Even in the first century of our era the delay in the Second Coming troubled some Christians. Their Lord had left them, promising to return "quickly." He had given them portents of His coming and had bidden them to watch and be ready. For a while the expectancy ran hot. Among the Thessalonian believers, for instance, some were so sure of the imminent Parousia that they quit working. 1 As the years wore on, however, many Christians began to doubt. Scoffers mocked even the concept of a Second Coming. Christian perplexity over its apparent failure in creased.2
Those addressed in the epistle to the Hebrews shared this concern. Their spiritual profile, sketched in the opening chapters of the letter, shows how they had grown weary in the Christian way. The apostle over and over admonished them to hold fast, to be patient, to be ware of neglecting or rejecting "so great salvation" (chap. 2:3). Some no longer came to worship services. Some were "wavering," others were "shrinking back" from the promised reward. The relentless passage of the years had made hope grow dim and confidence to slacken.
If His nonreturn in the first generation of the new religion disturbed the followers of Jesus, how much more so after nearly two thousand years of absence. The approach of the third millennium strikes our hearts with bitter poignancy. Our Lord, still apart from us after so long! Surely events have run on in a way undreamed of by the first Christians.
Bluntly stated, the key question is, What has happened since Calvary? If, as the New Testament affirms and Christians pro claim, Calvary climaxed history, how do we ac count for those two thou sand years? The passage of the years is an issue that draws in every human being, believer or not. It is, perhaps, the essential human issue. With it we con front our frailty, our existential vulnerability. How rapidly our own years fly by! Life, which seems so long in childhood, closes in upon us as we approach maturity. We attempt to shrug off the threat of nothingness that begins to raise its ugly visage, but relentlessly the years roll on.
The problem that we have exposed here we cannot ignore. If those flying years—the fact that they had flown—troubled the readers of Hebrews, how much more they bother us. Perhaps our modern world has brought the problem home to us with keener thrust. Not that merely more years have passed and the Parousia has not come, though that itself is troublesome, but beyond this we are probably more conscious of the flow of time. The modern age has brought home to our minds in unparalleled fashion the vast distances of space. And only the infinitudes of time match the infinitudes of distance.
No wonder that so many writers of our day have despaired as they contemplated the enigma of existence, the threat of their own nonbeing, the vast emptiness of the universe.3 Truly, if the apostle is to provide us with a basis for absolute confidence in our age, his sermon to the Hebrews must address this fundamental existential issue.
The apostle writes for his time, not ours. While he does not directly speak to the existential question, he has much of an indirect nature. We may, I think, detect three main lines of argument by which he seeks to reassure those readers concerned by the delay in the Return. We will take up each in order and then consider their helpfulness to our situation.
The promise reiterated
His obvious approach is to reiterate the promise. "Christ, . . . offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time," he reminds them (chap. 9:28).4 Although some Christians grow tired in their religion and don't bother to go to church anymore, the Hebrews are to mutually exhort to love and good works. He told them to encourage "one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (chap. 10:24, 25).
So the apostle knows no theological legerdemain that will annul the Second Coming. For him it is a part of the Christian world view and can be stated without explanation or apology. If the Lord has not come as soon as some Christians expected, that in no way can remove the primitive teaching of the religion—rather, the Day must have drawn so much the nearer.
In two places—both, as we might expect, among the exhortatory sections of Hebrews—he quotes Scripture in support of the promise of the Second Coming. The content of the first, in chapter 10:35-39, shows us the practical nature of his argument. "Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of en durance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.
'For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry; but my righteous one shall live by £ faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.' But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls."
We see here: (1) the certainty of the promise—as definite as Scripture that He "shall not tarry"; (2) the nearness of the promise in "a little while"; and (3) the correct response to the promise—endurance instead of shrinking back.
The second passage strikes a stern chord. Here, in chapter 12:25-29, the promise of the return appears in the context of judgment: "See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. His voice then shook the earth; but now he has promised, 'Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.' This phrase, 'Yet once more,' indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire." The passage elaborates the last words of chapter 10:39—those who "keep their souls."
So the apostle reiterates the promise of the Second Coming without theological elaboration. For him the problem is not theological but personal and spiritual. He sees, as it were, two responses to the fact of the promise of the Return:
Response 1 (undesirable): weariness, doubt, sporadic church attendance, shrinking back to the way of the world. It needs reminding of the certainty of divine judgment on those who refuse to heed the warnings of God.
