Advent on ice?

Some New Testament texts seem to expect Christ to return almost immediately. Others point to a delay of His advent, or to events that must occur before. He returns. Christians have long probed this dilemma. Are these passages in conflict? How shall we understand them? What do they say to us as we look for the Lord's advent?

Richard Lehmann, Ph.D., heads the Bible department of the Saleve Adventist Seminary, Collonges-sous-Saleve, France.

 

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, sharing the hope of the New Testament writers, has proclaimed the return of Christ and the end of the world for almost HO years. When the church gathers around the table of the Lord, it continues to "shew the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:26). To the Lord who says to her, "I come quickly," the church replies, "Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20).

And yet Jesus has not come back. It appears to some that the Lord tarries in the fulfillment of His promises. In answering the question that this "delay" poses, some say that He has already returned in an invisible manner. Others postulate that the Parousia is dependent on the faithfulness with which the church fulfills its mission. Still others claim that this is not the essential point, for since His first coming we are complete in Christ (Col. 2:10). In fact, the majority of the great theological (and hermeneutical) systems have been built up with respect to the delay of the Parousia.

Attempts at explanation

In grappling with the problem, Albert Schweitzer developed what is known as consistent eschatology. He believed that Jesus had mistakenly announced the imminent establishment of the eternal kingdom. Schweitzer taught that Jesus first expected to see it come to pass in His lifetime, and that He later looked for it to be established immediately after His death. In his view, Christians remained in expectation after the crucifixion. When nothing happened they answered this distressing problem by concluding that the mystical union with Christ through the sacraments enabled them to enjoy the final blessings.

Schweitzer's thesis has been strongly criticized. It gives to the expectation of the kingdom a character so central in the eyes of Jesus that the failure of this expectation makes Christian teaching lose all its credibility. If Christ expected so strongly to see the kingdom established and that did not take place, for what can we still hope? As E. Brunner puts it: "To suppose that such a theory is correct would put an end to Christian dogmatics, for it would represent nothing more than the systematization of a mistake." 1

C. H. Dodd gave to us the approach known today as realized eschatology. 2 While according to Schweitzer, Jesus gave His eschatology an exclusively future character, the kingdom of God, according to Dodd, attained its eschatological inauguration in the ministry of Jesus, and all futuristic perspective is insignificant. Some disciples did not understand Jesus, so their expectation was disappointed. These kept their hope directed toward the future; they were responsible for the book of Revelation, Mark 13, and 2 Thessalonians 2. On the other hand, others such as Paul had the same concept of eschatology as did Jesus. For Paul, 1 Peter, Hebrews, and especially the Gospel of John, the end had already come. The resurrection of Christ meant that all had been fulfilled.

We cannot here thoroughly critique Dodd's thesis. Let us say quite simply that we do not follow him in separating the New Testament writings into that which is "in the line" and that which is not.

In 1941 Rudolf Bultmann made known his purpose of liberating the Christian faith from mythology. 3 For Bultmann only one thing mattered—the encounter with Christ here and now. The future is built in the present by the response that one gives when confronted by the word of Christ and His history. For Bultmann apocalyptic itself does not envisage a distant future. It seeks only to describe, as did John the Gospel writer, that the end-time began in the present time. Bultmann distinguished two cur rents in the New Testament. The futuristic current tries to explain delay by mission. The church has a time of indefinite duration, dependent on mission. He identified this as the Lucan current. The other current, Johannine and Pauline, eliminates all the false hopes that Jesus had aroused in speaking of an imminent end. Besides, he said, this expectation was not at the heart of the thought of Jesus; He had borrowed it from Judaism to give more background to His principal idea. This expectation must be forgotten in order to put the emphasis on the present. Everything that is not linked to this thought springs from myth. Only the appeal of Jesus, which asks us to make Our decision now, matters.

Bultmann's doctrine affects one's understanding of canon, of inspiratidti, and of the validity of the Old Testament. 4

Adventists believe in the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. We take the Bible in its entirety as the rule of faith. We are therefore confronted with the following dilemma: Either Jesus actually said that He would return in the first century and made a mistake (in this case we cannot place our trust in Him) or He meant something different and we must restudy His teachings in order to preserve the unity of the Scriptures and the vitality of our faith. I prefer this latter alternative. I believe with Gerhard Hasel that "the final aim of New Testament theology is to demonstrate the unity that binds together the various theologies and longitudinal themes, concepts, and motifs" belonging to the different writers of the New Testament. 5 Furthermore, a Christ-centered New Testament theology will not destroy the teaching of the Old Testament. In our particular case, this means it will preserve the Old Testament's chronological conception of history.

From this foundation let us approach certain "problem" texts.

Some difficult texts

1. Matthew 24:34 (Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32)

"Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."

