There is no delay

When the New Testament does not announce the hour of Christ's coming, how could there be a delay?

Mario Veloso, Th.D., is an associate secretary of the General Conference of Seventhday Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

The "delay" of Jesus' second coming is a frequently discussed subject. In such discussions there is often a lot of heat but very little light. This article proposes to deal with that subject without confronting any particular person. For this reason there will be no reference to authors or to any extrabiblical writings, even though reference to ideas is unavoidable. We shall look at the biblical material to see whether or not there are grounds in Scripture for proposing that there is a delay in Christ's coming. In doing this, we will look at three main sources Jesus, Paul, and John.

Jesus the day and hour no one knows

Although the Synoptic Gospels speak much on the subject of Christ's coming, we shall limit ourselves to Matthew 24 and 25.* According to Matthew, late on Tuesday afternoon of the Passion Week, after spending the whole day in the Temple, Jesus and His disciples went to the Mount of Olives, where He talked to them about His second coming. He spoke about the destruction of the Temple and the signs of His coming, which has led some to interpret that He was indicating that both events would happen almost simultaneously. But a careful look at the passage shows that Jesus was more interested in explaining the end of the world at His second coming than He was the end of the Temple. The collapse of the Temple and of Jerusalem was, however, in the minds of His disciples and illustrative of the end of the world.

In relation to His coming, Jesus spoke about time, preparation, mission, and judgment. Jesus described judgment in terms of separation the sheep from the goats. The basis given for this separation is the issue of service. Those who serve are seen as the righteous. What they do for their fellow beings in need, without knowing it, they are pictured as doing to Christ, the coming King. The cursed ones, in turn, are pictured as not having served the King (see Matt. 25:31-46). The mission is described in the parable of the talents investing one's talents is God's business and requires the complete dedication of every talent given by God. Those who improve on their talents are pictured by Jesus as good and faithful (see verses 24-39). Preparation for the Second Coming requires having the Holy Spirit (see verses 1-13).

In all of this, time is very important. It is significant in all of the signs and symbols, as well as in the straight forward statements of Jesus relating to the Second Coming. The timing of the signs is progressive. Some of the signs cover only the period up to the destruction of Jerusalem, as with the warning about "the abomination of desolation" (see Matt. 24:15). Other signs go farther into the eschatological time frame, with still others reaching through to the second coming of Christ itself. A significant time factor here refers to the preaching of the gospel in all the world, which is followed by Jesus' time-related promise "And then the end will come" (verse 14). Likewise, the parable of the seasonally mature fig tree shows by the state of its foliage that "the summer is near" in the same way as the fulfilling of the signs of Christ's coming show that the coming of Jesus is near when all the signs are in evidence. Such things announce that His coming is near, "at the very doors" (verse 33). Among other things, the signs tell us that there exists an interim period between the destruction of Jerusalem and the second coming of Christ.

Christ's straightforward statements clearly inform us of the possibility of a "delay" or a length of time during which people look expectantly for the coming of Christ as being earlier than it ultimately turns out to be. At one point Jesus makes this statement: "But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only" (verse 36). Another verse repeats the same concept: "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming" (verse 42). And a third one declares: "The Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect him" (verse 44). So Jesus did not announce the hour of His coming.

How, then, could anyone speak about a delay in His coming? There could be a delay only if He had set an announced time for His return. This not being the case, there is no delay.

There is one more important piece of information. At the end of His reference to the time of His coming, Christ told the parable of the wise and the evil servants. The wise servant takes care of his master's household properly. The evil servant says, "My master is delaying his coming" (verse 48), and instead of caring for his fellow servants, he beats them. While he is thinking about the delay of his master, he loses track of the signs; he does not observe the condition of the fig tree, he does not preach the gospel, and thus he is "not aware" of the time of the master's coming (see verse 50). He is just that an evil servant somebody who drinks the drink of the drunkards, rather than the words of his master (see verse 49).

Paul—the apostasy comes first

One of the presuppositions behind the idea of a delay is the concept of a "realized" eschatology. Some exponents of this idea teach that the apostles and the apostolic church believed the Second Coming would occur in their time (see 2 Thess. 2:3). The truth is, the apostles never taught this concept. This is particularly clear in looking at the teachings of Paul, from whom we have the two letters to the Thessalonians as witnesses. In the first letter, written in A.D. 51, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to suffer persecution in hope and contentment. He reminds them of his faithfulness in teaching them about the day of the Lord. As a result they "know perfectly" that the Lord will come "as a thief in the night" (1 Thess. 5:2). This knowledge has far-reaching ethical consequences, affecting their lifestyle while they wait in assurance of the final salvation, which He brings in when He comes (verses 4-11). A few months later Paul wrote another letter because false teaching had come in among them concerning the time of the Lord's return. Some false teachers were teaching a realized type of eschatology affirming that the Lord had already come.

