June29-July8 marks the assembling of the fifty-seventh General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Toronto, Canada. In celebration of this landmark event, Ministry has prepared this special edition, venerating the promised verity of the second coming of Jesus our Lord.
In connection with this majestic theme I have a modest pinch of memory from boyhood. I recall my father singing a particular song during family worship on Friday evenings. As all four of us sang, my mother playing the piano, I would watch him through the corner of my eye. Even though I was not conscious of the significance of what was happening as I stole my glances, there was something unquestionably alive that came over him in his singing of this song. He would try to maintain his inherited sense of decorum. But by the time we got a little way into the opening verse, all the old song said and meant would take over him. His face and his voice would take on a particular, unselfconscious ardor as he sang:
"I saw one weary, sad, and torn, with eager steps press on the way, Who long the hallowed cross had borne, still looking for the promised day; While many a line of grief and care, upon his brow was furrowed there; I asked what buoyed his spirits up, 'O this!' said he 'the blessed hope"'1
A transforming expectation
The "blessed hope" (Titus 2:13) is a transforming longing that surges intensely in the soul that has come to know it and believe in it.
Without a doubt, this quality of anguished, yearning hope is part of what the Spirit has placed in the hearts of all who have given them selves to this expectation. Once the reality of the promise of all promises has brushed against our hearts and taken root, those who in it hear the voice of the Lord can never be the same again. For we seem to hear for ourselves Jesus' own eloquent pronouncement," 'I will come again'" (John 14:3, NASB).
Simply embracing the implications of the promise, feeling its full impact and believing it, alters our worldview in a way that nothing else can. It is indeed a stupendous and a radical thing to allow into the individual heart, let alone into the being of a world community.
Looking back across the centuries we can see it still new and fresh. The sublime, impassioned voices go back far into an ancient antiquity of conviction and sing more sublimely today in the souls of those of us closer than ever to the moment of truth. The voices sing to us of a sacred pact God has with us humans. They even sing from the heart of the cauldron of this planet's severest trial:" 'And as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God'" (Job 19:25-27, NASB).
And the poet-prophets, whether referring to the first or the second coming of Jesus, or both, picked up on the celestial vow of our God: "Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad... Before the Lord: for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth" (Psalm 96:11-13)."He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces.... And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation" (Isa. 25:8,9).
And there was the pivotal moment when, having finished His salvation work on earth, Jesus was taken up from His disciples, and "two men ... in white" (Acts 1:10) were sent to speak to their bewilderment and ours: "This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (verse 11). The prophet John ends the written canon with:" 'The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever'" (Rev. 11:15, NASB), and finally, "Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (22:20).
The blessed hope has, throughout all the ages been the most precious anticipation of the followers of the Lamb. From dungeons and torture, in writing and in preaching, in chaos and crisis and perhaps best of all, in the mundaneness of the everyday life of the commonest of Christians, the blessed hope has continued to restore, encourage, and transform.
John Calvin urged believers "not to hesitate, ardently desiring the day of Christ's coming as of all events most auspicious." "Has not the Lord Jesus carried up our flesh into heaven? and shall He not return? We know that He shall return, and with what expedition," said John Knox. And Nicholas Ridley affirmed that "the whole world without doubt this I do believe, and therefore I say it draws to an end." Martin Luther said, "I persuade myself verily, that the day of the judgment will not be absent full three hundred years. God will not, cannot, suffer this wicked world much longer."2
Keeping the hope intact
Discovering this predictive assertion in Luther is interesting, bringing up a collection of conflicting thoughts and feelings in me. Luther's time calculation regarding the judgment and the second coming of Jesus, though an admirably moderate one, does tend to walk on the edges of a despoiling tendency that has plagued the ebb and flow of Christian history and particularly that of the Seventh-day Adventist community. Luther said that he believed "verily" that because God could not possibly endure "this wicked world much longer," God would intervene with judgment within three hundred years. The fact is that along with a host of other apocalyptic calculators, Martin Luther was simply wrong in his forecast.
Though, in the light of biblical prophecy, we may know that the end is always "near, even at the doors," since the first coming of Jesus we have indeed been living in the time of the end and that "He that shall come will come and will not tarry," nevertheless we are wrong when we attempt to assign specific time limits to the hour of the eschaton.
In answer to the "when" question of His disciples," 'Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?'" (Matt. 24:3, NASB) Jesus said explicitly and repeatedly, that" 'no one knows, not even the angels of heaven nor the Son, but the Father alone'" (verse 36, NASB).
This is not an obscure verse in the Bible that can be interpretively manipulated to accommodate our desire to produce a specific time for Jesus' coming. Looking carefully at the simple narrative structure of Matthew 24, it is clear that Jesus, in the light of His disciples' question, considered it a priority to emphasize the need for the Christian disciple to always "be ready" exactly because they (we) would never know beforehand the actual time of the parousia (read again verses 36,39, 42,43,44, and 45, along with the thrust of the parable of the ten virgins in 25:1-13).
Reading Matthew 24, one can see that the only way of knowing when Jesus is to come is by properly reading the signs He describes and not the apocalyptic prophecies with calendar in hand. The nature of these signs seem to be purposely designed to take us only so far a genuinely healthy distance, spiritually speaking in our attempts to calculate to any exact degree, the actual "when" of Jesus' arrival.
The motive for stopping so abruptly in the midst of this editorial celebration of the blessed hope to take up this question of predicting the time of the Second Coming, is not of course to find fault with Martin Luther, or to bring up a discordant argument of some kind. The point is to insist that the most sincere and informed Christians are subject to making assertions that are ill-founded and above all, in the long run, seriously damaging to the blessed hope which struggles to find a foothold in the hearts of those searching for a worthy hope.
We may be justly concerned that all of the time setting that has gone on among Adventists, let alone across the centuries of Christian history, has had a way of blunting our faith in the blessed hope. Time setting has a way of boldly robbing struggling people of one of their most precious possessions: the sense of certainty they have in the glorious appearing of our great God. What a potent way of turning an upward gaze into a downward spiraling skepticism, or of converting an otherwise open heart into bold cynicism.
Someone who had lived in the fall out of more than one agonizing time-setting episode wrote the following out of the crucible of those experiences: "It [truth] will never develop in any line that will lead us to imagine that we may know the times and the seasons which the Father hath put in His own power.... There will never again be a message for the people of God that will be based on time.3
Let us revel in the blessed hope. Let us glory in it, be transformed by it and allow it to fashion our outlook with an upward concentration. Let us move with wisdom and a living, present faith, nurturing a solid, urgent, and true hope among us, so that we will all justly stand in the long line of witnesses, true to the blessed hope of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. This special celebrative issue of Ministry is dedicated to this vision.
1 Annie R. Smith, Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), 441.
2 Quotes in this paragraph are cited from Daniel T. Taylor, The Reign of Christ on Earth: or, The Voice of the Church in All Ages, as found in Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1888), 302-304.
3 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 1 (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 188.