I intend, Lord willing, to preach three more times in this series on Revelation, each sermon devoted to a theme – already familiar to readers of Revelation – that is once again placed front and center in this concluding paragraph of the book. Today I want to consider the question of the Lord’s imminent return, that is, his coming soon; next Lord’s Day morning, the question of reward and the Lord’s judgment of our lives according to what we have done; and, finally, the question of free will and the free offer of the gospel, the famous “whosoever will may come” of v. 17.
In most commentaries verses 6 to 21 of chapter 22 are described as the “epilogue” of the book. It is something of a patchwork of statements, not easily related to one another, but it is clearly a conclusion. The two great themes of the epilogue are the truthfulness of the entire book and the imminence or the nearness of the end. [Mounce, 390] The epilogue also has a number of similarities to chapter 1, the prologue of the book. Indeed, there are so many specific repetitions that it is clear that the prologue and epilogue were designed as a matched pair. Different voices speak through the epilogue, often without introduction. The Lord Christ himself speaks, so, apparently, does the angel who had been John’s guide in his tour of the New Jerusalem in the preceding section, and John also speaks.
v.7 The angel has just spoken of the things that must soon take place. Now we hear the Lord say that he will come soon. This statement occurs five times in Revelation, three times here in the epilogue. John also reminds us that Revelation is a prophecy: as he said in the opening chapter it concerns “what must soon take place” (1:1) or “what is now and what will take place later” (1:19). But it is also a prophecy to keep. The warnings and the exhortations scattered throughout the predictions are to be obeyed. The forecast of the future contained in the book is also a summons to live in a certain way in the present. One keeps the prophecy by living in the light of it!
This is the sixth of the seven “beatitudes” in Revelation, the first of which, in 1:3, makes the same point. The last of the seven beatitudes we will find in v. 14.
v.9 Some indication of the tremendous impression his vision made upon John is provided by the fact that again he fell down before the angel in worship, an act that had prompted the angel’s rebuke in 19:10. The fact that John describes his making this error a second time may be due to the fact, a fact known from other sources, that the worship of angels was a temptation to the early church and John is making it crystal clear that it is a practice that has no place in the Christian church. But, even more, the threat of idolatry and the temptation of idolatry are pressing matters for Christians living in the age of Domitian. [cf. Osborne, 783] John has addressed that already in his letters to the seven churches. Here then he as much as reminds his readers that if Christians are not to worship angels, they are certainly not to worship Roman emperors!
v.10 This statement about not sealing up the book can only be understood against the background of Daniel 12:4, where Daniel is told to “close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end.” The idea there is that considerable time must elapse before the events that Daniel had predicted would come to pass. Daniel’s prophecy concerned some remote generation yet to arise, but not so here: the time is near! John’s prophecy is immediately relevant for the Christian church of his own day. [Ladd, 291]
v.11 The sense of these strange words seems to be that the time is so near that there isn’t time to alter the character and lifestyle of men, deeply fixed as they are by the habits of a lifetime. It is not yet too late – an invitation to believe and be saved can still be given, as it is in v. 17 – but we have already been shown a number of times in the vision so far people who have sinned themselves beyond all repentance and who cannot find it within themselves to turn to the Lord even when his terrible judgments are beginning to fall upon them.
I will leave comment on the remaining verses for the next two Sundays’ sermons.
Now, what are we to do with this striking emphasis in the epilogue on the imminence of the Lord’s coming? Three times we hear the Lord say, “Behold I am coming soon.” Once we hear that the time is near (the very assertion also made in the opening sentences of the book). The angel also speaks of the “things that must soon take place.” But here we sit, now some two-thousand years later, and the Lord has not yet come. How can we reconcile his promise to come soon to the fact that two millennia later we still await his return? When a debtor tells a creditor that he will get a payment to him soon, the creditor naturally wants to know just what “soon” means. Does it mean the check is in the mail? Does it mean this week? Does it mean this month? Or, in fact, does it mean that the man who owes him money has no idea when or if he’ll be able to make a payment but doesn’t want his creditor to know that? How soon is soon?
It is an absolutely fair question. We know that because people were asking it and the apostles had to answer it already in their own lifetimes. People took soon to mean soon: a few months or at most a few years, but by the decade of the sixties, when Christ had not returned, Christians were scratching their heads to know what to think. They had widely supposed that when the Lord commanded them to be on the lookout for his return that he would come in their own lifetime. Paul himself seems to have thought that at one time. When he wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians, in speaking of the Second Coming, he remarked that “we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” He seemed to think, or at least that is the impression, that he would be among those who were alive in the world when Christ returned. He knew better by the end of his life. But, in any case, the delay of the Lord’s return even some thirty or thirty five years after his ascension had prompted sufficient confusion on the point that Peter, in his second letter, felt compelled to respond and explain. He there refers to those who scoff at the Christian hope of Christ’s return, saying,
“Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” [2 Pet. 3:4]
Well, if they were asking how Christ’s coming could be said to be soon a mere thirty-five years after his ascension to heaven, how much more may we ask the question now these two-thousand years later? But asking and answering are two very different things. As you may know, the question raised by Christ’s promise to return soon has been answered in very different ways.
