The Second Coming of the Lord
by Rev. F. E. Gyllenhaal
The disciples believed in the Lord's second coming. The Lord had told them of His going away from them, that He would soon be put to death on the cross, and of His return to them and to the world. They believed Him, as child believes his or her father, not even doubting His words. Though they did not understand what He meant, they asked: "When shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the, world?" The Lord's reply is contained in all that which He said as recorded in the 24th and 25th chapters in Matthew, but particularly in His words: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be broken; and then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He shall send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matthew 24: 29-31).
Did the disciples understand the Lord's reply? The Lord spoke at great length about His second coming, what He said being written in the 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew; but it is nowhere said that the disciples understood His words. Their failure to understand them appears in what the Gospel of John tells of the Lord's further promise of coming again - a promise given after His resurrection - in the Acts of the Apostles, in the Epistles of Paul to the first converts to Christianity, and from the common belief of Christians ever since.
The Gospel of John, in its last chapter, relates that the Lord, appearing in His resurrection body to the disciples in the spiritual world, said to Peter: "If I will that John stay in the world until I come, what is that to thee?" Then, turning to John, the Lord said, "Follow thou Me." (John 21: 21, 22 as quoted in Apocalypse Explained 785: 5). Note that the Lord did not tell Peter to follow Him, as appears from the English of the Authorized Version, but told John to follow Him. And though these words were spoken by the Lord in the spiritual world, and were heard only spiritually, still the disciples understood them to mean that John would live on earth until after the Lord had come again. So they expected the second coming to happen soon. But the Lord spoke in a parable, His words meaning the survival of charity and good works, and not of John.
The same is true of what is said about the second coming in the Acts and in the Epistles. Those books are not portions of the Word, yet they are useful books. The Writings say they were written before the Gospels, also that the Christian Church was begun by means of them; and from them it is evident that the Lord's second coming was daily expected. (See Acts 1: 10, 11; I Thessalonians 4: 16-18; Document 224, which is the third letter of Swedenborg to Dr. Beyer, in Tafel's Documents Concerning Swedenborg.) What is said in the Acts of the Lord's return, namely, that He should "come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven," obviously was seen in the spiritual world when the Lord, at the end of forty days after His resurrection, made His last recorded appearance to His disciples and others who were in Galilee, and there and then had their spiritual faculties opened; and the words were spoken by two angels.
If anyone really thinks about what is written in the passages just quoted or else referred to, he or she should realize that the literal meaning is such as to be impossible of happening; therefore there must be a spiritual meaning for people on earth, a meaning that can be completely fulfilled, that is, can happen and satisfy the understanding of everyone. This is shown in a summary of the spiritual meaning of the text, as follows: "Here His coming does not mean His coming in person, but that He was then to reveal Himself in the Word that He is Jehovah, the Lord of the heaven and earth, and that He alone is to be adored by all in His New Church, which is meant by the New Jerusalem; and to this end He has now opened the internal or spiritual sense of the Word, in which sense the Lord is everywhere treated of" (AE 870: 2).
This teaching enables us to understand clearly the Gospel prophecies of the second coming; and, together with other doctrine, it rescues all who will use it from the numerous false and fantastic ideas about the Lord's second coming that have been advanced in the Christian Church. On the firm rock of this Divine instruction we can view, calmly and unafraid, those old and new Christian interpretations; and so can sympathetically understand even the wrong ideas which have swayed countless people down through the ages from earliest Christian times, and which continue even in present times.. Truly, knowledge is essential to enlightenment; but enlightenment in respect to spiritual things, and in respect to many human emotions and actions, requires a special kind of knowledge which can be given to people only by Divine revelation.
In the Epistles of Paul we note that the expectation of the second coming was feverishly eager, and the history of the Christian religion shows that it has been so at various times since those days. The event was awaited with a mixture of fear and joy. There was fear of the destruction of heaven and earth, of the loss of everything worldly, of not being among the elect (or those who would be taken into the Lord's everlasting kingdomthe one hundred and forty-four thousand mentioned in the 7th and 14th chapters of Revelation) ; for the Gospels especially were regarded as literally true. The joy was over expected rewards because of a persuasion of complete relief from afflictions and miseries, from difficulties and work; over expectation of life in heaven (even of a life there without the need of working) ; over thought of again seeing the Lord. To countless people the Lord's promise of coming again has been as the distant light of a refuge in dense darkness, as a last hope in a world of despair; perhaps because the old, enslaving conditions were to be completely removed and a new world with a new life was to be given. Even the impossible ideas of Christian theology kept alive hope of the Lord's return; and by them there was some measure of protection against evil, of persuaded resistance to evils of various kinds, of leading from threatening worse states to milder ones.
But why the delay in the fulfilment of the promise? Why the withholding of plain explanations of His promise by the Lord Himself? What seems to us delay is not to be measured by the impatience of man. Divine order, whether in spiritual or in natural things, requires successive and often slow growth to maturity and fruition, and to fulfilment with its newness of form and of life. Peopleís freedom, as Divinely and forever preserved in their "as of self" ability, needed an accumulation of knowledges capable of dispelling the clouds of ignorance as to natural phenomena before they could be rescued from ignorance of spiritual things. The naturalrational mind had to be provided with the means of becoming genuinely rational before the means for the formation and functioning of the spiritualrational mind could be provided.