Response 2 (desirable): confidence in the promise, endurance, mutual encouragement of the Return's drawing near, faith. Result: eternal salvation.
This line of argument still appeals to many Christians. For them it is sufficient that the promise of the Parousia is a clear Biblical doctrine. Their concern is not to question the long delay in the fulfillment of the promise but to apply it to personal Christian living.
Other Christians need more. They would argue that the relentless passage of the years forces us to think about the promise, to consider whether we should understand it in a different way, or whether it still can be taken seriously. Not surprisingly, then, in many Christian bodies the doctrine of the Second Coming has long since ceased to attract serious consideration. While they may mouth the words as part of the early Christian creed, the belief in a personal, literal return of Christ has passed into oblivion, crushed by the tramp of the years.
And for non-Christians the mere reiteration of the promise carries no weight whatsoever. The idea of the Second Coming represents only a gush of early apocalyptic thought, long since proved—by the years—to have been misguided.
The apostle's reasoning in Hebrews, however, opens up two other lines of argument that bear on the problem of the delay. The first centers in his concept of the "real."
The real and the "really real"
Let us make no mistake about it the apostle holds to the reality of the present world. It was, he says, created through the Son (chap. 1:2) an act grasped only by faith (chap. 11:3). That same Son upholds the universe by the word of His power (chap. 1:3). And the Second Coming will shake the present order of creation to its foundations, as we have just noticed (chap. 12:25-29). Thus any philosophy that denies the substantiality of the world— such as classical Hinduism's teaching of maya (illusion)—will not do.
Yet the apostle's thought is more complex. He is not a materialist. While he affirms the reality of the universe as we see and know it, he introduces talk of the "real" beyond the universe we perceive. He contrasts what we call the "real" (the universe) with what is the really real (and which he terms the "real").
We see such a distinction made in his discussion of the heavenly sanctuary. He does not deny the existence of the earthly, hence his brief description of it in chapter 9:1-5, but he rejects it as the "real." God, not man, set up the^'real" or genuine tabernacle (chap. 8:2). It is "the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)"(chap. 9:11). What we call the "real"—the earthly—was but a copy and shadow of the really real (chaps. 8:5; 9:23; 10:1).
An interesting concept of reality emerges. The apostle holds to two separate, parallel "creations," that is, orders of creation or existence. All that we see and know, the empirical world so well measured and probed by science and increasingly subject to the technology of science—our world—is not the highest reality. While it is not a figment of the mind, it is not the ultimate. Our world is the world of man. The "real" is the world of God.
Such a view is, of course, not uncommon. Plato's teaching of the "Ideal" approximates to it. 5 The apostle's conception, however, breaks the Greek pattern. We see in the letter to the Hebrews a strong concern with events in time. That is, the author does not hold to two eternally distinct orders, the lower (ours) being time-bound and the upper (the Ideal or real) being timeless. Instead, the spatial idea of two worlds (creations) is crossed by the temporal one. Thus the real tabernacle comes into its own time; access to it becomes available only after Calvary (chap. 9:8, 9).
The apostle's distinction of the "real" and "really real" reemerges in the closing chapters of Hebrews. As he applies the theological development that climaxes and concludes in the passage ending at chapter 10:18, he encourages his hearers to steadfastness by distinguishing the visible from the invisible. Over and over he makes his point: the visible is but temporary, the invisible is ultimate reality. Notice how often the idea surfaces: the example of Noah, who heeded divine warnings regarding events yet unseen and so was saved (chap. 11:7); the hope of the patriarchs who did not receive what was promised on this earth but sought "a homeland," "a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city" (verses 13-16); Christians who are to run the race of life, "looking to Jesus" (chap. 12:2), i.e., "as seeing him who is invisible" (chap. 11:27). See also chapters 11:8, 10, 11, 19-22, 26, 39, 40; 12:22-24; 13:14.
The thrust is clear. Whether Old Testament or New, the people of God are characterized by their seeing the invisible, which is the really real, because it is of God. They seek for a city, a home land, but not of the present order. Like the heavenly tabernacle, its maker is God, so it is lasting and genuine but not accessible to sensory perception. 6
As with the apostle's argument regarding the heavenly sanctuary, a temporal concept crosses the spatial one. While God has prepared the heavenly city (chap. 11:16), the people of God look forward to it (verse 10, desire it (verse 16), seek it (chap. 13:14). So it is "the city which is to come" (verse 14).
