Our God shall come, and shall not keep silent; A fire shall devour before Him, and it shall be very tempestuous all around Him. He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that He may judge His people. (Psalm 50:3,4)
Each year we celebrate the 19th of June because Emanuel Swedenborg tells us in the work called The True Christian Religion that on that day in the year 1770 the Last Judgment was completed. (See TCR 791)
As that event marked the end of the previous spiritual era, we then date the beginning of the New Church from that date as well. To those of us who have been brought up in the Church, there is nothing very remarkable in that, but to those who are new to the Church it can seem very strange that we are about to celebrate the 225th anniversary of an event that most of the rest of the Christian world expects to happen in the future.
So as to promote a clearer understanding of this important and unique doctrine of the New Church, we will now begin a series of four sermons on the New Church doctrine of the Second Coming.
This, the first, will focus on the scriptural prophecies.
The second will deal with the fulfillment of the prophecy in the natural world,
the third will examine how the prophecies were also fulfilled in the spiritual world.
The fourth will show how it was revealed truth that effected the Last Judgment.
The Word refers to two different kinds of "Last Judgment":
The personal judgment and the historical judgment
The final phase of every person's life when he dies is his own "Last Judgment." After death everyone rises again into the next life and appears for judgment. But that judgment is not a pronouncement from on high, but a gradual revelation of each person's true interior nature by allowing it to come out as external restraints and inhibitions are gradually withdrawn.
In Scripture, the "Last Judgment" is sometimes also called the "end of the age." Some have translated this as the "end of the world," which carries a more dramatic meaning than was intended. As will be shortly shown from scripture passages, the Last Judgment is not the end of the world, but the end of one state of the spiritual church, and the beginning of a new era, or state.
In fact, there have already been several "last" judgments on the church.
The Most Ancient Church's judgment was the Flood
The Ancient Church's judgment was the tower of Babel
The Israelitish Church's judgment was the crucifixion and resurrection
The birth of Jesus Christ, and their rejection of Him, was the final or last judgment on the Israelitish Church. This final judgment of the Jewish Church was the main topic of the Old Testament prophets.
Just as the final judgment on the Jewish Church was prophesied in the Old Testament, so what we usually call the Last Judgment on the Christian Church was also prophesied in the New Testament, especially in the 24th Chapter of Matthew and in the whole of the book of Revelation.
While the Lord was on earth and establishing the Christian Church, He could see that the combined effects of the doctrine of the Trinity invented in 325 at the Council of Nicea, and the doctrine of salvation by faith alone (introduced as a formal doctrine of the Christian Church by Martin Luther in the 16th century), would eventually destroy the Christian church which He had established. So He predicted its final judgment, and eventual return as the spirit of truth to establish a New Christian Church.
Let us take a moment and look at some Old Testament prophecies that speak of the final judgment that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, was coming to make on the Jewish Church:
In the 18th chapter of Genesis, as Abraham argues for the cities of Sodom and Gommorah which Jehovah is about to destroy because of their wickedness, he calls God the Judge of all the earth, and therefore, all the people in it. He says, "Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25)
But if God was recognized as the judge of the earth, He was seen as an angry, vengeful God by David, the Psalmist: "You shall make them as a fiery oven in the time of Your anger; The LORD shall swallow them up in His wrath, And the fire shall devour them. Their offspring You shall destroy from the earth, And their descendants from among the sons of men. For they intended evil against You; They devised a plot which they are not able to perform." (Psalm 21:9-11)
The prophets could not tell exactly when God was coming to make this judgment, but one thing was abundantly clear, that God would reward the good, and the evil would be severely punished:
"For evildoers shall be cut off; But those who wait on the LORD, They shall inherit the earth. For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more; Indeed, you will look diligently for his place, But it shall be no more." (Psalm 37:9,10)
"For the LORD loves justice, And does not forsake His saints; They are preserved forever, but the descendants of the wicked shall be cut off." (Psalm 37:28)
Warned so often in such clear language, there was little excuse for the evils to continue unless they truly were the intention of the heart.
The prophecies were clear.
The king was coming, and He was coming to judge all people, judge them against the standard of His truth:
"For He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth. He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with His truth." (Psalm 96:13)
"For He is coming to judge the earth. With righteousness He shall judge the world, and the peoples with equity." (Psalm 98:9)
And the king did come, although not in the way that was expected. Rather than angry and vengeful, the king came with gentleness and compassion; healing, forgiving, and teaching.
