressing decline and spiritual drought. These verses do not preclude the steady spread and conquest of the gospel throughout the whole world.
We need to exercise care in using the expression Latter Day Glory because that can give a false idea of ease and material prosperity. All the passages referring to Christ’s second coming major on warning against complacency (Luke 17:26-30; Matt 24:36-51 and chapter 25). In the case of the Olivet discourse (Matt 24,25, Mark 13 and Luke 21) every sign could be and was recognised by the believers in Jerusalem including the apocalyptic description of the coming of our Lord on the clouds which they interpreted from its source in Daniel. Every sign was to be detected and action was to be taken, action which in fact led to the escape of the Christians in Jerusalem in AD 70. But in contrast to all those detectable signs there are no signs for the second coming. J. Marcellus Kik’s book An Eschatology of Victory has probably done more than any other to clear away confusion and establish sound principles of interpretation. Kik expounds Matthew 24 and Revelation 21 verse by verse. He shows that by paying attention to the use of apocalyptic language in the Old Testament everything described by Jesus in the Olivet discourse up to the point where he says, This generation shall not pass away until all these things be fulfilled, did in fact take place as predicted.
In contrast to the fall of Jerusalem our Lord emphasises that nobody can predict that great final Day of his coming. It will be like the days of Noah when they were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. We can say that every meal and every wedding is a warning to be watchful. Watchfulness is the only guarantee of safety. We must constantly have oil in our lamps and we must set all our talents to work. When there is seeming endless delay we must not give way to beating our fellow servants (Matt 24:49).
A doubt arises because of the way the imminence of Christ’s return is stressed in Scripture. Three times in the last chapter of the Bible there is the statement, Behold, I am coming soon! Yet 2000 years have passed and still he has not come! The way we answer that is to say that we who are in union with Christ must live so closely to Christ that it is as though he was crucified yesterday and he is coming back tomorrow. Both the reality of his life, death, resurrection and ascension and the reality of his coming again in glory must be right next to us as present living realities.
John Jefferson Davis’ Christ’s Victorious Kingdom – Postmillennialism Reconsidered is the clearest and most consistent and thorough polemical exposition of the Puritan hope in print today with the great advantage of brevity and clarity. Iain Murray’s Puritan Hope is unique for the historical explanation of how the Puritan hope declined. The chapter The Eclipse of the Hope describes how the hope was buried under pre-millennialism.
One of the most helpful books is by Keith A. Mathison, Postmillennialism – An Eschatology of Hope, 1999. The only place where he does not follow the Puritans is in his preterist interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2. (Preterism is the doctrine that major eschatological events took place by the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in A D 70). Kenneth L. Gentry has written several books in which he expunds the preterist interpretation of the book of Revelation and of 2 Thessalonians 2. However I would suggest that the view advanced that Imperial Rome represents the Man of Sin, is forced, artificial and unconvincing. As Patrick Fa irbairn affirms, ‘The Caesars did not elevate themselves above other gods, they only wanted to have a place beside them: the self-deification of the Roman emperors appears as modesty by the side of the antichrist (papacy).’ The preterist position of applying 2 Thessalonians 2 to early Roman times was revived by Hengstenburg. In terms of making it fit it is discordant compared with the harmony and appropriateness of the Puritan interpretation which fits comfortably the whole span of Christian history.
There is a revival of postmillennialism in America today led mostly by theonomists (those who hold that the civil laws given to Israel of the Old Testament apply today). The Puritans were not theonomists. They were cautious in their application of Levitical laws to the present. They believed firmly that Christians with the required talents should aim to be leaders in society and to be magistrates or members of Parliament.
3. The Puritan theology of the promises constitutes a call to action
The Puritan theology of the promises for the last times is essentially ACTION THEOLOGY! It is a call to action stations! The promises are to be believed. They call us to pray and work. They call us to advance and to occupy until our Lord returns. The Puritan view inspires us not only to claim the promises of God concerning the universal dominion of Christ’s kingdom but to make every effort to achieve that. An example of action is the life of Olaus Petri, a friend, student and disciple of Martin Luther. Through his preaching Olaus turned the whole nation of Sweden away from the Man of Sin. Only now, 480 years later, is there a backsliding of leaders in Sweden and consequent compromise of the Lutheran Church with the Man of Sin and this through failure to heed the warnings of Holy Scripture.
Not only are there the promises of Romans 11 and promises of universal success for Christ’s gospel but provided for us in Scripture is the language by which we are to pray for success, passages such as Isaiah 62:1-7 and 64 and Psalms 85 and 102:12-22 . I take Isaiah 62:6,7 as an example:
I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth (Isa 62:6,7).
Jonathan Edwards in the Puritan tradition understood from Zechariah 8:20-22 that there would be a future major expansion of the kingdom of Christ, the commencement of which would be marked by times of earnest intercession. Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, “Let us go at once to entreat the LORD Almighty. I myself am going.” Edwards used this as a basis for a treatise calling for a concert of prayer for revival; the shortened title was An humble attempt to promote extraordinary prayer. This treatise was sent to John Erskine in Scotland who in turn sent it to John Ryland Jr. Knowing the affection that John Sutcliff and Andrew Fuller had for Edwards, Ryland lost no time in sharing this treatise with his two friends. In 1785 the call to regular prayer for revival was implemented in Northamptonshire. A start was made for a monthly prayer meeting for united prayer which spread to other counties. The missionary movement and the second great awakening had their roots in this movement of prayer which was based on the promises of Scripture.
In her darkest hours the Church of God has been nurtured by the promises, the brightest promises being given by our Lord in the very gloomiest of times such as Daniel and Ezekiel in captivity and Habakkuk facing the cruel onslaught of the Chaldeans.
‘Saddest times’, suggests George Hutcheson on Zechariah 8:20-22, ‘should not hinder the Church from minding her charter for enlargement and believing her privileges to come, for in her sad times she is called to think on this, there shall come people and the inhabitants of many cities – many people and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord.’
Will the wonderful promises of Scripture describing the victorious kingdom of Christ in this world be fulfilled? Let Matthew Henry on Psalm 72:18,19 reply. Declares Henry, ‘So sure is every word of God that we may with much satisfaction rely on it. We may have reason to give God thanks for what he has said though it be not yet done.’
Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen.
I have not provided references for quotations from Puritan commentaries since these are easily accessed by readers and also because there are innumerable editions of commentaries such as Matthew Henry. My edition of Elnathan Parr on Romans is a fourth edition and is dated 1651. That edition consisted of Parr on Romans chapter one and then from chapters eight to sixteen. The quotation from George Hutcheson on Zechariah is from a 1646 edition. Later editions of Hutcheson on the minor prophets have not included all the minor prophets.
By Erroll Hulse
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