- Some, of course, have concluded that the promise was a fraud and that Christians were taken in by it and should have realized comparatively quickly that Christ wasn’t coming soon; he wasn’t coming at all.
Skeptical biblical scholarship characteristically treats the passages that speak of an imminent return of Christ as simply wishful thinking that was exposed for what it was by the passage of time. They join the mockers of the first century who ask “Where is this coming he promised?” They give different answers to the question whether Jesus himself was confused on this point. The famous Albert Schweitzer proposed that Jesus thought that the final coming of the kingdom of God would occur through his death. But he was wrong and it came to nothing. The promise of his second coming, which in Schweitzer’s view never figured in Jesus’ own teaching, was simply the church’s effort to snatch some sort of victory from the jaws of defeat.
Of course, such skepticism about the Lord’s promise to return is invariably of a piece with a much wider mistrust of the Bible’s entire account of Jesus: his incarnation, his virgin birth, his sinless life, his miraculous ministry, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection, and his ascension to heaven. For those who believe that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and the savior of the world, the delay in his return may remain a problem of understanding but it is by no means a disproof of Christianity.
- Others have rested a large part of their understanding of the New Testament on that word “soon” or “quickly” and have built an entire system of interpretation upon the assumption that “soon” must refer to a coming of the Lord in the days of the first century.
There are two forms of this approach to the problem that is often described as “the delay of the Parousia,” that is, the fact that Christ’s Second Coming, said in the first century to be happening soon, has not yet occurred.
The first approach is that of the so-called hyper-preterists, that is “super-preterists.” Remember, I said that preterism is the term that is used to describe views of the Bible’s teaching about the future that regard much of what is predicted in the New Testament as having been fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The term comes from the Latin word praeter meaning “past,” and indicates that much of what was future to the writers of the New Testament is past to us today. Hyper-preterists are those who consider that everything prophesied as future in the New Testament has already come to pass. It lies in the past, not the future. I won’t spend a great deal of time on this because I doubt any of you will be tempted by this way of interpreting the Bible, but you should know that there are those who propose a very simple solution to our problem. If Christ said he was coming soon, then he must have already come. Soon means soon! They link this simple argument based on “soon” with the Lord’s statement in the Olivette discourse that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” [Matt. 24:34] In their view this means that the Lord must have already returned, the Second Coming must have already happened, and we must be already living in the world to come. That, I suspect, will strike you as something of a disappointment!
A popular advocate of this understanding in the 19th century was a devout man by the name of J. Stuart Russell. He authored a book entitled The Parousia, published in 1878. It was reprinted by an evangelical publishing house in 1983. Russell was no nut – he was a friend of many prominent 19th century Christian leaders, including Charles Spurgeon – but he did argue that the Lord’s saying that he would come soon could only mean that he came in the first century and that the Second Coming lies behind us. The fact that some of you will have never heard of this idea is some indication of how difficult it is to square with what the Bible teaches about the Second Coming.
The second approach is more responsible and lies in the mainstream of Christian interpretation. I have mentioned it several times in our studies of Revelation. This is the system of interpretation often described as preterism but more ordinarily nowadays referred to as post-millennialism. According to this view the soon-coming of which the Lord referred to three times in Rev. 22 is not the Second Coming at all. It is his coming in judgment in A.D. 70 to punish Israel for its unbelief, to destroy the temple and its worship, and formally to introduce the new covenant epoch or Gentile era of the history of salvation. As we said before, according to this way of thinking most of Revelation is understood to concern not the end of history, not the circumstances leading up to the return of Jesus Christ, not the future, but the end of the Old Testament age with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in the year 70. The Book of Revelation, on this view, must have been written in the middle or later sixties, just a few years before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. So the “soon” of 22:7 meant “within the next few years.”
