This is the third in the series of articles on the return of Jesus. The first article raised the question of whether today's Adventism still possesses the sense of imminence that characterized Millerism and the Adventism of the nineteenth century. The second article asked, "Dare we today believe that the coming of Jesus is imminent?" and concluded that never before has Adventism had more reasons to take a stance in favor of imminence.
This final article speaks to the conundrum of a postponed Advent. As a church existing more than a century past its initial expectancy, Adventists have more than a passing interest.
In a context of expectant living, Christians have looked for and longed for the return of their Master for 2,000 years, and thus, for just this long, the Advent has been postponed. Were it not for Scripture's account of the delay, this could be a horrendous nightmare to Christians and especially to Adventists to whom "the blessed hope" is so meaningful. Here we are—149 years past the launch date of "the Great Second Advent Movement," when William Miller began to warn the world of the imminent return of Jesus. Generation after generation has passed into the grave whose faith assured them that they would not see death until the skies parted and their blessed Master appeared for them. To be sure, they will see Him come, but these have all "died in the faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off" (Heb. 11:13).
New Testament Postponement of the Advent
The Advent was postponed in the first generation of Christians. Expectancy of the coming of the Lord ran high in those early churches! Several New Testament texts indicate clearly that these early believers looked for a speedy return of their Lord and had to deal with the question of a delay. "For in just a very little while, 'He who is coming will come and will not delay'" (chap. 10:37, N.I.V.).*
Paul took pains to assure believers in Thessalonica, whose loved ones fell asleep in death and who feared lest these would miss the great event or even be second-class citizens in the kingdom: "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep. . . . We who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep" (1 Thess. 4:13-15, N.I.V.). It seemed a clear and definite article of faith that Christians then living c. A.D. 54 would see their Lord come in glory. In chapter 5 Paul speaks of the suddenness of His coming, and again takes a stance of imminence. In 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10, he vividly describes the coming of Jesus as an event the believers were anxiously awaiting. "God is just: He will . . . give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" (N.I.V.).
In Matthew 24 Jesus presented the signs of Jerusalem's destruction and of His coming in such a way that the disciples apparently believed His coming would occur in their lifetime. Especially must verse 34 have indicated this hope, and indeed, the text has been difficult for Christians of all generations to under stand: " 'I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened' " (N.I.V.). This is a distinct prophetic utterance in the context of verses 30-33, which describe His coming. Two important things, however, must be abundantly clear: (1) all prophecy is conditional, and (2) Jesus always taught that " 'no one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father' " (verse 36, N.I.V.).
Yet, other New Testament references seem to counsel caution in looking for an immediate return in the first century. The parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) unmistakably portrays the situation of a late-arriving Lord, who comes when many who looked for Him are no longer expectant. The lesson of the par able is emphasized in verse 13: "'Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour'" (N.I.V.).
In 2 Peter 3:1-14, Peter effectively deals with a delayed Advent, pointing out the cruciality of understanding revealed truth. He predicts that infidels will attack the doctrine of the second coming of Christ because of the delay and that scoffers will reject God's plan because they are willfully ignorant of God's past judgment.
Peter presents the delay of Christ's coming as an evangelistic necessity. In the sovereign will of God based on His love and mercy for all mankind, He is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." Thus He delays the coming of Jesus in order to avoid cutting short the hour of mercy to the world. Peter closes with a solid affirmation that the coming of Jesus is sure and certain, and appeals to his readers to live godly, diligent, and expectant lives.
The last Scripture reference we will note concerning the delay is Revelation 7:1-3. Inasmuch as the most important accomplishment of redemption's plan is not yet completed (the "sealing" of the godly for eternity), final events on Planet Earth are in a holding pattern, and there is postponement of the time of trouble and the coming of Jesus. It seems clear that whenever God decrees it, the four angels will cease from holding the four winds, and the final events will quickly culminate in the glorious appearing of Jesus.
Our question must be, What are the influences that will cause God to cease His postponement of the closing work and the Advent?
Spirit of Prophecy interpretation of the delay
In the writings of Ellen G. White we see distinct evidence that it was Heaven's plan to send Jesus during the nineteenth century in response to the Millerite movement. William Miller was not a wild fanatic who built a movement based on his independent whims. Angels frequently directed this servant of God. It would naturally follow that if the movement was divinely inspired, surely it was God's plan to see it through, finish His work on earth, and usher in the coming of Jesus. There are nine clear references in the Spirit of Prophecy that indicate that this was precisely God's plan, and that Jesus might have come at some time between 1844 and 1883. The first of the nine statements was written in 1883, indicating God's plan to finish His work on earth during the preceding 39 years. "Had Adventists, after the great disappointment in 1844, held fast their faith, and followed on unitedly in the opening providence of God, receiving the message of the third angel and in the power of the Holy Spirit proclaiming it to the world, they would have seen the salvation of God, the Lord would have wrought mightily with their efforts, the work would have been completed, and Christ would have come ere this to receive His people to their reward. ... It was not the will of God that the coming of Christ should be thus delayed." —Selected Messages, book 1, p. 68.