Jesus Christ came to bring the truth to a world that thirsted for it.
Once He taught the truth, it was then up to the hearers to decide what to do with it. Should they hearken and change their lives? Should they scoff, and return to their old ways? The choice was theirs.
Jesus brought truth, and the Jewish Church judged itself against the rock of truth, and was found wanting. The way they treated Jesus Christ corresponded to the way they had been treating the truths of the Word for generations. Given one last chance, they failed the test, and the Christian Church was established to take their place.
As the Lord was establishing the Christian Church, He could see elements in it that would eventually lead to its failure, particularly the arguments over the nature of His own divinity, and the question of salvation by faith alone.
Before we make any assumptions, or leap to any conclusions, let us first see what He Himself taught about the matter in the New Testament.
It is interesting that in about half the references to the "end of the age" in the gospels actually refer to the personal Last Judgment referred to above. (Mt. 13:39, 13:49) They are a part of the body of parables where the Lord was teaching about the kingdom of heaven by comparing it to common occupations of those days such as farming and fishing. "The kingdom of heaven is like a harvest" or "a dragnet" He said, teaching that life in this world eventually ends for everyone, when the course of your life will be judged. It was the "end of the age," meaning the end of the state of life in the natural world for those individuals.
However, when He was on the Mt. of Olives with His disciples, they came to him "privately" asking for Him to tell them when the judgment would come, and what would the signs of His coming and the end of the age be. (See Mt. 24:3 ff.) His answer, telling of the tribulation of the age, of earthquakes and famine, of the sun and moon and stars falling to earth before the Son of Man is seen coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, is very similar to the visions recorded by John in the book of Revelation.
This is an important point in understanding the nature of the Last Judgment: Jesus predicted certain events would be the sign which John later Himself saw in his visions of the spiritual world. Jesus predicted certain things; John later saw them in the spiritual world. The obvious conclusion is that the judgment that Jesus taught about was to take place in the spiritual world, not in the natural world!
When seen as a spiritual event, suddenly the whole nature of the Last Judgment and the Second Coming takes on a new aspect.
How could the Sun and the stars "fall to earth" when in fact they each are a million times bigger than the earth? But if the last judgment is a spiritual event, then the Sun, moon, and stars are seen as symbols, false ideas that have been replaced, pushed out by truths from the Lord.
If the Last Judgment is a spiritual event, then each person can enter spiritual life when they die, as Jesus Himself taught, and do not have to wait "until the last day" as some churches teach.
It is also interesting that in over one hundred and twenty collected passages that speak about the Last Judgment or the end of the age, not one of them said that anyone would be judged or found worthy on the basis of their faith. On the other hand, there were quite a few that said "For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works." (Mt. 16:27, Rev. 20:12, 22:12)
The descriptions of the Second Coming are consistent throughout the New Testament in that they usually say that the Son of God will return either with or in the clouds of heaven. (Mt. 24:30, 26:64, Mk. 14:62, Lk. 21;27, Act. 1:9, 1:11, Rev. 1:7)
As we have said before, if we understand that the Last Judgment and Second Coming are spiritual events, they can be seen from a spiritual sense, understood through the symbols that are used.
"Clouds" are often used in the Word to represent the literal sense of the Word.
For example, the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle where the ark containing the Ten Commandments was kept, was continually filled with clouds. The Jews understood this to mean the Divine presence with them, as it was related to the pillar of cloud which stood over the tabernacle by day. The holy of holies in Solomon's temple was also filled with cloud.
The reason for this is that cloud obscures the vision, and the Israelitish Church saw the Word obscurely, they were blinded to the moral and spiritual things within by their strict adherence to the letter of the law. And so, in the New Testament, clouds were used as a symbol of that strict adherence to the letter of scripture.
The Lord taught that He would return in the "clouds of heaven" because He was teaching that once people became aware of the moral and spiritual sense within the Word, they could see the Lord in it. In other words, He was not coming in person, but in the Word as people began to really understand and see the wonderful Divine truths which it contained--they would literally see the Lord in the Word, or figuratively, in the "clouds of heaven."
In the second sermon of this series, we will be looking at some events and ideas in the Christian Church as it developed that fulfilled the prophecies of the New Testament, and led to the actual events of the Second Coming.