What Manner of Time

by Glenn Conjurske

“Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you, searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” (I Peter 1:10-11).

It is plain from this scripture that the Old Testament prophets did not understand everything in their own prophecies. It was “the Spirit of Christ which was in them” that spoke, and not merely themselves. Therefore they “searched diligently” into their own writings. The one thing in particular into which they thus searched was the matter of time. The prophecies left them ignorant of this.

The prophecies spoke of “the sufferings of Christ” as well as of “the glory that should follow”—-but as to the time of these things, the very prophets who wrote them were puzzled. They were puzzled not only concerning what time, but even concerning what manner of time. That Messiah would suffer was plainly foretold, as it was also that he would reign in glory, but both are sometimes mixed together in the same prophecy, thus presenting this enigma concerning “what or what manner of time.” Many of the Jews sought to solve the enigma by believing in two Messiahs. David Baron, a converted Jew, writes, “Most Talmudic Jews believe in two Messiahs; Messiah Ben Joseph, who shall be killed, and Messiah Ben David, who shall reign.” A little deeper thought might have led them to the realization that both Joseph and David passed through both the sufferings and the glory, and in this they were both types of the one and only Messiah.

The true solution to the enigma, of course, is not in two Messiahs, but in two comings of the one and only Messiah. Yet those two comings were not clearly distinguished in Old Testament prophecy. The two events were sometimes seen together as though they were but one, like two mountain peaks viewed from a distance—-the one appearing to touch the other. But when we view them near at hand, it then appears that a great valley lies between them.

The first obvious example of this is in the first Messianic prophecy in the Bible, in Genesis 3:15. “It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” Here are plain prophecies of both the first and second advents of Christ, with nothing whatever to distinguish them. Satan bruised the heel of Christ at his first advent. Christ will bruise the head of Satan at his second advent. If the bruising of Christ’s heel is properly applied to his death, the bruising of Satan’s head must certainly apply to his complete destruction. That bruising is well described by John Gill thus: “that is, destroy him and all his principalities and powers, break and confound all his schemes, and ruin all his works, crush his whole empire, strip him of his authority and sovereignty, and particularly of his power over death, and his tyranny over the bodies and souls of men,” yet Gill is blind enough to refer all of this to the first coming of Christ, saying, “all which was done by Christ, when he became incarnate and suffered and died.” Yet Paul says, in an obvious reference to this prophecy, “And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.” (Rom. 16:20). This is not yet done. It will be done at the second coming of Christ, when he will come “with ten thousands of his saints” (Jude 14), when the saints “shall judge angels” (I Cor. 6:3). The prophecy in Genesis 3:15 looks at both advents of Christ, without a hint to distinguish them, and even places the second advent before the first.

Another clear example of the same thing will be found in Isaiah 61:1-2. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God.” In Luke 4:18-21 the Lord read this scripture in the synagogue, and said, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” But he did not read it all. He stopped short before “the day of vengeance of our God,” and closed the book. The acceptable year of the Lord had reference to the first coming of Christ, the day of vengeance of our God to his second coming. Yet in the Old Testament prophecy the two are run together without a hint that they were to be separated by a vast period of time.

In addition to these prophecies which view both of his advents together, there are also numerous passages which speak of one or the other of them, all without a word to indicate which coming is spoken of, or even to indicate that there would be more than one. Observe, then, the following indisputable facts concerning the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of Christ:

The Old Testament prophesies the coming of Christ, but never spells out the fact that he would come twice. It did prophesy of both comings, but without distinguishing them, sometimes mingling them both together as though they were but one indivisible event. But though these two advents were not explicitly distinguished, yet there was enough said of them that men might have distinguished them, and apparently ought to have done so, for the Lord reproves the disciples on the road to Emmaus for being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25), and this with reference to the very two things which puzzled the prophets of old, “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” “Ought not Christ”—-or, as we may legitimately translate it, “Was it not necessary for Christ to suffer, and to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). There was enough said in the Old Testament to necessitate the belief in those sufferings and in that glory, and therefore there was enough said to necessitate the conclusion that the Messiah would come twice—-once to suffer and die, once to conquer and reign—-once in humiliation and weakness, once in power and glory. Yet the fact is, so far as we are aware, no one ever did draw that necessary conclusion. No one ever did make that distinction—-though some approached it, in their expectation of two Messiahs. The prophets who wrote the prophecies never understood it. Alas, many Christians in the present day still remain in the same ignorance, as slow of heart now to believe the prophecies of Christ’s glory as the disciples then were to believe those of his sufferings. Such continue to apply all, or almost all, of the Old Testament prophecies to the first coming of Christ, though in order to do so they must completely empty many of them of their obvious import, making them to mean something altogether other than what they say.

