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|THE ADVENT HOPE FOR HUMAN
THE IMMINENCE AND
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
I stood on a platform of Romes railway station waiting to catch the 2:30 p.m. express train for Florence. As the scheduled time arrived and passed, I found myself nervously shifting my eyes from the watch to the railroad tracks hoping to catch a distant glimpse of the expected train, but no train was in sight. How much longer would I have to wait? Half an hour? One hour? Why is the train delayed? Is it because of a mechanical malfunction, a power failure, or perhaps a sudden strike, not uncommon in Italy?
For almost two millennia now, many earnest Christians have agonized over a different type of "delay": the apparent delay in the Return of their Lord. They have prayed: "Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev 22:20). When the pain and problems of this present life seemed unbearable, may have cried, like the martyrs in Revelation (6:10), "How long, O Lord?"
How can the passing of almost twenty centuries be reconciled with the New Testament proclamation of the imminent Return of Christ? As the twenty-first century approaches, is it really rationally possible to believe and live in the expectation of the imminent Second Advent?
Objective of Chapter. This chapter will attempt to answer some of these vital questions by examining the overall Biblical teaching regarding the time element of the Parousia. A correct understanding of the time of the Advent can save believers from misguided hopes and expectations.
The specific objective of this chapter is twofold. First, to verify how the tension between the imminence and distance of the Advent Hope is expressed in the Old and New Testaments. Second, to consider some possible solutions to the imminence/distance tension.
PART ONE: IMMINENCE/DISTANCE OF THE ADVENT
I. Imminence/Distance of the Advent in the Old Testament
In the New Testament the expectation of the Second Advent is expressed in two different, seemingly contradictory perspectives: imminence and distance. The tension between these two perspectives has caused considerable confusion and has given rise to divergent schools of thought regarding the Parousia. Let us note first of all how this tension is already present in the Old Testament.
Amos, one of the earliest prophets, announces the day of the Lord (Amos 5:18-20) in the context of imminent divine judgments upon Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Moab, Judah, and Israel (Amos 1:3 to 2:6). Jerusalem will be destroyed by fire (Amos 2:5) and Israel will be razed by Assyria and Egypt (Amos 3:9-11). Beyond this impending divine visitation, Amos sees a more distant (eschatological) Day of the Lord which he describes as a day of universal judgment (Amos 7:4; 8:8-9; 9:5), and a day of salvation and restoration (Amos 9:13-15).
The same tension between the nearness and the distance of the Day of the Lord is found in the message of Zephaniah. The prophet announces that "the great day of the Lord is "near, near and hastening fast" (Zeph 1:14).1 This imminent divine visitation is associated with destruction at the hands of some unnamed foe to come upon several nations, including Judah (Zeph 2:1 to 3:7).
In the context of this impending historical judgment, Zephaniah urges the people to wait for the more distant day of the Lord: "Therefore wait for me," says the Lord, "for the day when I arise as a witness . . . to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation" (Zeph 3:8). The purpose of this final visitation is not only judgment but also salvation both for the Gentiles and for Israel (Zeph 3:9-20).
The prophet Isaiah announces the nearness of the Day of the Lord with reference to the destruction of Babylon by the Medes: "Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come" (Is 13:6).2 In the context of this impending historical judgment, Isaiah describes the final Day of the Lord which will be accompanied by the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars (Is 13:10) and which "will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity" (Is 13:11).
The sense of distance of this final Day of the Lord is sometimes expressed by Isaiah and other prophets by indefinite phrases such as "in the latter days," "in that day," "afterwards" (Is 2:2, 20; cf. Hos 3:5; Ezek 38:16; Jer 30:8; Joel 2:28-29).
