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Jesus' Coming Delayed - Why?

The near and far away verses explained


                             by

                     Samuele Bacchiocchi



I stood on a platform of Rome's 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 my 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 2,000 years now, many earnest Christians have agonized
over a different type of "delay" - the apparent delay in the
return of the Lord. They have prayed: "Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev.
22:20). When the pain and problems of this present life seemed
unbearable, many 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 (this is
an old article of Dr Sam's, written in the early or middle 80s -
Keith Hunt)is it really rationally possible to believe and live
in the expectation of the imminent Second Advent?

THE IMMINENCE AND DISTANCE OF THE ADVENT

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 per-
spectives has caused considerable confusion and has given rise to
different schools of thought regarding the Parousia (the NT Greek
word for the coming of Christ).

IMMINENCE. 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).
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"
( I 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).

DISTANCE. In contrast to these "imminence verses," several of
Christ's 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 Unfaithful Servants, the Ten
Virgins, and the Talents, which all suggest the elapsing of
considerable time before the Lord's return. The unfaithful
servant said: "My master is delayed" (Matt.24:48) and began
living immorally and intemperately. 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).
The similar parable of the Pounds, according to Luke, was related
by Christ "because they supposed that the kingdom of God as 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.
The same tension between imminence and distance is found in
Paul's 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" certain developments
first occur (v. 3).

In summary, we might say that the New Testament presents the 
Second Coming of Christ in a seemingly paradoxical tension:
imminent yet possibly distant.

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 coming while accepting the possibility of a long
waiting time.

1. CHRONOLOGICAL VERSUS LOVER'S TIME

Distinguishing between two notions of  time can help us resolve
the Testament tension between the imminence and distance of
Christ's return.

The first notion is chronological time which is measured by the
clock. This is the common notion of time. The person who flies
Chicago to Los Angeles looks at his watch from time to time to
see how many more hours or minutes remain before the arrival.
Chronological time is often abstract and impersonal, even though
it can be fixed and measured with accuracy.
The second notion of time is "lover's time." This is the time
which is measured not by the clock but by love and faith. In the
world of love time is real, but it "flies."
The person who waits only for 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).

The notion of lover's time can help us resolve the biblical
tension between the nearness and the remoteness of Christ's
return. This tension vanishes when the event expected is the
return of a beloved Person. "Beloved," writes John. "we are God's
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 Second 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 along
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 fiancee 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 offers us an important clue to understanding
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 (see Titus 2:11-13).

A LITTLE WHILE

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 lover's 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.

2. 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 been the First and the Second
Advents. This unity is expressed in several significant ways.

DUAL MEANING OF WORDS

One is found in 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 Christ's first coming
which inaugurated the end-time age.

THE END OF THE AGE

The unity of Advent Hope is also expressed by such phrases as
"the last days" "the end of the age." Today, when hear the
expression "the end of the age," we generally think not of the
Incarnation but of the Second Advent. 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" ( I 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 LORD'S PRAYER

The Lord's 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). 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 God's will, the gift of daily bread, the
forgiveness of sin, and the deliverance from the evil one."

THE LORD'S SUPPER 

The unity of the Advent Hope is expressed vividly through the
symbolic significance of the Lord's Supper. The drinking of the
cup and the partaking of the bread are viewed as a proclamation
of "the Lord's death till he comes"(1 Cor.11:26). The distance
between the Passion and the Second Coming is shortened because
the two events are seen as inseparable.
When partaking of the Lord's Supper, the believer accepts
symbolically the present salvation which is both past and future,
Passion and Second Coming. Though the Second Coming 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, Heavenly Ministration, and
Second Coming. 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).

3. MORAL URGENCY OF THE ADVENT HOPE

A third important reconciling clue is the ethical purpose of the
nearness-remoteness tension. If Christ's 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 fulfils 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 given signs.
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 ethical, namely, to discourage
speculation and calculation of the date and to encourage constant
preparation for the Lord's 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 Second Advent. their purpose 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 present,
inescapable, and decisive challenge to live now in readiness of
the Lord's 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 master's return was found faithfully
discharging his duties.
These observations indicate 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.

4. THE PROPHETIC PERSPECTIVE
   OF THE ADVENT HOPE

A fourth significant concept in understanding the tension between
the imminence and distance of the Advent Hope is provided by what
as been called "prophetic perspective." This perspective enabled
he 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, describes the distant Day of the Lord in
the setting of the imminent destruction of Babylon (v. 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
he Lord.
The same prophetic perspective is present in New Testament
teaching. In Mark 13, the imminent destruction of Jerusalem (v.
14-23) is presented in the immediate context of the coming of the
Son of Man (v. 24-27). The first event is viewed as an
anticipation of the final judgment to take place at the Second
Advent.

WHAT OR WHEN?

It is difficult for us - trained to measure time quantitatively
rather than qualitatively - to appreciate the prophetic
perspective. 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 of the "what" is essentially conflict in the
religious, political, social, and cosmic order. Amid this
conflict, Christ's 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 3:26, 27).
The triumphs of the gospel in the midst of present conflicts are
signs that the "end is near," because they tell us that the
ultimate triumph of the 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 God's kingdom. Others are led to ignore the
present
outworking of God's 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
outworking God. The Advent of the Lord, though in the future,
yet is near, because the same Lord who has acted in the past is
presently acting redemptively to bring His kingdom to its
consummation on the day of His return.

SUMMARY

EXISTENCE OF THE TENSION

The New Testament speaks of the time of the Second Advent in
seemingly contradictory terms: imminent and possibly distant. We
have found that such a tension 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) help believers experience in the present the
reality of the future; (2) emphasize the continuity between past,
present, and future salvation; (3) to urge constant preparation
not calculation; (4) to encourage prophetic perspective by which
the believer looks at the future through the transparency of the
present Advent signs.

Taken from "The Advent Hope for Human Hopelessness" by Samuele
Bacchiocchi, retired professor of Church History and Theology at
Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI.

To purchase a copy of the book, send a prepaid order ($12.95,
postage paid) to: Biblical Perspectives, Lisa Lane, Berrien
Springs, MI 49103. Scripture quotations were taken front the
Revised Standard Version, emphasis added.

You can email Dr. Sam at: samuele@andrews.edu  OR 
SBacchiocchi@csi.com

His Website is:

www.andrews.edu./~samuele

                              ...............

Entered on Keith Hunt's Website, July 2003


 
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