According to one interpretation, this text proves "Christ declared that He had made plans to return to those living in the generation to which He was speaking. The determining factor is that the expression 'this generation' appears fourteen times in the Gospels and always applies to Christ's contemporaries." 6

Interpreting the words of Jesus in this way deals too lightly with the problem. The disciples wrote more than thirty years after the death of Jesus. They were part of a generation that was dying out. How would their contemporaries under stand these words? Did Jesus mean that before the last apostle's death He would return? Wishing to avoid mistaken attempts at interpreting these remarks chronologically, Matthew and Mark hasten to report those other words of Jesus: "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father" (Mark 13:32; cf. Matt. 24:36). They consider it useless to speculate about the moment of the end. Whoever wanted to fix the time of the Parousia from this saying would have the audacity to claim to know as much about it as the Father.

What must we understand, then? Note that the expression is always connected with words of reproach.7 "This generation" has a bad connotation. It refers to a generation that is wicked, adulterous, sinful, faithless, one that asks for signs in order to believe, and that because of its wickedness toward the prophets and the apostles would have to give account for all the blood shed since the foundation of the world (Luke 11:50).

The Hebrew word dor, which the Greek word genea overlaps, has in addition a very different meaning. While it can mean a generation of about forty years (Deut. 2:14), it can also suggest the idea of race (Ps. 78:8; Mark 9:19). Certain commentators see this latter meaning in Matthew 24:34, under standing that the prophecy concerned the Jewish people. The term, then, does not have an arithmetical meaning only.

In the Old Testament, this wider meaning is especially evident in the verses in which it has a bad connotation. In Psalm 78:8 the "stubborn and rebellious generation" includes several generations. In Proverbs 30:11-14 the evil generation concerns men of all times. In the New Testament, in Mark 8:38, "this adulterous and sinful generation" is the world here below in contrast with the world to come. In Mark 8:12 the word can very .well be translated "these people." So the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:34 can, without forcing the text, describe men in general, all those who by their unbelief made Jesus sigh, all those who are liable to judgment. According to Matthew 12:41, 42, Jesus did not expect that they would be living at His coming, for when the end comes they will rise from the dead with the men of Nineveh and the queen of the south. The usages of the word generation, then, imply that it concerns unbelieving men of all time.

So, in Matthew 24:34 Jesus was not presenting chronological fact (verse 36 makes this clear). He was simply stating that the generation of unbelieving men would see before the end of time the fulfillment of all that He had declared. Nothing that He had declared would come to naught.

By repeating some characteristic statements of Jesus, Mark demonstrates that we must riot expect such an acceleration of the time that everything takes place in "this generation." He notes that Jesus said: "The end shall not be yet" (Mark 13:7); "These are the beginnings of sorrows" (verse 8); "The gospel must first be published among all nations" (verse 10); "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" (verse 13). The events will begin in Judea (verse 14) and finish "from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven" (verse 27).

Does that mean that the contemporaries of Jesus are not involved? Not at all! The fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple give the best assurance that what Jesus announced will happen and that the Son of man will appear with glory. For a Jew, the Temple's destruction practically guaranteed the realization of the other part of the prophecy. 8

2. Matthew 16:28 (Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27)

"Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."

The Gospel writers who reported these words certainly wanted at the same time to answer the questions that their contemporaries would raise: Who will have the privilege of not dying? Who will see the Son of man in His glory? This statement has led numerous exegetes and church fathers, and our eminent con temporaries (J. Jeremias, for example), to see in the words of Jesus the announcement not of His parousia, but of His transfiguration. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary suggests the same interpretation, finding confirmation in the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18. In this case the "some standing here" would be Peter, James, and John. Jesus was not announcing, then, the coming of His kingdom before all His contemporaries died, but a special revelation to certain ones.

There may be more to this verse than first meets the eye. In each of the Synoptic Gospels, this verse is preceded by references to a crisis. One must take up the cross and risk one's life, says Matthew 16:24, 25. The Son of man will judge in terms of this obligation (verse 27). Mark mentions not only the cross but also the witness to be borne in the midst of a sinful generation. Matthew 16:28 seems to relate to seeing Christ in His glory and confessing Him unto death.

In support of this, note that the three apostles who went up the Mount of Transfiguration are the only ones whose earthly fates are mentioned in the New Testament: Peter and James, who were martyred (John 21:18, 19: Acts 12:2), and John, who endured a special time of waiting (John 21:23). By witnessing for Christ even unto death, these disciples followed the example of their Master.

Jesus' condemnation came in response to His testimony before the Sanhedrin regarding the Son of man coming in the clouds (Matt. 26:64). And I do not think that it is unintentional that Luke tells us so much detail of the end of Stephen, the first martyr, who signed his death war rant by declaring that he saw "the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56).