II. Imminence and Distance of the Advent in the New Testament
The tension between the imminent expectation and the future realization of the Advent Hope is found even more explicitly in the New Testament. Besides the "imminence passages" examined in the previous chapter, numerous other verses underline the imminence of Christs Return. We shall mention only a few noteworthy examples. To the Romans Paul writes: "For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand: (Rom 13:11-12; cf. 1 Cor 7:29; Phil 4:5).3
James admonishes believers to "be patient" and not to grumble "for the coming of the Lord is at hand . . . the Judge is standing at the doors" (James 5:8-9). Similarly, Peter urges believers to "keep sane and sober" because "the end of all things is at hand:" (1 Pet 4:7; cf. Heb 10:25). The last book of the Bible opens by announcing "what must soon take place" (Rev 1:1) and closes by affirming, "Surely I am coming soon" (Rev 22:20).4
Sayings. Accompanying these "imminence verses" there are other passages which place the Parousia in a more distant future. A sense of distance is suggested by the precursory Advent signs given by Christ. FOr example, in Matthew 24:14 Jesus says:: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come." The time involved in reaching the whole world with the Gospel as well as the words "and then" imply the elapsing of considerable time before the Second Advent.
Distance is also implied by the time required for the fulfillment of the various pre-Advent conditions predicted, such as intensification of warfare, natural disasters, and increased wickedness. Distance is particularly emphasized by the statement that even after the fulfillment of these conditions "the end is not yet" (Mark 13:7; Matt 24:6).
Parables. Several of Christs parables point to a long waiting time between His death and His Return. Matthew links the Olivet discourse directly with the parables of the faithful and the unfaithful servants, the Ten Virgins, and the Talents, which all suggest the elapsing of considerable time before the Lords Return. The unfaithful servant said: "My master is delayed" (Matt 24:48) and began living immorally and intemperately.5 The master rebuked the servant, not because of his awareness of the delay, but rather because of his irresponsible conduct during the delay.
In the parable of the Ten Virgins, "the bridegroom was delayed, [and] they all slumbered and slept" (Matt 25:5). The focus is on the conduct of the virgins during the delay of the bridegroom. The same point is made in the parable of the Talents, when it says: "Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them" (Matt 25:19).6
The similar parable of the Pounds, according to Luke was related by Christ "because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately" (Luke 19:11). To correct this misunderstanding, the parable speaks of a nobleman who went into a far country and then returned to settle accounts with his servants. The distant destination of the nobleman suggests that his return might have been a long way off in time.
A similar point is made in the parable of the Faithful and Wise Steward (Luke 12:41-48). The unfaithful servants statement: "My master is delayed in coming" (v. 45) implies that there will indeed by a "delay" which will differentiate between the faithful and the unfaithful stewards.
Other parables found in Matthew 13, such as that of the Tares, the Mustard Seed, and the Leaven, also suggest the possibility of a long lapse of time before the End. The Tares, that is the unbelievers, are to coexist to the end side by side with believers; the Mustard Seed, that is the small band of Christs followers, are to become an impressive group; the Leaven, that is the Kingdom of God, hidden initially, is to become manifest.
The elements of growth, development, and manifestation which are present in these parables suggest the passing of considerable time before Christs Return. The conclusion that emerges is that, though Jesus proclaimed His Return as imminent, He also allowed for a considerable time to elapse before its occurrence.
Paul. The same tension between imminence and distance is found in Pauls writings. We noted earlier that in Romans 13:12 the Apostle speaks of the nearness of the end ("the night is far gone, the day is at hand"). Yet in the preceding chapters (9 to 11) Paul describes how the ingathering of the Gentiles will ultimately lead to the salvation of Israel (Rom 11:25-26). Obviously, the outworking of this process presupposes the elapse of considerable time before the End.
Similarly, in his letters to the Thessalonians Paul urges Christians to "keep awake and be sober" (1 Thess 5:6) because the day may come at any moment, yet he also begs the same believers "not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited" (2 Thess 2:2) because "that day will not come, unless" (v. 3) certain developments first occur.
Revelation. As noted earlier, Revelation opens and closes announcing the soon-Coming of the Lord (Rev 1:1; 22:20; cf. 3:11). Yet throughout the book there is expressed a sense of long waiting before the Parousia. The martyrs cry: "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood?" (Rev 6:10).7 The answer they receive is "to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethen should be complete" (Rev 6:11).