It is apparent that with these ideas we have quite a different way of handling the delay in the Parousia. Instead of a repetition of the promise of the Return, the apostle introduces us to a whole new picture of reality. The concept of two parallel creations, with the "really real" separate, coexistent, and invisible, radically modifies the purely linear (historical) reference. Now what already is guarantees the future. That is, the heavenly city is "to come" because it already exists in the invisible world. As that world is the real, the genuine, the ever lasting, so the winding up of human history is sure.
We come now to the third way in which the Book of Hebrews sheds light on the existential problem, centering in the idea of Christ as King.
The third verse of the sermon to the Hebrews states that the Son, after His work of making purgation of sins, "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high." In three other places chapters 1:13; 8:1; and 10:12—the apostle returns to the idea of Christ as King. These four allusions to the regnant Son call for consideration. They obviously bear directly upon the question of this article. How can the apostle portray Christ as ruling when so many spurn the idea of His Lordship?
As we study the references in He brews to Christ as King, we note a significant qualification. The psalm on which they are based (110) calls the Son to sit at the place of honor " 'till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet' " (verse 13).
So a tension arises here. Christ is King but is not yet fully acknowledged as King. The author of Hebrews balances what He has accomplished, what He now is, and what is yet to be. The flow of history cannot alter what He already has done—the One Sacrifice, once for all. Nothing can add to or diminish its superlative worth. Nor can the years as they roll change His status. He is the Son, once incarnated, now exalted and reigning. What the passage of the years can bring is but the full recognition of His act and His person.
We catch the significance of the apostle's words in his references to time. Two references concern us here. The first appears at the opening of his sermon. After mentioning the speaking of God in the Old Testament, he states that "in these last days [or possibly, "in the last of these days"—i.e., the days of revelation] he has spoken to us by a Son" (verse 2). Let us put the second passage with it: "He has appeared once and for all at the climax of history to abolish sin by the sacrifice of himself" (chap. 9:26, N.E.B.).
The apostle's philosophy of history is unmistakable. For him, all history before Calvary only prepared for that event. The cross, the climax of history, rent time asunder. With Christ's accomplishment there, "these last days" (or "the final age" as the N.E.B. translates chapter 1:2) commenced. This age is the time of waiting until the divine will is fully worked out, which will be when the entire universe shall bow in acknowledgment of Christ as King.
So the Christian lives in a curious relationship to time. On the one hand he looks back to an event that is the mid point of history. The cross has deter mined the course of the future, the certain, eventual triumph of the reign of the good and the removal of evil. On the other, he looks ahead to the consummation, to the day when He who is King by right will be King indeed. 7
We find the balancing of the "already" of Calvary with the "not yet" of the Parousia stamped on all New Testament thought. 8 The Book of He brews in this respect reflects typical New Testament eschatology. But a question immediately raises its head: When one looks either to the past or to the future, what happens to the present? Is not this issue in fact at the root of the present malaise in Christendom? Christians face two alternatives: Either the hope of the Return has faded away and they have only a backward-looking philosophy of history, or—considering the Parousia still a live option—they hang suspended between the times, as it were, looking back two thousand years and hoping against hope to God's V-day, ever conscious of the relentless passage of the years.
The apostle of our sermon now steps in to make his unique contribution. He introduces a concept that bridges the gap between Calvary and the Return. Yes, he says, Calvary is the climax of the ages. Its Sacrifice is efficacious to deal with sins once for all. We must never reduce the magnificent Already of the work of our Lord. But, as Christians, we have not only the "already" and the "not yet" but the "now"—Jesus is our High Priest. Because He is our sympathetic Mediator, as well as King awaiting the realization of the kingdom in its fullness, the present is filled with meaning. The waiting time between cross and Parousia is also the period of heavenly high priesthood.
The apostle does not tell us the precise nature of Christ's priestly activity. "He always lives to make intercession," he tersely sums it up (chap. 7:25). We may be sure, on the basis of what is presented in Hebrews, as well as other data in the New Testament, that he does not suggest that God is reluctant to receive sinners, nor does he want to add anything to the Act of Calvary. Rather, Christ's mediatorial work is by virtue of His Sacrifice once accomplished for all. He ministers its benefits.
Thus, throughout Hebrews the accent falls on the now time. While the hope of the Parousia remains, we are not to let it trouble us by its delay. We now "have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God. . . . Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace" (chap. 4:14-16). See also chaps. 7:26-8:1; 10:19-22; 12:22-24.
