God’s People Are a Waiting People

A Future Orientation

As early as Eden, God’s people have been a waiting people. Following the fall of our first parents, God made a promise that permanently oriented his people toward the future. God told the serpent directly, and the guilty pair indirectly:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
      and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
      and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3:15)

It was, in short, the promise of a coming, conquering son. The promise encapsulated every promise in the Old Testament and, as such, shaped God’s people into a waiting people. This anticipatory posture can be seen throughout the Old Testament, as men and women of faith look forward to what God would do in the future through a promised son. Lamech names his son Noah in the hope that he will rescue the chosen line from the curse of sin and death (Gen. 5:29), yet it is six hundred years before Noah enters the ark at the time of the flood (Gen. 7:6). God promises Abraham that he will make him into a great nation through a son from his own body (Gen. 12:2; Gen. 15:4; Gen. 17:16), but he has to wait twenty-five years for the birth of Isaac (Gen. 21:1–3). Isaac, in turn, has to wait twenty years for the birth of Esau and Jacob, his twin boys (Gen. 25:20, 26). Jacob works for seven years to get his wife Rachel, but in the end is deceived into marrying Leah (Gen. 29:20–30), from whom he receives Judah, the son of the promised line (Gen. 29:35; Gen. 49:10). Naomi has to wait to see if her line will continue, following the death of her husband and two sons. Even when her daughter-in-law Ruth faithfully follows her back to the promised land and pursues Boaz at the threshing floor, they both have to wait to see whether Boaz will be the kinsman to redeem Ruth (Ruth 3:12–18). Their godly patience allows Boaz to negotiate his way into marriage with Ruth, from whom comes Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David (Ruth 4:18–22). It is only in Naomi’s old age that her life is restored (Ruth 4:15). Hannah has to endure years of barrenness, like the matriarchs preceding her, before the Lord opens her womb and gives her a son called Samuel (1 Sam. 1:1–20), the one who would anoint David as God’s chosen king (1 Sam. 16:1–3). However, David’s ascension to the throne does not come immediately. While he is anointed in his youth (1 Sam. 16:10–13), he has to go through several years of humiliation and suffering before his ascension to the throne at thirty years old (2 Sam. 5:4); and God’s subsequent promise to David that his son will sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12–16) is not ultimately fulfilled until the coming of his greater son, Jesus Christ—some one thousand years later. Indeed, adding up the ages in the biblical genealogies reveals that God’s promise in Eden of a coming, conquering son takes about four thousand years to become a reality.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Jonathan Gibson

For individuals and families, this 40-day liturgical devotional guides readers through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany—helping Christians retain their focus on Jesus and meditate on the mystery of his incarnation.

Waiting. From the beginning of history, God calls his people to be a people waiting for the coming of his promised Son. New Testament writers capture the relief at Jesus’s arrival after the prolonged wait. Luke the evangelist describes Simeon as a righteous and devout man who has been “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Taking Jesus in his arms, Simeon utters words that would become an integral part of Christian liturgy from the early centuries of the church—the Nunc Dimittis:

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
      according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
      and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29–32)

The prophetess Anna has a similar experience on the same day, as she gazes upon the baby Jesus. Unable to contain her excitement, she speaks about Christ “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

The same is true at the end of Christ’s life as well as the beginning. Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Jerusalem Council, is described as one who is waiting for the kingdom of God (Luke 23:51). In the events bookending Christ’s life, there is a remnant in Israel waiting for the day of salvation, waiting for the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul describes it as the “end of the ages” dawning (1 Cor. 10:11). It is a long, long wait. But it is not a minute too late. As Paul explains: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5).

Although the longings, hopes, and expectations of the coming, conquering son are met in Jesus’s first coming, it does not change the reality that God’s people are a waiting people. Following Jesus’s ascension to his Father’s right hand, New Testament believers are still called to adopt the same anticipatory posture. In his Farewell Discourse, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going away to prepare a place for them but that he will come again to bring them to that heavenly home prepared for them (John 14:3). He promises, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). Jesus also speaks about it in parables:

Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. (Luke 12:35–36)

From the beginning of history, God calls his people to be a people waiting for the coming of his promised Son.

