An Expectation of the Lord Coming “Soon”
If an infallible spokesman for Jesus Christ does not know when the Lord is going to return (as Jesus said would be the case, Matt. 24:36), what would that spokesman mean by saying it will be “soon” (Rev. 22:20), or “at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7), or “at the door” (James 5:9)? I think it misses the point of Matthew 24:36 to say Jesus didn’t know “the day and hour” but that he did know the month or the year. The point of Jesus’s ignorance of the time is to remove the possibility of calculating how long we dare be indifferent to his coming. Not knowing “the day or the hour” is a graphic way of saying that neither he nor we can predict the time.
So the question remains, What would it mean, then, for an infallible spokesman (an apostle!) of the Lord Jesus, who cannot predict the time, to say that Jesus is coming soon, or that Jesus is at the door, or that Jesus is at hand, or that Jesus will come after a little while? What do the New Testament writers mean by their predictions of Jesus’s nearness? In what sense do they mean he is near?
In answer to those questions, I’m going to offer three phrases that I believe are rooted in biblical texts and then give a brief explanation of each: potentially near, holistically near, and divinely near.
First, the apostles mean Jesus is potentially near.
That is, he is near in the sense that any presumption of his delay on our part would be folly. It is as if the apostles should say, “You know that we cannot predict the time of the Lord’s coming, because the Lord himself did not know the time (Matt. 24:36), and he told us, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority’ (Acts 1:7). Therefore, you know that when we say ‘soon’ we are not doing what we cannot do. We are not predicting what we cannot predict. Rather, we are telling you that it is potentially soon, meaning that the replacement of hope for this soon-ness with presumption of delay will unfit you for his coming and lead to destruction.”
By presumption I mean the unwarranted assumption that his coming is so distant that I am not in danger of his coming while I neglect my vigilance to walk uprightly. This presumption fails to reckon with the fact that lack of vigilance now may lead to utter obliviousness for the rest of your life so that the so-called distant coming finds you utterly unprepared.
I draw this meaning of “soon” from Jesus’s illustration of the second coming in Matthew 24:45–51:
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, “My master is delayed,” and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The warning is this: never presume upon the Master’s delay. That is, never presume that neglecting spiritual wakefulness will not be met with the surprise of his appearing. Always hope for his soon arrival and act in the light of it. Saying that Jesus’s coming is near when you do not know when he is coming means that he is potentially near, and all presumption otherwise is dangerous.
Second, the apostles mean Jesus is holistically near.
That is, as part of a whole, unified vision of the end time, he is near because, considered as a whole, the “end,” the “last days,” are already present. Taken as a whole, the end has begun. When we say that Jesus and the apostles did not know when the second coming would take place, we are saying that the future God granted them to see was like successive mountain ranges that appear as a single range. This telescoped range of mountain ridges, appearing as one, is what I mean by a whole, unified vision of the end time.
My family has spent time at a home in Tennessee that has a front porch facing northeast. On a crystal-clear evening, we can see at least seven distinct mountain ranges from that porch. But on a hazy evening, they look like one mountain range. I have used George Ladd’s phrase prophetic perspective to describe this way of seeing the future. It sees the distant reality and the nearer reality as one. I’m using the phrase holistically near, rather than prophetically near, because I think it might trigger in our memory more clearly the idea of the second coming being part of a telescoped or foreshortened vision of a history of events seen as a whole.
Always hope for his soon arrival and act in the light of it.
The “last days” began with the first coming of the Messiah. “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God” (1 Pet. 1:20–21). “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2). “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26; cf. 1 Cor. 10:11).
This implies that the vision of the entire period between the incarnation and the second coming is one great mountain range with many hills and peaks that were indistinct to the apostles. They were granted to know a good many details, but very little about the overall timeframe. They saw the end largely as one reality, and they speak of it holistically as near because, as a whole, it is near. That near whole includes the parousia—the coming of Jesus. Therefore, it too is near—near as part of the whole that has already begun.
Third, the apostles mean Jesus is divinely near.
That is, from the divine perspective, the time between Jesus’s first and second coming is very short. The apostle Peter introduces this meaning of near in his response to scoffers who already in his day mocked the fact that so much time had passed without the Lord’s return. He says:
[Know] this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Pet. 3:3–4)
After reminding the scoffers that history is not as static as they think (in view of creation and flood and final judgment, 2 Pet. 3:5–7), he then introduces the foundation of what I am calling divinely near:
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Pet. 3:8–9)
Verse 9 is addressed to our attitude and our vocabulary: don’t call God’s purposeful delay “slowness.” Call it “patience.” Don’t scoff at God’s timing as if his promise of coming soon were a myth (2 Pet. 1:16). Instead, give thanks that his promise of mercy and patience is being perfectly worked out.
To support his admonition about our attitude and vocabulary, Peter introduces the concept of divinely near: “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” To get the full force of the point, a scoffer might calculate: Supposing that Peter wrote this letter thirty years after the ascension of Jesus to heaven, those thirty years would be 3 percent of a thousand years. Since a thousand years is “as one day,” that would mean that .72 hours (.03 x 24 hours in a day) has passed since Jesus departed. Forty-five minutes is not a long delay. Or, from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, two days is not a long delay.
In essence, Peter is introducing the mystery of God’s relation to time. The Bible is not a primer on Einstein’s relativity theory. It does not delve into the scientific relationship between space and time. However, Paul says provocatively that “God decreed [a hidden wisdom] before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7; cf. 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2). In other words, in some sense God existed before “the ages,” that is, before time. Peter is suggesting to us that this mysterious relationship between God and time should make us slow to scoff at the timing of his prophecies. If Jesus and the apostles say the coming of Christ is “near” or “at hand” or “at the gates” or “soon,” when they confessedly do not know when he is coming, we should reckon with the fact that the divine perspective is part of what gives meaning to their words. Jesus is divinely near.
His Appearing Is Near in at Least Three Senses
I conclude, therefore, that if we take into account the pointers Jesus and the apostles give us, we will not fault them for speaking of the Lord’s coming as near or soon or at hand. We will take into account the agreed-upon premise that none of them knew when Jesus would return. With that pointer in view, we will take heed to Jesus’s warning against every presumption of delay as a dangerous attitude (Matt. 24:48; par. Luke 12:45), and conclude that the second coming is potentially near. We will take heed to the prophetic perspective of the Old and New Testaments that sees the “last days” (including Christ’s first and second coming) as a unified whole that has already begun, and we will conclude that Jesus is holistically near. And we will take seriously Peter’s reminder that with God a thousand years is as a day, and we will conclude that Jesus is divinely near.
This article is adapted from Come, Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Second Coming of Christ by John Piper.
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