The position of suspense

A crucial question: Are we truly looking forward to Jesus' return?

Gary B. Swanson is the associate director for Sabbath School and Personal Ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

I hate to wait! I’m one of those people to whom time and punctuality are extremely important. It comes, possibly, from my service as an editor. Editors—at least most of them—govern their lives by deadlines. For more than a quarter of a century, deadlines were the heartbeat of my work. For me, missing a deadline was like feeling my heart skip a beat—or stop altogether. It was not a good feeling!

So when others are late, and I have to wait for them, I take it personally. James White wrote that “the position of suspense is not the most happy one.”1 I know exactly what he meant.

But he was referring to “the position of suspense” that we experience as we wait for Jesus to return. So I acknowledge that there’s something I need to learn about waiting. Maybe there’s something there for quite a few of us.

One of Jesus’ well-known parables addresses quite directly this issue of waiting for Jesus to come: the story of the ten bridesmaids (Matt. 25:1–13).

“ ‘The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom’ ” (v. 1, NLT). Those who are waiting for Jesus’ return can be compared to the ten bridesmaids waiting for the coming of the bridegroom. We are, in effect, like members of a wedding party.

Jesus told us to “ ‘keep watch, because [we] do not know the day or the hour’ ” (v. 13, NIV). We are told elsewhere in Scripture that Jesus Himself doesn’t know the exact time of His return (Matt. 24:36). So while we wait, we are to “keep watch.” What exactly does that mean?

In November 1989 thousands of jubilant Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, thus signaling the first step toward the reunification of Germany. The very next day a man who had lived in East Berlin appeared at the front desk of the American Memorial Library in West Berlin. Under his arm he carried several books he had borrowed 28 years before, shortly before the wall was built. During all that time, he had kept the books in the hope that if he ever had the opportunity he would be ready to return them.

Can you imagine what the overdue charges must have been!

I’m sure that, in view of the situation, the librarians must have waived the fees. But we live in much the same situation today as that man did before the Berlin Wall was dismantled. Captives in our own land, we wait for the day that the wall that Satan has erected to separate us from God will be torn down forever. Then, at last, we will be able to take our rightful places as citizens of heaven.

We’re talking here about more than the mere reunification of a nation. We’re talking about the ultimate reunification. When we will be reunified with Christ! Like the five wise bridesmaids of Jesus’ parable of the wedding party, we must be ready now for the Bridegroom’s return.

Surely there must have been times over those 28 years that the man despaired of ever having the opportunity to return the books. But his faith in the coming freedom was so strong that he was ready at the first opportunity to return the books to their rightful place.

Over the years, as we have looked forward to Jesus’ return, we have been inspired and moved with the words of the hymn: “Lift up the trumpet, and loud let it ring.”2 Because we’re human, however, we must admit that at times we have become discouraged that He would ever come back. When we face pain and disappointment that are so much a part of life, we can become disheartened. At times like these our relationship with Him becomes most important. Then our faith can be strengthened that the wall will surely come down, and we will be able to go home at last.

“In the parable,” we are told, “all the ten virgins went out to meet the bridegroom. All had lamps and vessels for oil. For a time there was seen no difference between them. So with the church that lives just before Christ’s second coming. All have a knowledge of the Scriptures. All have heard the message of Christ’s near approach, and confidently expect His appearing. But as in the parable, so it is now. A time of waiting intervenes, faith is tried; and when the cry is heard, ‘Behold, the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet Him,’ many are unready. They have no oil in their vessels with their lamps. They are destitute of the Holy Spirit.”3

Being knowledgeable vs. being wise

Notice that Jesus didn’t say that five of the bridesmaids were “knowledgeable.” He said that they were “wise.” There’s a great difference between these two words.

We have been told that in the time of the end, “ ‘many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase’ ” (Dan. 12:4, NKJV). Francis Bacon said that knowledge is power. If this is the case, how can it be that with so much knowledge, people are running to and fro? If knowledge is increasing, shouldn’t the world be getting better? Shouldn’t there be less and less confusion and chaos? Shouldn’t the world be moving ever more inevitably toward perfection? Have you ever wondered if maybe it’s possible that in the time of the end people are running to and fro because knowledge has been increased?