In 1884, one year later, she repeated the statement in essentially the same words, but added the phrase "years ago," stating that "years ago . . . Christ would have come" if those in the 1844 movement had unitedly labored on in the power of the Spirit. (See Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, p. 291; also The Great Controversy, p. 458.) Thus the evidence is clear that Jesus' coming was divinely scheduled years prior to 1884.
The other seven statements use similar language to reemphasize this point Jesus planned to and wanted to come long ago (Review and Herald, Oct. 6, 1896; The Desire of Ages, pp. 633, 634 ; Australian Union Record, Oct. 15, 1898; Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 450 ; Evangelism, p. 694 ; Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 116 ; Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 29 ).
Reasons for the delay
The major Biblical reason for the delay of our Lord's return is expressed eloquently in 2 Peter 3:9 and Revelation 7:1-3. God's redemptive message must reach earth's population in the quality and quantity that meets God's standard, and that generation of His people who will, by His grace, allow themselves to be His vessels for that conquest will experience the glorious return of their Saviour!
It is clear that this achievement is the primary criterion for the coming of Jesus. "And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matt. 24:14). "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise ["I will come again"] . . . but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). And the four angels are holding the four winds, or the final events, until Heaven has "sealed the servants of ... God in their fore heads" (Rev. 7:3).
Ellen White confirms this as the major reason for our Lord's delay. "The long night of gloom is trying; but the morning is deferred in mercy, because if the Master should come, so many would be found unready. God's unwillingness to have His people perish has been the reason for so long delay." —Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 194.
"In mercy to the world, Jesus delays His coming, that sinners may have an opportunity to hear the warning and find Him a shelter before the wrath of God shall be poured out." —The Great Controversy, p. 458.
Other reasons for the delay that relate to the spiritual lack in God's people are stated in the contexts of the nine statements on the delay, cited above, including these ideas: (1) unbelief, worldliness, unconsecration, and strife of God's people; (2) lack of unity; (3) the same sins as those of Israel; (4) lack of a living experience in the things of God; (5) God's people failing to do their appointed work; (6) God's people failing to give "the trumpet a certain sound"; and (7) "while men have slept, Satan has stolen a march upon us."
The delay is still occurring today
Quite obviously, God is even now continuing to postpone the coming of Jesus. In spite of the fact that the "final movements will be rapid ones," and it is God Himself who will "finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness," we lack final evidence today that 1980 or 1981 will be, as the popular gospel song states it, "the year when Jesus comes." The paradox is that while beholding the most convincing array of prophetic fulfillments in history, we as Adventists do not seem to assure ourselves and the world that Jesus will come almost immediately, even though ideally we should be! We whose "mainspring" is indeed a belief in an imminent return of Jesus are simply all too lacking in conviction that His coming is indeed imminent! Perhaps we see here a credibility gap between a faith expressed eloquently on paper and a faith carried through flesh and blood and voice and heart into the streets and hovels of the cities of earth.
If the Advent is still being postponed, and Adventists acknowledge this disturbing and awesome fact, what more urgent reason could there be for revival now, reformation now, and a finished work! This is the Adventist emergency! It is the emergency of every minister and committed Christian. It is yours; it is mine.
The postponement will cease
Not only are the factors causing the delay abundantly clear, but we also have clear testimony as to what influences will signal the cessation of this postponement and release the final events.
Unsavory characteristics in God's people have been listed as causes for the delay, and the antitheses of these qualities are necessary to release Heaven's hold: great faith; sacrifice and self-denial; consecration; unity and love; a living experience with God; great faith-filled exploits to advance His work in all the world, to herald the message for our time. The righteousness of our Saviour must be the transparent quality of the lives of God's people.
When these things are revived; when God's people "weep between the porch and the altar" for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, not unlike the searching that preceded Pentecost; and when God's people determine that this is the hour, there will be an outpouring of the power of the Holy Spirit as has not been witnessed since Pentecost. Then Christ will come to claim His children, and the "blessed hope" will be a hope no longer, but an overwhelmingly wonderful reality.