This process presupposes a waiting period which could be rather long. The same thought is conveyed in the vision of the Two Witnesses and the Woman, both of whom are promised a period of 1260 days during which the former were to prophesy and the latter was to be protected (Rev 11:3; 12:6).
In summary we might say that the New Testament presents the Second Coming of Christ in a seemingly paradoxical tension: imminent and yet possibly distant.
PART TWO: POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
How can this tension between the imminence and distance of the Advent Hope be resolved? The problem is not only hermeneutical, that is, how to interpret apparently contradictory texts, but also existential, that is, how to live in the consciousness of the nearness of Christs Coming while accepting the possibility of a long waiting time.
1. A Crisis of Faith
Some scholars explain the imminence/distance Advent-tension as being the result of a crisis of faith experienced by first-century Christians. This crisis was provoked by the fact that Christ did not return as expected within the lifetime of His generation. To explain away their disappointment, Christians recast their Advent Hope in an unknown and possibly distant future time.8
No Bitter Disappointment. No doubt there are traces in the New Testament of an early expectation of Christs Coming. But there are no indications suggesting that Christians experienced a bitter disappointment which forced them to recast their hopes into a more distant future-fulfillment of the Advent Hope.
There is no chapter in the history of New Testament Christianity like that of the Millerite movement, which is called "The Great Disappointment." When Christ did not return as expected in 1844, the vast majority of Millerites gave up their Advent Hope. But no traces can be found in early Christianity of a mass apostasy due to Christs failure to return before the passing away of the apostolic generation.
No Crisis of Faith. A crisis of the Advent Hope is to be expected if such hope is based upon the presumption of knowing the date of the Second Advent, rather than on the experience of salvation already provided by Christs First Advent. The New Testament Church was reconciled to a possibly long waiting time, because she was already experiencing the "first fruits" (Rom 8:23) of the future Advent "harvest" of blessings.
As long as a believer experiences in the present the blessings of salvation already provided through Christs death, resurrection, and heavenly ministry, any apparent "delay" of the Second Advent cannot lead to a crisis of faith. There are no traces in the New Testament Church of a crisis of faith regarding the Parousia. The Advent Hope of the earliest Christians was not shaken by any perception of an apparent "delay," because, as Paul eloquently puts it, "I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil 1:6).
2. The Existential Time of the Advent Hope
Empirical Versus Existential Time. Distinguishing between two notions of time can help us resolve the New Testament tension between the imminence and distance of Christs Return. The first notion is empirical time which is measured by the clock. This is the common notion of time. The person who flies from Chicago to Los Angeles looks at the watch from time to time to see how many more hours or minutes still remain before the arrival. This empirical time is abstract, impersonal, and it can be fixed and measured with accuracy.
The second notion of time is existential time or perhaps "lovers time." This is the time which exists in the world of love and is measured not by the clock but by love and faith. In the world of love and hope time is real but it "flies."
The person who waits only for empirical, chronological time to pass finds such time to be unbearably slow. On the other hand, the person who experiences time in reference to a beloved person finds that time does in fact rush by. Of Jacob it is said that he "served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her" (Gen 29:20).9
The notion of existential time experienced in a love-relationship can help us resolve the Biblical tension between the nearness and the remoteness of Christs Return. This tension vanishes when the event expected is the Return of a beloved Person. "Beloved," write John, "we are Gods children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). The Advent is the occasion to see "face to face" the One whom now "we see in a mirror dimly" (1 Cor 13:12).
Measuring Time by Faith. The Christian eagerly awaits not an impersonal happening, but rather the Return of his beloved Lord. This faith enables the believer to live in the expectation of the imminent Coming of the Lord while conscious at the same time of the possibility of a long waiting period. Two persons who love one another have reason to hope to see one another soon, even if the separation is going to be chronologically rather long.