When we turn to the New Testament prophecies of Christ’s coming, we find a state of things exactly similar. The coming again of Christ is spoken of in generic terms, in such a way as that we might very well suppose it to be one indivisible event. But when all that is said is examined with due care, we are forced to the conclusion that the “second coming” of Christ is not one indivisible event—-no more than his advent prophesied in the Old Testament was one indivisible event. His coming again to receive his saints to himself and take them to that place which he has gone to prepare for them in heaven, and his coming to execute judgement on the ungodly and establish the kingdom of God on earth, are two events as dissimilar as his coming to suffer and to die, and his coming to judge and to reign, which were prophesied in the Old Testament. The fact that the New Testament may fail to explicitly distinguish these two events, or may seem to speak of them both as though they were but one, is nothing to the purpose—-for the same thing exactly is indisputably true of the Old Testament prophecies of his first coming.

But further, neither is it anything to the purpose to be told that for eighteen centuries no one in the church saw these two distinct events, for we know as a certain matter of fact that the Old Testament spoke of two distinct comings of Christ, and yet no one ever saw it at all, during the whole time that the Old Testament economy was in force. They struggled with the difficulties which the prophecies of Messiah’s sufferings and Messiah’s glory presented to them, but they never found the answer to those difficulties, simple as that answer was.

One reason for the failure of the Old Testament saints to see these things lay in the cryptic, the obscure, the non-explicit nature of the prophecies themselves. It was a matter of great enough difficulty to them even to know which particular prophecies referred to the Messiah at all. That has remained in some cases a difficulty even to the saints of the present dispensation, but it must have been a thousandfold more so then.

But there is another reason that many of the Jews failed to see the two comings of Christ in the Old Testament. That reason is found in the reproof which the Lord administered to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken.” They looked (and rightly) for a conquering and reigning Messiah, but were “slow of heart to believe” in a rejected and suffering Messiah. “He”—-the Lord of hosts—-“shall be for a sanctuary: but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel.” (Is. 8:14). Peter tells us that this stone of stumbling and rock of offence is “the stone which the builders disallowed” (I Pet. 2:7-8), that is, a rejected Christ. Paul tells us that “Christ crucified” is “unto the Jews a stumblingblock.” (I Cor. 1:23). In other words, the stone of stumbling and rock of offence was their own Messiah, fulfilling their own Scriptures. Peter nearly stumbled over this stone of stumbling, refusing the explicit statement, concerning his rejection and suffering, of him whom he already acknowledged as the Messiah, saying, “Be it far from thee, Lord.” (Matt. 16:21-22). John the Baptist nearly fell over this rock of offence, and received the mild reproof from the Lord, “Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.” (Matt. 11:6).

It is no wonder, then, that the Jews never saw the two advents of Christ in the Old Testament prophecies, when they were so “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken” concerning the most salient feature of his first coming. Turning to the present dispensation, we meet with just the same state of things. We are asked with an air of triumph, If the New Testament speaks of two distinct comings of Christ, why did the saints never see this for eighteen centuries? We ask in return, If the Old Testament speaks of two distinct advents of Christ, why did the Old Testament saints never see this at all? But we proceed to answer the question put to us:

Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the non-explicit nature of Scripture in general, and of these prophecies in particular—-the same in the New Testament as in the Old Testament. This is sufficient in itself to account for the apparent ignorance of the early fathers of the church on the subject—-every bit as sufficient as the non-explicit nature of the Old Testament prophecies is to account for the ignorance which prevailed in that dispensation. The early fathers of the church might have seen these things, but seemingly did not. Little wonder, this, for the church in those days was so often distracted with severe persecutions that there was but little leisure for quiet study. When those persecutions ceased, the church quickly sank into such a state that it could not see the distinction between the rapture of the church and the manifestation of Christ to the world. The hope of Christ’s coming was soon lost. The church settled down into a secularized “spiritual” kingdom which was of this world, and ceased to pray “thy kingdom come.” And much worse, men rose to the leadership of the church who believed equally in the divine inspiration of heathen philosophy and the Scriptures of God. They set themselves to reconcile the two. The result was the same as it usually is when men seek to reconcile falsehood with the Scriptures. The falsehood was maintained, and the Scriptures practically given up. The heathen philosophy was allowed to stand at face value, while the Scriptures were subjected to a “spiritual” interpretation which made them mean anything but what they said. A millennium of darkness followed, rightly called the “dark ages.” The Reformation recoiled from this “spiritual” interpretation in general, but retained it in the field of prophecy. Thus Protestantism came into existence blindfolded on prophetic themes, and existed for three centuries almost completely destitute of the light which is necessary to be able to see the distinction between the rapture of the church to heaven and the establishment of the kingdom on earth. That kingdom itself was spiritualized. The antichrist was spiritualized. Daniel’s seventieth week was spiritualized. In many cases even the return of Christ was spiritualized, and made to be a “spiritual” coming, at conversion, at death, at the destruction of Jerusalem, or in some event of providence. Now the plain fact is, when men were walking in such a mist of darkness on all of the most elementary points of prophecy, it was a simple impossibility for them to see the finer points. When they did not believe in a literal tribulation, how could they believe in a rapture of the saints before it? If they could not see the distinction between Israel and the church, how could they see that the church would be raptured, while Israel was required to face “the time of Jacob’s trouble”?