The angels reiterate this truth to the apostles as they gaze upward to the sky following Jesus’s departure: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This “coming again” shapes the posture of God’s New Testament church into an anticipatory people, just like his people in the Old Testament.

The apostles reveal the same mindset when they write plainly of “waiting” for the “revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7), for “the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:5), for God’s “Son from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:10), for “the appear ing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13), for “the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 21). Indeed, the apostle John closes the Christian canon with words that remind us of Jesus’s promise and our longing: “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

In both dispensations of redemptive history, the people of God are defined by waiting. In the Old Testament, believers wait for Jesus’s first coming; in the New Testament, believers wait for his second coming. In both cases, God’s people live in the light of Christ’s advent.

The observance of Christ’s advent has been expressed in the liturgy of the Christian church for over two millennia. Each Lord’s Day as the gospel is preached or the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is administered, believers are reminded that Jesus is coming again. Whether it be the threatening word about the “day appointed” or the comforting word “until he comes,” each Lord’s Day we are reminded of the need to adopt an expectant posture. As Christians, we are waiting for God’s Son to be revealed from heaven. This has been so since the days of the apostles.

However, since the days of the early church, Christians have also observed a time in the church calendar for a more focused concentration on the second coming of Christ, known as Advent. Its origins go back to the fourth century when converts prepared themselves for baptism. As the centuries passed, the season of Advent became more directly connected to Christmas—a time to consider Christ’s second coming as Christians reflected on his first coming. Often it involved a period of fasting and prayer (Advent is also known as “Little Lent”) in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 (in the Western church) or January 6 (in the Eastern church). Contrary to popular opinion, the date of Christ’s birth on December 25 is not due to a pagan holiday that has been repurposed by Christians; rather, the date is based on a belief that Christ died around the same time he was conceived. The two dates commonly held for his death are March 25 (in the Western church) and April 6 (in the Eastern church). If this was the date on which he was also conceived, then his birth would have been around December 25 or January 6, depending on the respective church tradition.

Although some of the Reformers stopped the practice of observing feast days and the fasting periods associated with them, some branches of the Reformed church kept the more gospel-oriented feast days. For example, in the Swiss Reformed church in Zürich, Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger continued to observe Christmas, the Circumcision of Christ, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Under the influence of Zacharias Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Palatinate church did the same. In Geneva, although he did not want the day to be elevated to the same status as the Lord’s Day, John Calvin adopted a “moderate course” of observing Christ’s birth on Christmas Day. On one occasion, he suspended his practice of lectio continua to preach on Christ’s nativity during the Christmas season. At the Synod of Dort in 1618–1619, the Dutch Reformed Church codified the keeping of Christmas, the Circumcision of Christ, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost in their canons of church order (see articles 63 and 67). Today Christmas is observed in some way in most Protestant denominations, often along with Advent, as a time of meditative preparation for celebrating the birth of Christ. Of course, meditating on the first and second comings of Christ is something we do each Lord’s Day; however, there is also spiritual benefit in setting aside a period in the church calendar each year to contemplate more deliberately the two advents of our Lord.

During this season we wait in earnest for Christ’s second coming while we wonder in awe at his first coming. To be clear, the season is not about what we can do for Christ by our work or prayers or fasting; rather, it is about what he has done for us in his work and prayers and fasting—a work that began in his first coming in humility and which will conclude in his second coming in glory. In the meantime, as we live between these two advents of Christ, we sing with the hymnwriter of old:

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and rescue captive Israel.

This article is adapted from O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: A Liturgy for Daily Worship from Advent to Epiphany by Jonathan Gibson.

Related Articles

6 Passages to Read for Advent

Celebrate the beginning of Advent season by reading these passages either on your own, with a friend, or with your family.

Observing Advent Aright

Jonathan Gibson

The place of Advent in our calendar as being the four-week period before Christmas day on December 25 certainly lends itself to that understanding. However, while this is true, it is only half the truth.

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.