When I left my fiancée in Italy to come to the USA for my seminary training, we bade farewell to one another saying: "Time is going to pass quickly. Soon we are going to be together again." We knew that we would be separated for at least a year, but we were measuring time not by the calendar, but rather by our love and faith. Since our lives were illuminated by the certainty of our future reunion, we chose to live in the awareness not of the long months of waiting but of the imminent reunion. Thus "soon" for us meant primarily a certain reunion.
This notion of time experienced in a love relationship offers us an important clue to understand the Biblical tension between the imminence and the distance of the Advent Hope. When a love relationship exists between the believer and Christ, living in the joyful expectation of His imminent Return becomes a natural necessity. To accept the present salvation that Christ offers us, without believing in His imminent Return, would be like becoming engaged without ever hoping to get married (Titus 2:13).
A Little While. The existential time experienced in a love relationship enables us to understand the significance of such words of Jesus as those recorded in John 16:16: "A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me" (cf. John 14:18-19). By describing the time that would elapse before His Return as "a little while" (mikron), Christ was not giving His disciples some kind of time measurement to calculate the date of His Return, but rather He was assuring them of the certainty of their future Reunion. In other words, Christ was speaking not of clock time but of lovers time.
The waiting time mentioned by Christ is "a little while," not because it consists of only a few years, but because during His absence we can live intensively in the reality of His love and the certainty of His Return. A short waiting time may seem like an eternity when one lives in the fear of uncertainty. On the other hand, years may seem like days when lived intensively and serenely in the certainty of the love of the expected person.
3. The Unity of the Advent Hope
A second important concept which helps us to resolve the imminence-distance tension of the Parousia is the essential unity which exists in the New Testament between the First and the Second Advents. This unity is expressed in several significant ways.
Dual Meaning of Words. One way already noticed is the dual meaning attached to the three terms Parousia, Revelation, and Appearing, which are used in the New Testament to designate both the past and the future Coming of Christ. This dual meaning indicates that for the New Testament believer the future Advent, though possibly distant, could be intensely felt as imminent, because it was conceptually and existentially linked to the reality of Christs First Coming which inaugurated the End-time age.
The End of the Age. The unity of the Advent Hope is also expressed by such phrases as "the last days" and "the end of the age." Today, when we hear the expression "the end of the age" (Heb 9:26), we generally think not of the Incarnation but of the Parousia. In the New Testament, however, "the end of the age" is the age inaugurated by Christ when He came the first time "to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26). Such age is also referred to as "the last days" (Acts 2:17), or "the end of times" (1 Pet 1:20). Christ inaugurated this final age by offering to believers the down payment of their future Advent inheritance.
The Second Advent is near because the believer already enjoys a foretaste of the blessings and privileges of the End-time. Having already experienced through the indwelling Spirit a taste of "the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come" (Heb 6:5), the believer lives in the expectancy of the imminent consummation of salvation. THus, the chronological distance to the Coming of the Lord is shortened through the initial experience of the ultimate blessing of the Kingdom.
The Lords Prayer. The Lords Prayer provides another example of how the New Testament reconciles the tension between the nearness and distance of the Kingdom. The Prayer opens with the petition "Thy kingdom come" and closes with the doxology "For thine is the Kingdom" (Matt 6:10, 13).10 Thus, the Kingdom inaugurated by the Advent is both future and present, far and near. The distance between the two, as Paul S. Minear notes, "is measured primarily not by space and time but by such specific concerns as the accomplishment of Gods will, the gift of daily bread, the forgiveness of sin and the deliverance from the evil one."11
The Lords Supper. The unity of the Advent Hope is expressed vividly through the symbolic significance of the Lords Supper. The drinking of the cup and the partaking of the bread are viewed as a proclamation of "the Lords death till he comes" (1 Cor 11:26). The distance between the Passion and the Parousia is shortened because the two events are seen as inseparable.
When partaking of the Lords Supper, the believer accepts symbolically the present salvation which is both past and future, Passion and Parousia. Though the Parousia may be far away in terms of chronological time, yet it is near in terms of salvation time, because its reality is already a present certainty and experience.
