Verse one of Revelation kicks the book off with the claim that Jesus is showing John “the things that must soon take place.” Of course, this statement strikes us as a bit odd some two thousand years later. “What is soon?” we might ask? “I call all times soon,” C.S. Lewis imagined God replying (1).
Such an answer has depth for sure, but is there any other way we might better understand the idea of soon-ness after all this time has passed? I think so. The first thing we need to understand is that (as odd as it sounds to many) plenty of the book of Revelation has already come to pass. As we covered yesterday, Revelation is partially a letter written to specific people a long time ago. Revelation is also partly a prophecy, and many of the prophetic words given to those specific people have already served their purpose, for those people have now been dead for centuries and do not need those words any longer.
Of course, to say that all of Revelation has passed would be a great error, for clearly the climax of the book is still ahead of us. But that being said, Bible scholars are all over the place as to how much of this book has come to pass and how much hasn’t. But many, if not most, seem on board with the fact that some of it has already taken place. Therefore, when Jesus says that these things “must soon take place,” He is not wrong, for plenty of it did.
But that being said, we can’t help but admit that the entire New Testament seemed quite urgent in their belief that Jesus was truly coming back soon—and not like two-thousand years soon, but like tomorrow soon. And they had good reason to believe so, for Jesus had told them that while He didn’t know when He would be returning, the generation of His disciples would not pass away before He returned (Mk 13:30-31).
Waiting a few millennia was not at all the way the early church interpreted Jesus’ prophetic word. The New Testament authors write with a hurried expectation. Paul takes the gospel to the ends of the known world, which in Paul’s time, “was the extent of the Roman Empire” (2). Paul even writes with the expectation that everything is coming to an end soon.
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor 7:29-31)
Paul’s words here are strong. The old world is passing away and the new one is taking over and it is doing so with such urgency that even something as good and right as marriage itself should not get in the way of us preparing for the coming end times.
So then where is Jesus? Why did He not return within a generation? Is He a false prophet? Was His word about the timing of His return wrong?
It’s helpful here to understand the prophetic genre, for it is not always as simple as it seems. We often say that if a prophecy doesn’t come true, the prophet must therefore have been a false prophet. While this is rationally and even Biblically true (Deut 18:15-22), this is only one aspect of the prophetic genre. God shows Jeremiah that prophecy is a bit more complicated than this.
If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. (Jer 18:7-10)
According to this illustration, God was telling Jeremiah that He had the flexibility to change legitimate prophetic words. If He declares destruction, He is still able to recall His proclamation if humanity responds by changing their ways. David knew this well, and that’s why he prayed for his child to live even though God had given him the prophetic word that his child would die (2 Sam 12:15-22). Likewise, God is also willing to revoke a declaration of blessing on a people if they decide to live evil lives. It’s therefore interesting to note that although prophetic words come from God, we are instrumental in allowing them to come to fruition. God proves this lesson throughout the Scriptures elsewhere (Jonah is a perfect example).
It isn’t hard to think of God deciding not to bless people who do evil. However, this exact scenario enrages some when it is restated with casual language; for it seems we’ve learned here that God can change His mind.
This is not to say that God changed His mind about the end times. They are still coming—they are predestined, if you will—but the timing as to when they come has been delayed. I might even be so bold as to say that God planned on Jesus coming back within a generation just as Jesus originally stated He would and that we could have had an alternate history. But for some reason that didn’t happen.
But why change the timing? What was the reason? Eventually even the Bible writers themselves had to ask this question, because it was certainly taking a lot longer than they thought it would for Jesus to return. Peter gives us an answer in 2 Peter, one of the latest authored books of the Bible.
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. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Pet 3:8-10)
This was Peter’s beautiful answer to Jesus’ delay. The Savior has not returned yet because God is patient and He wants as many people to be saved as possible. That’s not so bad an answer really—it’s certainly not as condemning as most end times preachers make it seem. Where is Jesus? He’s too loving and patient to come back yet. He wants more to be saved from wrath! He’s so patient that He even has angels extend an invitation to come and worship Him well into the book of Revelation (Rev 14:7).
So in the end, though Jesus prophesied that He was coming back within a generation, He said that only the Father knew the full knowledge as to when it would be. Angels who know things we don’t know have no idea when the end is. Even Jesus, God-in-flesh, is limited to knowing when the end is. Only God the Father and God the Father alone has the answer. And while He may have planned on coming back much sooner, it seems possible that He has changed His mind. He has decided to proceed with patience and love and give us more time to lead others to Him.
This is an adapted summary of chapter 13 of my book, The Rush and the Rest. For more thoughts on how free will works into this discussion, see that chapter. Likewise, I go deeper in that chapter to establish the points communicated here, which are partially informed by the “suggested reading” below.
1. Lewis, C.S. “The Voyage of the Dawntreader.” The Chronicles of Narnia. p. 499.
2. Heiser, Michael S. The Unseen Realm. p. 300.
When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia by Christopher M. Hays