Jesus, then, was not announcing that His return would be seen by certain persons then living, but that some then living would see Him in His glory and would die for testifying to it.

3. Matthew 10:23

"But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come."

Albert Schweitzer thought he saw in this statement a delusion that Jesus had conceived concerning the establishment of the eternal kingdom. If it is interpreted as meaning an imminent end of the world, we can only agree with his thesis. I prefer the approach taken by both The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary and Pierre Bonnard. The latter says, "This verse does not emphasize the proximity of the return of Jesus, but all the possibilities of witnessing given to Israel until His return." 9 Jesus simply desired to tell His disciples that at His return He would find them still at their task. Therefore, they did not have to worry if because of persecution they could not finish their work in one city and were forced to enter another one.

This whole group of texts, used to support the view that Jesus expected to return after a brief delay, had the purpose of warning exactly the opposite. According to Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, Jesus described a large number of signs. He did not intend to give His disciples a proof of His soon return, but to show that many things had yet to happen before He came. Though the signs were many, they would all take place. The generation of unbelievers could not hope to see even one of them fail.

It was because the disciples were in danger of concluding that His return did not concern them that Jesus emphasized so insistently the necessity of being ready and watching. In fact, it would have been quite natural to speculate on the future and to fix the date of the Parousia in the distant future. Jesus frequently corrected this mistake. Nobody should suppose they could say when He ought to come; the Father alone knows the date. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus reminded His disciples of this on two occasions.

He first gave this reminder when Peter questioned John's fate (John 21:20-23). Jesus had just told Peter about his death (verses 18, 19). If Peter was to die, who then would be alive when Jesus returned? Would John? Jesus cut short all speculation." by saying to Peter, "Follow thou me."

Acts 1:6-8 tells of the second occasion. To the apostles' question concerning the time of the establishment of the kingdom, Jesus replied, "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power." In other words, the prophecies were not given to allow speculation about the time of the return, but so that faith should be strengthened by the signs of the times when they were manifested (see also John 14:28, 29). One thing only is necessary: Watch, for you will be surprised, Christ will soon return.

With this understanding we are not surprised to see the apostle Paul living in expectation of an imminent end. This attitude harmonizes with the will of Christ. His resurrection bears witness that the victory has been gained, that the end time has begun, that believers have entered into the time of hope. So Peter could, a short time after Pentecost, encourage this expectation (Acts 3:20, 21). Paul in the middle of his ministry (1 Cor. 7:29-31) and John at the close of the century could repeat it with the same conviction (Rev. 1:7). It was a matter of their living not under a delusion, but in the assurance that God was coming (verse 8). They could not understand the prophecies referring to the end of the 2300 evening-mornings and to the 1260 days, for these were written for a special time (see Dan. 12:4, 9)—the time when they would be fulfilled. But they could expect that things would endure, for Jesus had warned His disciples that they would be subjected to a test. They would be tempted to consider the extension of the time as a delay.

Texts specifying a delay

We use the term delay provisionally, but we must examine it, for it has an ambiguous character. Let us examine a number of Jesus' teachings that form a significant sequel to the eschatological discourse recorded in Matthew 24 and its parallels.

1. The evil servant: 'Matthew 24:48-51 This servant is not like the scoffers mentioned in 2 Peter. The point of the parable does not rest on what he believed, but on what he did. He was a believer, but also a hypocrite (Matt. 24:51). Just like the man who received only one talent, he knew something, but he disregarded it (chap. 25:26, 27). The evil servant knew that his Lord would not come immediately, and as a result he should have held himself ready at any moment. According to the parable, the apparent delay implies an unexpected return.

2. The ten virgins: Matthew 25:1-13 Drawn from the usual pattern of Oriental weddings, this parable announces a delay: that of the bride groom. 10 The foolish virgins are reproached because they have not taken account of the fact that the bridegroom could delay and have let themselves be surprised. They ought to have thought of that and to have done what was necessary to have been ready at any moment. Their mistake did not lie in thinking that the bridegroom was coming soon, but in being unprepared for an extension of the time of waiting. "Watch therefore," said Jesus, "for ye know neither the day nor the hour" (verse 13).

3. The unjust judge: Luke. 18:1-8

"This parable applies specifically to the experience of God's people in the last days (COL 164), in anticipation of the deception they must meet and the persecution they must suffer." " It taught those who listened to Jesus that they must not find a cause for discouragement in God's delay to render justice. They must always pray and not faint (verse 1), for God will surely render justice. But this assurance is only for those who have faith (verse 8).

An echo of this parable is found in Revelation 6:10, where the souls under the altar ask how long the Lord will tarry in executing justice. The reply given is interesting: Until the plan of salvation should be accomplished (verse 11).