There is an essential unity among the events of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Heavenly Ministration, and Parousia. This unity enables New Testament writers to reconcile the apparent tension between the imminence and the distance of the Second Advent, for it is the same expected Savior who has already appeared and who is presently appearing before the Father on our behalf, who ultimately "will appear a second time . . . to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb 9:24-28).12
4. Moral Urgency of the Advent Hope
A third important reconciling clue is the ethical purpose of the nearness-remoteness tension. If Christs Return had been tied to specific signs which made it possible to calculate chronologically either the nearness or the remoteness of the Event, then any preparation would be conditioned by the date factor. Knowing the date would tempt some to postpone to tomorrow the preparation that should be done today.
Preparation, not Calculation. The tension between imminence and distance fulfills a vital ethical function. It discourages date-setting and it calls for constant watchfulness and readiness. In the famous Olivet Discourse we find two distinct emphases: nearness and remoteness. Nearness is suggested by the significance of the given signs, namely, "that he is near, at the very gates" (Mark 13:29). Remoteness is indicated by the time needed for the signs to be fulfilled and more explicitly by the statement that even when they occur "the end is not yet" (Mark 13:7).
The purpose of this tension is obviously ethical, namely, to discourage speculation and calculation of the date and to encourage constant preparation for the Lords Return. Much of the Olivet Discourse is cast in the form of exhortation: "Take heed" (Mark 13:5, 9, 23, 33), "Do not be alarmed" (v. 7), "Do not be anxious" (v. 11), "Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house will come" (v. 35). These exhortations highlight the purpose of the time references, namely, to encourage preparation and endurance, not speculation.
The generic nature of the Advent signs provides another indication. Earthquakes, famines, political conflicts, and worldwide Gospel preaching are the kind of signs which can hardly be used to date the particular moment in history when Christ will come. They characterize the conditions existing between the First and the Second Advent. Their purpose, as the next chapter will show, is not to make date-calculations possible, but to nourish the hope of the imminent Return of the Lord, and thus to encourage constant readiness and watchfulness.
Constant Readiness. It is important to recognize the close link between the predictions of the Advent and the ethical concerns of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Like the Old Testament prophets, New Testament writers speak of nearness and delay, not to suggest a method for constructing a chronology, but to urge repentance and readiness. The "near" indicates that the Advent is not merely a futuristic possibility beyond our horizons, but a present, inescapable, and decisive challenge to live now in readiness for the Lords Return.
The servant who chose to live with reference to a distant return of his master, saying: "My master is delayed in coming" (Luke 12:45), is the servant who became unfaithful, irresponsible and immoral in his conduct. By contrast, the servant who lived in the constant expectation of his masters return was found faithfully discharging his duties.
These observations indicate, then, that the tension between imminence and distance is an essential ingredient of the Advent Hope. By discouraging date-setting, this tension challenges believers to constant readiness and to experience in the present the certainty of the future Coming of the Lord.
5. The Prophetic Perspective of the Advent Hope
A fourth significant concept to understand the tension between the imminence and distance of the Advent Hope is provided by what has been called "prophetic perspective." This perspective enabled the prophets to hold the present and the future, the near and the far, in a dynamic relationship.
Anticipation of the Future. Isaiah 13, for example, as already noted, describes the distant Day of the Lord in the setting of the imminent destruction of Babylon (vv. 9-11). The Day of the Lord was near because present divine interventions were seen as an anticipation of the final divine visitation. Each judgment and each deliverance was seen by the prophets as a partial realization of the ultimate accomplishments of the Day of the Lord.
The same prophetic perspective is present in New Testament teaching. In Mark 13 the imminent destruction of Jerusalem (vv. 14-23) is presented in the immediate context of the Coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27). The first event is viewed as an anticipation of the final judgment to take place at the Parousia. As noted earlier, in Mark 91-3 the immediate ("after six days"v. 2) glorious Transfiguration of Christ, is viewed as an anticipatory manifestation of the coming Kingdom.