This was not in harmony with Paul's teaching when he went to Thessalonica the first time (see Acts 17:1-9). Neither did it agree with his teaching in his first letter to them (see 1 Thess. 5:2). Paul taught a historical eschatology. This is the central teaching of the Second Epistle. The day of the Lord has not yet come (see 2 Thess. 2:1, 2) and will not come immediately because there are some events that must take place in history before the coming of the Lord.

Any teaching contrary to Paul's doctrine is seen as a deception. "Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed" (verse 3). "Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?" he asks them (verse 5).

The whole history of the falling away or great apostasy in the Christian church and the work of the "man of sin," the "son of perdition," or "the lawless one," was still to be fully played out. A few years later, in his farewell address to the elders at Ephesus, Paul said that this apostasy would come because within the church would rise those "speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves" (Acts 20:30). And when Paul forewarned Timothy about it, he told him that their teachings would not be according to the truth and that all this would come in the "latter times" (2 Tim. 4:3, 4).

So for Paul two points were very clear regarding the time of the Second Coming. First, it would be in the future, after many historical events had occurred. Second, it would come as a "thief in the night" (1 Thess. 5:2). There was no fixed date established. Both concepts rule out the possibility of a delay. There is no delay in Christ's coming because from the very beginning Paul foretold historical events that would have to happen before the coming of the Lord. Again there is no delay in relation to any particular date or time, because such a date or time has never been established.

John—I am coming quickly

The second coming of Jesus is the theme of the book of Revelation. In its introduction the book talks about the manner of His coming, and in its conclusion about the time. There are many references, and John uses many different time symbols. But in this article we are looking only at the question of time as it relates to the Second Coming, aiming for one particular objective to discover whether a delay of Christ's return to the world can be detected.

Revelation was written by John sometime between A.D. 95 and 100. In its introduction there are two references to a specific time that relates to the things the book is about to unfold. John says that his book is about things that would "shortly [en tachei] take place" (Rev. 1:1), and they must be understood, for "the time is near [eggus]" (verse 3). John is referring here to when the events predicted in the book of Revelation would begin to be fulfilled. En tachei means quickly, hastily, immediately, with no delay, thus putting an emphasis on time in such a way as to express urgency. Eggus emphasizes proximity in time, not urgency. It means near at hand. This is why a specific appointed time (kairos) could be near. The events predicted in Revelation will take place with no delay when their appointed time is near.

There is a clear sense of urgency in the introduction of Revelation, but it is related only to the "things" predicted in the book. What does come in short order (by the end of the first century, in fact) is the beginning of the historical events that are predicted to occur prior to the Second Coming. Obviously, however, the Second Coming itself is not contemplated as early as these signatory events. The coming of Christ is not referred to in terms of time in the introduction of this prophetic book. At this point John talks only about the manner of Christ's coming "He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, and they also who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him" (verse 7). So John did not say that the Lord would come during the time when he was writing the book of Revelation, shortly before A.D. 100. He said that the signatory events he prophesied would begin to occur about that time. The urgency of the second coming appears in the conclusion of the book.

After all the events predicted in Revelation have been fulfilled, the urgency is transferred from the things "which must shortly take place" (Rev. 22:6) to the second coming of Christ itself. The expression "I am coming quickly [tachu]" is repeated three times (verses 7,12, 20). It is only after all the events predicted in Revelation have come to pass that the coming of the Lord occurs "quickly." Before that time we cannot speak of a delay or believe that something is untrustworthy about the promise of His coming, because it has not yet occurred. Clearly, we live in a moment of history when many of these events are still to manifest themselves.

Implications for the church and her members

Our knowledge and attitude toward the time of the Lord's second coming has implications for lifestyle, theology, and mission. The concept that there is a delay in Christ's coming ushers in a very tenuous understanding of revelation. It is not consistent with what Scripture actually says. It is, in fact, only an exposition of what some contemporary interpreters think is the state of things. Revelation, through Paul's personal teaching and writings to the Thessalonians, says that the Second Coming is still in the future. But thinking in terms of some kind of delay or apostolic misprediction, some contemporary teachers place the Second Coming in a time prior to the one Paul was indicating. What is the basis for these approaches to the biblical message? They are proposed on the basis of a deception introduced by attitudes, spoken words, and writings similar to those exposed by Paul in passages such as 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3. The behavior of these teachers affects their spiritual and practical lives, turning them into busybodies instead of communicators of the gospel (see 2 Thess. 3:11-14).

The evil servant in Christ's parable, the one who believed in the delay of his master's coming, has confused his mission and the whole purpose of his actions. As he waited for his master to come back, instead of remaining faithful and wise while he served his lord, he began to behave as if he were the master, forcing his own will on everyone and governing his actions by his personal sensual pleasure (see Matt. 24:48-51). In contrast, those who understand the nature of the timing of Christ's coming know that His coming occurs quickly at the end of the predicted period of waiting and probation (see Rev. 22:11, 12). For "the Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!' And let him who thirsts come. And whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely" (verse 17).

* All Scripture passages quoted in this article are from The New King James Version.

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Mario Veloso, Th.D., is an associate secretary of the General Conference of Seventhday Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

December 1996

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