I have not found that interpretation of Revelation at all persuasive as I have made my way through its chapters and I again observe that, although a case can be made for dating the book before A.D. 70, it is hardly the most likely date. It is much more likely that the book was written by John near the end of his life in the last decade of the first century, thirty years or more after the destruction of Jerusalem. We have pointed out other problems as we have proceeded chapter by chapter through the book. The attempt to identify Babylon with Jerusalem in chapters 17-18, for example, is in my view very unpersuasive. The number 666 in all likelihood does not refer to the emperor Nero. Nor do I think it is very easy to understand the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 on this view. Another serious objection is, of course, that Peter wrote before A.D. 70 of the confusion some were feeling over the delay of Christ’s return. But he did not solve the problem with reference to the soon-coming destruction of Jerusalem. He spoke rather of the Lord’s patience and of a thousand years being but a day to the Lord. And he makes an explicit point of saying that the Lord’s coming is in fact a way of referring to the Second Coming: to that time when the heavens will disappear with a roar and earth be laid bare. It is that event that Peter says is in view when the Lord spoke of his “coming.” Much more could be said. But take the point: these men say that if Christ said he was coming soon, he must have come already because two-thousand years is not soon!
- A third solution to the problem of a soon-coming Second Coming for which we have now waited two-thousand years is to take the “soon” to mean that Christians are to suppose that Christ is coming in their lifetime, whether or not he is.
This is a view of imminence that, however unstudied and unsystematically explained or defended, a great many Christians have held. They have read their Bibles and assumed that the Lord intended them to believe that his return was literally just around the corner. Fact is, thinking this way kept them on edge; all their lives they believed his coming was rapidly drawing near, and by the time they discovered that Christ would not return in their lifetime, they were already in heaven and didn’t care that they had been wrong.
There is, in fact, a kind of Christian spirituality that regards the expectation of Christ’s return in one’s own lifetime – literally “soon” or “quickly” – as a mark of true faith. They consider Christians who are not taken up with speculations about how the specific prophesies of the end of days might be coming to pass before our very eyes – earthquakes, rumors of wars, Israel now back in the Promised Land, the European Union, armies forming in the north and the east, and so on – to suffer from a want of real confidence in the Bible and its teaching about the future.
They pour scorn on the sort of Christians who produced the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer that provided a chart by which to calculate the date of Easter up to the year 2199, more than 500 years later! Those people obviously were not awaiting the Lord’s return! The 18th century American Episcopalians did that edition better, with a chart enabling their church members to calculate the date of Easter as far ahead as the year 8,500! We might agree that such a chart in one’s Prayer Book does not exactly encourage living in the active expectation of the Lord’s return! [cf. Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 167-168] But, the fact is, the Lord has not come and it is now the year 2009! We are through 350 of the 500 years already. The fact that Christians who expected the Lord’s return have been wrong 100% of the time does not worry these believers.
But surely there is a great problem with the view that encourages if it does not require Christians to believe something that turns out not to be true. I think I can confidently assure you that Jesus – who devoted his life to the truth – never taught that it was a virtue to believe a falsehood. Being wrong is no virtue in the Christian life. And the fact is Christians in the eager expectation of the Lord’s return have been wrong again and again.
Montanus, whom we might described as an early Pentecostal, figured the Lord would return to earth by the year 172. Hippolytus, a Christian teacher in Rome in the early years of the 3rd century, predicted the return of Christ in the year 500. Other fathers thought it would come in or about the year 800. A considerable number of teachers thought the end of the first millennium would herald the return of the Lord. Joachim of Fiore plumped for A.D. 1260 on the basis of Rev. 12:6. Melchior Hoffman, the Dutch Baptist of the first half of the 16th century predicted the end of the world in 1533 while the Reformed theologian, Johann Henrich Alsted, who died in 1638, thought Christ would come again in 1694. William Miller, sometime Baptist and one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventists predicted 1833 and then, after some refinement of his calculations, October 22, 1844. Charles Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses made a number of predictions, the most emphatic being 1914. Many of us well remember the Christian radio host, Harold Camping, who modestly predicted that, while no one can know the day or the hour of our Lord’s return, “when September 6, 1994 arrives, no one else can become saved.” Throughout the years of my youth we were treated to unending assurances that this particular political development or that heralded the approach of the last days.
The simple fact is that no one can know the day or the hour and the effort nevertheless to predict the time of the Lord’s return through these two thousand years is proof enough both that the Bible does not furnish us the data with which to make such a calculation and that there is little to be said for an outlook that results in a two thousand year long record of abject failure. Whatever the Lord meant by saying that he was coming soon, I think we can safely say he wasn’t intending to trick us into thinking one thing when the facts were otherwise!
But if so, what then are we to say in answer to the question: how can Jesus say he is coming soon when he has not come now for nearly two thousand years after making that promise? Well, the answer comes in several parts.
