Leading Question: What are we supposed to know about the timing of the Lord’s return?
Four key chapters in the New Testament address the question of when Jesus will return: Matthew 24, 25, Acts 1, and 1 Thess. 5. My students in History of Adventism are always curious: “How could our forebears not have seen these passages?
Matthew 24:36-39: But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Matthew 24:42-44: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Matthew 24:48-50: But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know.
Matthew 25:5-12: As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Acts 1:6-11:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
A well-known Christian author, C. S. Lewis, addressed the question of delay of the advent and the fear motivation linked with it:
“We must never speak to simple, excitable people about ‘the day’ without emphasizing again and again the utter impossibility of prediction. We must try to show them that the impossibility is an essential part of the doctrine. If you do not believe our Lord’s words, why do you believe in his return at all? And if you do believe them must you not put away from you, utterly and forever, any hope of dating that return? His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions. (1) That he will certainly return. (2) That we cannot possibly find out when. (3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him.” – C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night” in WLN, 107
“Perfect love, we know casteth out fear. But so do several others things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.” – Lewis, WLN, 109
Reasons for the delay:
- Gospel must be preached in all the earth.
- Character of God must be fully reproduced in his people.
- Certain events must take place before the end (e.g. Sunday legislation).
A colleague of mine once said, “Any attempted explanation of the delay very quickly turns demonic.”
What then is the point of “revival and reformation”? To earn our salvation? To hasten the end? Or should the whole process of Christian living and Christian witness be unprogrammed and spontaneous?
Arthur S. Maxwell (Uncle Arthur), once told a story of a young man who applied for the job of hired hand at a ranch. When the rancher told him that he would need to be available at any hour of the day or night in case there was a storm requiring him to put things in order. The only thing the young said was, “I can sleep on stormy nights.” The rancher was puzzled, but decided to hire the young man anyway. In the course of time a storm was raging in the night and the rancher went to get his hired hand. He could not arouse him at all. The young man was fast asleep.
Somewhat unhappy, the rancher went out to check the barns, animals, and equipment. But whereever he went, everything was fully battened down and in order. Finally, he understood what the young man meant: “I can sleep on stormy nights.” He could sleep because everything was fully in order. Question: Shouldn’t that be the model of the Christian waiting Jesus’ return?
Is the delay more of an embarrassment now than it was in the first century? When Ellen White was challenged about the delay after 1844, her answer was intriguing, for she cited those passages which gave the impression that Jesus could have come in the first century. Here is her defense as published in Selected Message, Bk 1, 66-69:
A statement published in 1851 in Experience and Views, and found on page 49 [page 58, present edition] of Early Writings is quoted as proving my testimonies false: [66/67] “I saw that the time for Jesus to be in the most holy place was nearly finished, and that time can last but a very little longer.”
As the subject was presented before me, the period of Christ’s ministration seemed almost accomplished. Am I accused of falsehood because time has continued longer than my testimony seemed to indicate? How is it with the testimonies of Christ and His disciples? Were they deceived?
Paul writes to the Corinthians:
“But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not” (1 Cor. 7:29,30).
Again, in his epistle to the Romans, he says:
“The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light” (Rom. 13:12).
And from Patmos, Christ speaks to us by the beloved John:
“Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Rev. 1:3). “The Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done. Behold, I come quickly; blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book” (Rev. 22:6,7).
The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.
God had committed to His people a work to be accomplished on earth. The third angel’s message was to be given, the minds of believers were to be directed to the heavenly sanctuary, where Christ had entered to make atonement for His people. The Sabbath reform was to [68/69] be carried forward. The breach in the law of God must be made up. The message must be proclaimed with a loud voice, that all the inhabitants of earth might receive the warning. The people of God must purify their souls through obedience to the truth, and be prepared to stand without fault before Him at His coming.
Had Adventists, after the great disappointment in 1844, held fast their faith, and followed on unitedly in the opening providence of God, receiving the message of the third angel and in the power of the Holy Spirit proclaiming it to the world, they would have seen the salvation of God, the Lord would have wrought mightily with their efforts, the work would have been completed, and Christ would have come ere this to receive His people to their reward. – 1 SM 66-69 [Ms 4, 1883].
A vision of the new earth. God’s vegetarian kingdom is one of the most appealing of all the “new earth” promises. It is the last word for our lessons this quarter: Isaiah 11:6-9, NRSV:
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.