In fact, we’re faced today with more knowledge than we can possibly use. And all of this because we’re living in the so-called age of information.

Philosopher Jean Beaudrillard has asserted, I think rightly, that “the media are so saturated with information, and with so many different voices demanding to be heard, that it is no longer possible to know what you either know or want any more.”4 Radio, television, newspapers, Web sites—all claim to be presenting news and facts. Talk shows and commentators artfully blur the line between opinion and fact. And the Internet provides so much raw data that it boggles the mind.

We are not living in the age of information. We are living in the age of informational obesity.

In an episode of the television program The Practice, centered on the personal and professional lives of a group of lawyers in Boston, the small law firm was unevenly matched in a legal battle with a much more affluent and prestigious legal practice. The larger practice was representing a transnational corporation with pockets so deep that they seemed to defy gravity. When the underdog legal firm subpoenaed the corporation for certain information, the opposing fi rm sent them an unnecessarily massive amount of office records. Clearly, it was an attempt to discourage them from finding the specific information they needed. It contained so much data and documentation that the smaller firm simply didn’t have the resources to plumb it.

Whether the real world of jurisprudence actually employs the use of this strategy or is just the figment of a scriptwriter’s imagination, it serves as an apt illustration: It’s possible to bury the truth in otherwise useless information. If Satan has his way, that’s literally what all these media will be doing to us: submerging the truth under a Himalayan range of completely worthless—and often destructive—strata.

So it’s become an inescapable conclusion that much of the information gathering that we indulge has been motivated by our hunger for more data—not for more truth. In the words of a popular song on the classic radio stations:

“You don’t really need to find out what’s going on. You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone.”

Christian author Dorothy Sayers grumbled: “The public do not care whether they are being told truth or not.”5 And this was 60 years ago—back in the time machine to a place where there was no such thing as a blog, a podcast, or an infomercial. In its earlier days the Internet was hailed as the most democratic of the media. Because everyone could access all this valuable information, advocates crowed, we would at last be brought together into a golden future.

But this didn’t take into account the human element: The brutal truth is that most of us don’t rely on the media to seek a balanced menu in data; we go there to reinforce our presuppositions. It has become just another instrument of polarization. The availability of all that fantastic information hasn’t changed us for the better at all. Instead, we’ve become more extreme versions of our former selves. “There is reason to think that the Internet is more likely to increase social fragmentation than it is likely to promote social consensus.”6 And none of the rest of the media can be categorized as any better. Even the information supposedly reported as news has its basis on one ideology or another.

As we expose ourselves to these sources of information in the media, we must continually ask ourselves, How important are these facts in the cosmic reckoning? How much time should I be devoting to accessing such facts? Am I devoting time to the receiving of these facts—this so-called news—at the expense of something more timeless, transcendent, or important? If I’m spending two to three hours each evening before the TV set or the computer screen and have only ten to fifteen minutes to breeze through my Bible, am I becoming informationally obese? How crucial is it, after all, to be aware that some newly released film has become the third-highest grossing film in history? Or that someone has just purchased the pope’s limousine in auction at an obscene price? Or that one celebrity is suing another for failing to live up to a contract?

Might we be “ ‘poor, blind, and naked’ ” (Rev. 3:17, NKJV) when we think we’re rich in information as well as in material goods?

Knowing vs. being prepared

All ten bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable apparently knew exactly what they needed to know to be prepared. Mere knowledge wasn’t enough. Even those described as foolish knew all they had to know, but they hadn’t been transformed by what they knew.

As we wait for Jesus’ return, we don’t know the deadline! We are in this “position of suspense.” From our viewpoint, at least, we’re way past due.

When we read the biblical prophecies, it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion than that we are on the cusp of the very end. And this interpretation isn’t unique to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The eminent analytical scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton developed a manuscript in 1704. After a thorough analysis of the book of Daniel, he predicted in this manuscript that the end of the world would come about 1,260 years after the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. One thousand two hundred sixty years! Does this sound familiar?