We cannot consider all the passages that mention an extension of the time, but let us note here a few more significant verses:

Matthew 25:19. After a long time the Lord comes and reckons with the servants.

Luke 19:12. The royal investiture takes place in a far country. (Verse 11 indicates that this parable was directed to those who "thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.")

Matthew 22:7, 9. The king had the city destroyed and burned and then called others to the wedding.

Luke 21:8. "Many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them."

Paul's writings contain some ambiguity: at times he is certain of being present at the Parousia (1 Thess. 4:15ff., 1 Cor. 15:51ff.); at other times he is ready to envisage his death beforehand (2 Cor. 5:lff.). But his second letter to the Thessalonians specifies certain events that must intervene between the time he wrote and the Parousia: "We beseech you, brethren,... that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled . . . [by whatever might be spoken], as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first" (chap. 2:1-3).

The time may be shortened

On examining these verses, we see that the term delay is ambiguous. It corresponds to a human sentiment but not to God's point of view. The Lord does not delay in the fulfillment of His promises. The extension of the time is part of the plan of salvation, for God desires that all shall come to repentance. Believers are warned that God has a plan of long maturity, but seeing that the date has not been revealed to them, they must hold themselves ready at any moment. Things can continue: God must organize His church, the Spirit will yet establish certain ministries, and apostasy must arise before Christ returns. As Oscar Cullmann says, "Jesus shows His disciples how to live in the world. The gift of order implies tomorrows." 12 In other words, if Jesus wishes to build His church (Matt. 16:18), He must have time to do it.

Why, then, does the church expect that the Master will return soon, say the skeptics, since Jesus announced His delay? Because the church suffers and it knows that the prayer that it offers to God each day, "Thy kingdom come," is not just empty words. Jesus spoke not only of delay but also of advance: "And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily" (Luke 18:7, 8). If God maintained the duration that He fixed beforehand, nobody would be able to stand until the end of the time of trouble. "But for the elect's sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days" (Mark 13:20).

The Parousia, placed in the future, calls for endurance. But we must not draw the conclusion that we can relax in our watching, for God can advance these days in response to the prayer of His own. If He has not yet done this, it is because He hopes that His fig tree will bring forth fruit (Luke 13:6-8); He desires that all shall come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9) that the number of the redeemed shall be made up (Rev. 6:11), and that it will reach the completeness of 144,000 (see chap. 14:3).

"Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch" (Mark 13:35-37).

Notes:

1 E. Brunner, Dogmatique, Vol. II: Labor et Fides (Geneva, 1965), p. 297.

2 C. H. Dodd preferred later to speak of inaugurated eschatology, then followed the suggestion of J. Jeremias, who proposed speaking of an eschatology in process of fulfillment: "self-fulfilling eschatology."

3 Rudolf Bultmann, "New Testament and Mythology," in H. W. Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth (London, 1954), pp. Iff.

4 When Desmond Ford claims that in Matthew 24:34 Jesus "said that He planned to return in the time of the generation to which He was speaking" (Daniel 8:14, the Day of Atonement, and the Investigative Judgment, p. 297), he places himself in the line of the eschatological outlook of the preceding writers but does not solve the problem any better than they. He leaves himself two alternatives: Either he places himself in the line of Jewish eschatology and considers Jesus mistaken (then the thesis of a missionary task to fulfill is only an a posteriori justification for His failure to return) or he abandons futuristic eschatology and takes sides with the thesis of realized eschatology. This position raises the problem of the canon.

5 Gerhard Hasel, New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1978), p. 218.

6 Ford, ioc. tit.

7 Cf. Matt. 11:16, 17; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 23:36; Mark 8:12, 38; 9:19; 13:30; Luke 11:30, 50; 17:25.

8 Tagawa Kenzo, "Marc 13. Le tatonnement d'un homme realiste eveille face a la tradition apocalyptique," in Foi et Vie, 76:5 (Octobre, 1977). See also Cahiers bibtiques, 16, p. 23.

9 Pierre Bonnard, L'Evangile selon saint Matthieu (CNT 1), 2e ed. revue, Delachaux et Niestle, Neuchatel, 1963, p. 149.

10 See Joachim Jeremias, Les Paraboks de Jesus (poche 85, 86) (Le Puy: Xavier Mappus, 1962), pp. 253, 254.

11 The SDA Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1956), vol. 5, p. 843.

12 Oscar Cullmann, Le Salut dans I'histoire (Neuchatel: Delachaux et Niestle, 1966), p. 221.

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Richard Lehmann, Ph.D., heads the Bible department of the Saleve Adventist Seminary, Collonges-sous-Saleve, France.

November 1984

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