So the future grows out of the now time as well as the past (Calvary). The present blessings of the Christian religion temper the delay in the Parousia. The future resonates with the now.
Hebrews and our day
Let us take up in turn the three responses of Hebrews to the delay in the Parousia. How helpful are they to modern Christians and modern man?
We cannot lightly brush aside the New Testament teaching of the Second Coming. In one way or another we must come to terms with it. Perhaps we may decide at last that the idea is outmoded, misguided—this must surely carry serious implications for our view of the entire canon. Or we may decide that the idea is still a theological option. Then we must wrestle with it as modern thinkers.
Thus the apostle's reiteration of the promise of the Parousia challenges us to serious reflection. It confronts us with that first-century milieu, that cradle of our religion. And it helps us to see—by contrast—our twentieth-century world and ourselves as part of it.
The second line of reasoning we pursued calls into question the prevailing world view. In a curious way it allows for the empirical world—that world so familiar to us as the scientific method has held sway for more than two hundred years. The apostle's picture of the two parallel "creations" (orders) affords reality and meaning to the world we know. But it drastically shifts the philosophical focus by challenging the sufficiency of the empirical world view. It purports that the really real lies outside and beyond our world, eluding the grasp of the scientist. Sensory evidence it affords second, instead of prior, place.
Another way of stating the issue is in terms of "natural" and "supernatural." The Book of Hebrews affirms the fact and superiority of the supernatural—it alone is the ultimate "real."
The Book of Hebrews has thrown the gauntlet down. Nearly three centuries of modern thought must rise up in savage rejoinder.
Strangely enough, recent currents of Western thought are more susceptible to the view of Hebrews. The 1960's saw a turning from science and its technology, even—on the part of some—a repudiation of all it stood for. Western man has become fed up with the objective, dis passionate stance of the empirical method. More and more he looks within himself to find the secret of existence.
With all our vaunted progress man still feels dissatisfied. When he has been weighed, analyzed, and explained, after he has been dissected and discussed, he is still frustrated. There is something more, something beyond objective study. His aesthetic sensibilities whisper it to him, his moral judgments repeat it, his insatiable hunger to ground his being in something—in what he may not know—shouts out for it.
In Christian terms he is looking for God and the world of the "real."
If the second argument of Hebrews seems to speak with special power to modern man, alone and apart from God, the third has particular appeal to Christians.
Our hope in the Return is not a blind optimism. It is based on a happening. One event in time has sealed the future and made it certain beyond all question. Because the Son now sits at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens, all the universe must one day come to bow at His feet and acknowledge His Lord ship. With Hebrews so positive in its message of Calvary, the promise of the Parousia rings with absolute confidence.
But ours is not an idle waiting, a fer vent expectation for things to improve. Every present moment has meaning. Even now our Lord is High Priest in the "real" world, mediating on our behalf and sympathetic to every need, every struggle, every test. And even now the doors of that temple above stand wide open for us. By faith we draw near, in full assurance of purification of our sins and our welcome home.
The good news according to Hebrews is the "such a great salvation" of which the apostle spoke. It is the message that brought hope and assurance to Christians nearly two thousand years ago.
And it is still good news! We, too, need to know it, to remind ourselves of it. Today we, too, need the absolute confidence that comes in its wake.
1 See 2 Thess. 3:6-12. Apparently the believers had misunderstood Paul's counsel in 1 Thessalonians to mean that the Parousia was imminent (see 1 Thess. 4:13-5:11).
2 Scoffers are explicitly mentioned in 2 Peter 3:3-15. This letter is written to Christians troubled by the passage of time.
3 Much of the great writing of our century is in this vein: Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Hemingway.
4 All Bible texts are from the Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise indicated.
5 In fact, the two-dimensional cosmology (the earthly having a heavenly counterpart) was wide spread in the ancient East.
6 Cf. 2 Cor. 4:17, 18.
7 Professor Oscar Cullmann in various writings has underscored the cross as the midpoint of time. See especially his Salvation in History (London: SCM, 1967).
8 In the Synoptic Gospels, the "kingdom" motif; in Revelation, the "Lamb" and "judgment" motifs; in Acts and the Pauline letters, the "Spirit" and "Parousia" motifs
This article is adapted from the book In Absolute Confidence, by William G. Johnsson (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publishing Association, 1979). Used by permission.