This is the order of all progress. The trend always is upward, an ascent by planes that serve successively as new foundations. This is the order of man's conscious life, of his "as of himself." At the same time, but unnoticed by man, there is a descent from above; an inflowing of something from the Lord, from which the man lives, and which produces every effect; but this can work in a man only on the foundations he "as of himself" lays one by one, and on which he ever builds anew, inspired by the new visions he receives from time to time in the course of his progress heavenward.
How grateful we should be, then, and how greatly we should rejoice, over the Divine revelation of the accomplishment of the second coming! But is the joy of expecting and hoping for something greater than the joy of getting what was wanted? Does the joy of fulfilment lack something of the vitality of anticipation? Does hope fulfilled end all hope? Does the fact that the Lord has made His second coming - the belief that the complete written Word has been given, the belief that the crowning and therefore last Church has been established - deprive us of a sufficiently strong incentive to go forward, deprive us of a goal for which to strive?
This is never the case in respect to anything spiritual and Divine. After a game is won there can be no longer the hope of winning it, but there can be the new hope of winning the next game. What is spiritual and Divine, however, is always above and beyond us. For the spiritual and the Divine have within themselves a power that always is uplifting, a power of turning the mind upward, of expanding it, of renewing its hunger for knowledge; intelligence, wisdom, justice, and righteousness. The Divine itself is life itself; therefore its works are stimulative of life, of aspirations, of ceaseless activity, of perpetual desire for new things, new truths about life and the Lord. This Divine quality is perpetually shown in everything spiritual, because the spiritual is an accommodation of the Divine to human perception, awareness, and application. Therefore the fulfilment of the promise of a second coming deprives men of nothing, but, on the contrary, gives to them in greater abundance what is spiritual and Divine, and has the fertile seeds of ever new inspirations and aspirations.
What a new world the Lord's first coming opened to mankind! It produced a new civilization with possibilities of spiritual life on earth undreamed of before His birth on earth. The corruptions of that civilization have been man's doing in opposition to Divinely revealed teaching about what is good and true. The second coming has again revealed the sublime possibilities of another new civilization; has given Divine doctrine applicable to all human needs, such as to make possible the realization of the kingdom of heaven on earth. But as before, as it ever has been since the creation of the world, man's own actions, his freely chosen application of the Divine doctrine to his daily life, is required for the attainment of the new world, for the production of the new civilization. There never is any fulfilment of a Divine promise in the sense of its blessings being only for the enjoyment of a certain age; for the fulfilment is timeless, ever renewing itself.
There have been two comings of the Lord. Both belong to the past of human history, but they also belong to the present and the future of every person. The second coming was when the Lord gave the internal sense of the Word of the Old and New Testaments. That revealed internal sense we call the Writings. Such is the clear meaning of the whole doctrine of the Writings, as is evident from these two quotations: "The Lord at this day is performing a redemption which He began in the year 1757, together with the Last judgment which was then performed. This redemption has continued from that time to this. The reason is, because at this time is the second coming of the Lord; and a New Church is to be instituted" (TCR 115). "This second coming of the Lord is effected by a man before whom He has manifested Himself in person and whom He has filled with His Spirit to teach the doctrines of the New Church through the Word from Him" (TCR 779).
The Divine and spiritual qualities of both comings cause them to be forever repeated spiritually, though not as they first happened naturally, or to be experienced by every person who is willing to receive the Lord and to be redeemed and saved by Him. Essentially, therefore, the Lord's comings are always in the present, even in the future, as a person longs to experience them, to have their Divine purposes effected in themselves. They assure us of all that truly is. They are like the cruse of oil that never dried up.
But the second coming should make us rejoice, not only because of what it gives, but also because of what it requires of us. Its joy is not only the emotion which may be stirred by receiving a gift, but the thrill that passes from the heart throughout the body in response to a demand for energy. It is good to thank the Lord when we feel that our path is being smoothed for us and that we are being led heavenward. But the true soul, the valiant person, thanks the Lord more joyously when he or she becomes assured that something eternally useful, something to be enjoyed perpetually, is expected of them and can be done by them.
The internal sense of the Word and the Heavenly Doctrine given in the Writings by the Lord in His second coming make clear the real purposes of life, teach the manner of their accomplishment, and supply the means for attaining the goal of life. It it such knowledge that we need in order to rise above the appearance of a world which has been darkened by humankindís selfishness and conceit. Without such knowledge we see only a temporary life on earth, a life that to many is only hardship, want, and misery. But the Heavenly Doctrine of the second coming reveals an eternal life of ever increasing opportunity for doing uses, in which opportunities we find the only enjoyment and happiness possible to men.
The Heavenly Doctrine, which is given in the Writings, enables us to look upward and ever forward; and by our striving to follow in its light toward the endless visions is unfolds, we gradually rise above the world's darkness and strife to the eternal kingdom of God, where every moment of life has its heavenly joy, and where the communion of saints becomes ever a more blessed communion. Such has ever been the promise of the Creator and Heavenly Father, a promise He has always kept. It has been revealed to mankind in many ways, in many different expressions of thought; for the most part joined with the promise of His coming, of His presence, as in His words when on earth: "If ye love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever; even the spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him; but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I shall not leave you comfortless; I will come to you" (John 14: 15-18).
Rev. F. E. Gyllenhaal, New Church Life 1952;72:265-269