Recently one non-Christian on the Internet expressed how unnerving this is—even to those who are committed solely to human reason: “When you think of Sir Isaac Newton, you think of the father of modern physics and astronomy, a scientist and a rationalist—not someone warning of the Apocalypse. . . . It makes you a tad uneasy when you realize that Newton’s predictions about the laws of gravity and the motion of the planets were proved correct.”7

If we are expecting the apocalypse to be nothing more than the utter end of human existence, it would be an understatement to say that it makes us feel “a tad uneasy.” But to the Christian, the Second Coming is something to look forward to because our knowledge of the Second Coming has had a transformative effect on our lives, on the way we conduct ourselves in our workplaces, our schools, with our families—even in our times of complete solitude. Basic human nature desires to plan ahead—especially for those things that we are looking forward to with anticipation.

Knowing and being prepared

Here’s a crucial question: Are we truly looking forward to Jesus’ return? “Many profess to be wise but have they the Holy Spirit? As a people, we profess to know the truth, but of what avail will this be if we do not carry out its principles in our life?”8

Knowledge, in Scripture, goes beyond mere facts. As the familiar hymn goes, “The love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind.”9

Jesus went on with His parable: “ ‘While they were gone to buy oil, the bridegroom came. Then those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was locked’ ” (Matt. 25:10, NLT).

How could this have been? How could there have been such a large portion of the wedding party who were unprepared, even when they knew how to be prepared?

Jesus warned us that before He comes again, false prophets and christs will appear on earth who will do such impressive things that we will be in danger of being fooled—and lost. If Hollywood today can mesmerize millions of viewers with Harry Potter—even when they know the whole thing is pretend— surely the devil has a few communication skills and media left that he can use to fool even some of “the elect.”

The good news is that Jesus Himself described His second advent. He provided some explicit and graphic characteristics of His return that we would do well to remember. And if we have grounded our preparation squarely on vigilant study of His Word, we won’t be fooled by Satan’s astonishing counterfeits.

Yet knowing the objective facts that biblical prophecy has provided us about His return becomes only a part of our being prepared. There is more.

“Without the Spirit of God,” Ellen White reminds us, “a knowledge of His word is of no avail. The theory of truth, unaccompanied by the Holy Spirit, cannot quicken the soul or sanctify the heart. One may be familiar with the commands and promises of the Bible; but unless the Spirit of God sets the truth home, the character will not be transformed. Without the enlightenment of the Spirit, men will not be able to distinguish truth from error, and they will fall under the masterful temptations of Satan.”10

Our readiness for Jesus’ return—for the Bridegroom’s return—transcends the merely factual. Of course, we must know such information so that we will not be deceived. But we must also know Jesus personally. Preparation for His return cannot be bought or borrowed at the last minute. It is not a commodity. We must each have a personal, living relationship with our Savior.

Our readiness is relational—based not on what we know, but on who we know. Notice what the bridegroom says when those who were unprepared returned after the door was shut: “ ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you’ ” (v. 12, NIV). There was no relationship. When Jesus does return, our lamps must be well fi lled with the oil of the Spirit. Then we will be prepared to go home with Him—forever!

This “forever” will mean a completely different kind of existence than any we’ve known before. It will be a return to the Eden that we lost so long ago. It will be a time and place where “ ‘there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ ” (Rev. 21:4, NIV).

The “old order of things,” the “position of suspense,” will be no more. There will be no more waiting. No more pain. No more tears. No more death.

Based on this scriptural reference in the book of Revelation, the lyrics from a contemporary Christian song express this hope in a moving and beautiful way:

“Say goodbye to the loneliness forever.

Say hello to the garden once again.

Say goodbye to this world of stormy weather.

Say hello to the One who calls you ‘friend.’

I can’t wait until we’re reunited and we say,

“Hello again—we’re back together.

Hello again—we’re here forever.

Hello again—rejoined in heaven.

Hello again.”11

1 James White, Life Incidents (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1868), vol. 1, 337.

2 “Jesus Is Coming Again,” The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, no. 213.

3 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 408.

4 Paraphrased in Glenn Ward, Postmodernism (London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 1997), 182.

5 The Mind of the Maker (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1941), xi.

6 Gordon Graham, The Internet: A Philosophical Inquiry (London: Routledge, 1999), 83.


8 Ellen G. White in The Signs of the Times, August 1, 1892.

9 “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, no. 114.

10 White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 408.




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Gary B. Swanson is the associate director for Sabbath School and Personal Ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

January 2008

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