And this is an all-sufficient answer to the question, If the pretribulation rapture of the church is taught in Scripture, why did no one see it for eighteen centuries? The fact that no one taught the doctrine before 1830 is just what all the facts which we know would lead us to expect, and it is really irrelevant. The fact that the early fathers of the church apparently did not see this is no more surprising than the fact that the whole Jewish people remained ignorant of the two advents of Christ which almost all post-tribulationists acknowledge are taught in the Old Testament.

But we must go further. Suppose, as post-tribulationists contend, that the apostles themselves were ignorant of the pretribulational rapture of the church. I don’t believe that Paul was ignorant of it. Peter, perhaps. The Old Testament did speak of two advents of Christ, but not of three, for this doctrine of the rapture is among those “mysteries” which concern the church alone, which were not revealed in the Old Testament, and which were revealed to the church primarily through Paul. Peter evidently did not know everything which Paul knew, for he speaks of things hard to be understood in Paul’s epistles. As for John, I don’t know how he could have been ignorant of it, at least not after he received the Apocalypse. But suppose the apostles were all ignorant of it. What of it? We know that the Old Testament prophets, the very men who wrote the prophecies of the two advents of Christ, were ignorant of the distinction between them. But the fact remains that they did ignorantly write of those two comings, and what they wrote in those prophecies does in fact necessitate the distinction of which they themselves were ignorant. And if the apostles themselves (or some of them) were ignorant of the distinction between Christ’s coming for the church and his coming to judge the world, that cannot change the fact that what they wrote necessitates that distinction.

Post-tribulationists may argue with great strength that the coming of Christ for his church and his coming to judge the world are nowhere explicitly distinguished in the New Testament. I grant that they are not, but I argue in turn that the two comings of Christ which are confessedly foretold in the Old Testament are nowhere explicitly distinguished there. “What manner of time” was the grand difficulty into which the prophets themselves searched. In this matter there is not one whit of difference between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament prophecy, and it is certainly unfair for post-tribulationists to pose as an insuperable difficulty in the New Testament that which they cannot but acknowledge to be a fact in the Old Testament. Moreover, I insist further that this is fully consistent with the normal way of Scripture. It is the normal way of Scripture to decline to spell out explicitly those things which are nevertheless surely to be believed among us. It reveals enough to us to lead us to those things as the proper and necessary conclusions from what Scripture says, but the things themselves are not explicitly revealed. Between the things which the Scriptures say and the conclusions which are to be legitimately drawn from those things, there may lie a long and laborious process of reasoning, a diligent “searching into” the difficulties presented to us by the facts and statements of Scripture. This, Peter informs us, the prophets of the Old Testament did. This Darby did also, and was led by what the Scriptures say to the true solution of the difficulty, the divinely intended conclusion of the matter. Before Darby’s day there had been but little “searching into” these matters. The whole prophetic scheme had been so vitiated by unbelief and allegorical interpretation that men were unable to understand or ask the proper questions, and so were totally incapable of finding the answers. When men began to take prophecy at face value and believe it, new difficulties arose, which never could have been felt by those who spiritualized away the plain revelations of the prophetic Scriptures. Feeling those difficulties, they began to “search into what or what manner of time the Spirit did signify,” when it spoke of the coming of Christ to take his saints to the place prepared for them in heaven, and the coming of Christ to judge the world and establish his kingdom on earth. Thus “searching,” they were led unerringly to the distinction which pretribulationists hold today.

It is not my purpose in this article to detail all of the things in the prophetic writings which necessitate that distinction, though there are many such things. I just touch upon a few points. Jude says, “Behold, the Lord cometh, with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgement upon all.” Now if the Lord comes with his saints, this indicates that he has previously come for them, and taken them up to himself. But further, and of much more weight, if he executes judgement upon all at his coming—-judgement which consists of “sudden destruction,…and they shall not escape”—-and if this coming is supposed to be the same coming as that in which his saints are caught up to him—-the establishment of his kingdom on the earth is then precluded as an impossibility. We then see all of the godly caught up and glorified, and at the same time all of the ungodly judged and destroyed, and who is left to inherit the kingdom? Not one soul. These facts alone absolutely necessitate the distinction for which we contend. The fact that the Jewish economy obtains during the seventieth week of Daniel points to the same thing. The crowned elders in heaven before the first seal is opened in the Book of Revelation require the same conclusion—-for none receive their crowns until he comes who says, “Behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me.” (Rev. 22:12). Other facts could be mentioned, but these will suffice to indicate that however new the pretribulational doctrines may be, they are not based upon cunningly devised fables, but are conclusions drawn upon solid and substantial evidence—-evidence, indeed, which requires those conclusions.

Glenn Conjurske