What or When? It is difficult for ustrained to measure time quantitatively rather than qualitativelyto appreciate the prophetic perspective.13 We measure time with our clocks and calendars in hours, days, months, and years in order to establish with accuracy when an event or action is to take place. In Biblical thought, however, the important question is often not "When?" but "What?"
The disciples asked Jesus "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?" (Mark 13:4). In His answer Christ offers no sign by which the "when" can be calculated. In fact, He emphatically affirms: "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32). What Christ explains is not the "when" but the "what," that will characterize the waiting time.
The characteristic is essentially conflict in the religious, political, social, and cosmic order. Amid this conflict, Christs followers must proclaim to all nations the Good News of the Kingdom of God (Mark 13:10; Matt 24:14). Human history is not abandoned to evil, but is moving toward the day when the Son of Man will come to bring all conflicts to an end (Mark 13:26-27).
The triumphs of the Gospel, as well as the present conflicts, are signs that "he is near, at the very gates" (Mark 13:29), because they tell us that the ultimate conflict which will usher in the triumphant Kingdom of God is already transpiring in the present.
Two Extremes. The believer who sees the present conflicts and triumphs as signs that Christ is acting redemptively in the present to bring His future Kingdom to its consummation shares in the prophetic perspective which enables a person to maintain the present and future, the imminence and the distance of the Advent Hope in a balanced, dynamic tension.
The loss of this prophetic perspective results in two major opposite errors. Some are led to abandon the hope of a real future Coming of the Lord, in favor of a present existential realization of Gods Kingdom. Others are led to ignore the present outworking of Gods Kingdom in favor of speculations regarding dates and events related to the Day of the Advent.
To avoid these two extremes, we need to recover the prophetic perspective which enables us to shorten chronological time-spans by looking at the future through the transparency of the present outworkings of God. The Advent of the Lord, though still in the future, yet is near, because the same Lord who has acted and is presently acting redemptively to bring His Kingdom to its consummation on the Day of His Parousia.
Existence of a Tension. The New Testament speaks of the time of the Second Advent in seemingly contradictory terms: imminent and yet possibly distant. We have found that such a tension was not provoked by a crisis of faith when the Lord failed to return within the lifetime of His generation, but rather that it is an essential component of the Biblical Advent Hope.
Function of the Tension. Some of the significant functions of the imminence/distance tension are: (1) to help believers experience in the present the reality of the future; (2) to emphasize the unity among the past, present, and future salvation; (3) to urge not calculation but constant preparation; (4) to encourage a prophetic perspective by which the believer looks at the future through the transparency of the present Advent signs.
At this juncture some questions arise: What are the specific functions of the Advent signs? How do they relate the the imminence/distance tension we have discussed? Do the Advent signs point to the "nearness" of the Second Advent merely in terms of existential certainty or also in terms of temporal closeness? These are some of the important questions to be considered in the next four chapters.
NOTES OF CHAPTER VI
1. Emphasis supplied.
2. Emphasis supplied.
3. Emphasis supplied.
4. All the emphasis in the paragraph is supplied.
5. Emphasis supplied.
6. All the emphasis in the paragraph is supplied.
7. Emphasis supplied.
8. An insightful discussion of this view is found in G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ (Grand Rapids, 1972), pp. 65-95.
9. Emphasis supplied
10. Emphasis supplied.
11. Paul S. Minear, Christian Hope and the Second Coming (Philadelphia, 1954), p. 100.
12. C. E. B. Cranfield acknowledges the relationship between the nearness of the End and the unity in Christs acts: "The clue to the meaning of the nearness of the End is the realization of the essential unity of Gods Saving Acts in Christthe realization that the Events of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Parousia are in a real sense one Event. The foreshortening, by which the Old Testament sees as one divine intervention in the future that which from the viewpoint of the New Testament writers is both past and future, is not only a visual illusion; for the distance actually brings out an essential unity, which is not so apparent from a position in between the Ascension and the Parousia" ("St. Mark 13, "Scottish Journal of Theology, VI [1953}, p. 288.
13. Emphasis supplied.