- First, it is to be noted that we are taught in the New Testament not only that Christ is coming soon, or as Paul once put it, “the time is short,” [1 Cor. 7:29] but that there will be a delay in his coming. However confusing this may seem to us, it is unmistakably the fact that we are taught both that Christ’s return is near and that we will have to wait for it. Typical of biblical teaching, here too there is a dialectic, a placing side by side of truths and of emphases not easily reconciled to one another. There is actually quite a bit of this teaching. You remember the Lord taught the parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19 precisely to combat the impression that many had that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. It begins with the king making a journey to a distant country, the suggestion being that he was to be absent for a long period of time. The Lord says the same thing in his teaching on the Mount of Olives in Matthew 24, when he imagines a slave who misbehaves precisely because he says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time…” In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins we read that “the bridegroom was a long time in coming…” [Matt. 25:5] Again and again we are warned by the Lord and the Apostle Paul that people will be unprepared for the Lord’s return precisely because life will continue so long as it always has. We are reminded as well that the gospel has to be preached throughout the entire world before the end can come. The Apostle Thomas, who went east as far as India, must have seen vast multitudes of people who knew nothing of Jesus Christ. Do you suppose he thought that the Lord would return before those multitudes had been evangelized? I don’t think so!
- Second, these same indications that there would be some significant delay before the Lord returned are found in Revelation itself. The whole burden of the book, remember, is to prepare the church for enduring the persecutions that must come. At no time is the impression given that the church will be spared persecution because the Lord will come first. The martyrs in heaven in chapter 6 cry out, “How long, O Lord, before you avenge our blood?” And they are told that they must wait a little longer. In chapter 11 we read again of the church’s prophetic witness to the world. Throughout Revelation, as in the Lord’s prophetic teaching, it is the entire world and all the nations of the world that lie in view. So, whatever “soon” means here in Revelation 22, it contains within it the larger, wider perspective of the entire book.
- Third, Peter in 2 Peter 3, in directly addressing this question – where is the coming of which the Lord spoke? – replies by saying that it is the Lord’s patience and mercy that account for the delay. He waits so that all who will might come to repentance and salvation. The logic of imminence – of the Lord’s near return – is that of his justice and faithfulness. He will come to vindicate his people and his kingdom and to punish his enemies. The church’s trials are not indefinite or unending. On the other hand, the logic of delay is that of the Lord’s patience and mercy. He hopes for and waits for the salvation of many more before the end comes. And Peter says, famously but somewhat enigmatically, that the Lord’s perspective on time is not the same as ours. A thousand years to us is but a day to him! That raises the question as to whose perspective is in play in Revelation 22:7, 12, and 20. Does “soon” mean what the Lord takes “soon” to mean, or what we take “soon” to mean? Christ is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Both the beginning and the end are eternally present to him. He can see them both immediately before him. Everything, in a certain way, is soon to him.
- Fourth, there is in biblical prophecy, as we have often seen, a characteristic perspective that foreshortens time. Like a television camera following a race car at high speed on the track, the distance is shortened and the watcher on television has little sense of how fast the car is really traveling. The focus on the car and the foreshortening of the distance eliminates the perspective. That is why the stands are full even though the race is on television. Race fans know full well that if you want to appreciate the speed, you must be there in person. There must be no foreshortening of the distance: you must see the cars yourself. Then you see how fast two hundred miles per hour really is! When the focus is on the car the perspective is lost. Again and again we have noticed the future presented in the Bible as a whole with the gaps between events largely unnoticed, like a camera that zooms in on one car and eliminates the rest of the track. Biblical prophets can move between the destruction of Babylon and the end of the world in a single step, from the first coming of Christ to the new heavens and the new earth as if those two things were a single event and not events separated by thousands of years. Here too the future is seen in its wholeness and not in its chronological detail. We have noticed that about Revelation’s prophesy of the future throughout the book. There is no concern in Revelation to answer the question: precisely when will Jesus come again? Chronology is not an emphasis of the book. What we are given instead is a theological interpretation or explanation of history. And in regard to this it is important to notice that in salvation history the next great event – after the Lord’s cross, his resurrection, his ascension, and after Pentecost – is the Second Coming. So it is also near in that sense. It will be the next thing! [Beale, 1135]
We are told specifically by the Lord that no one knows the day or the hour of his return. And we are told that we must look for it and wait for it because we do not know when he will return. We must not be like those in the days of Noah who continued on with life unaware of the approaching catastrophe, dulled to the onrushing future by what seemed to be the endless succession of days. The time is near; the end is delayed. But we must be ready. That is what we can say and that is all we can say: the time is near, the end is delayed for some time, and we must be ready. Remember how many times we have reminded ourselves that Revelation was written for a specific community of Christians, hard-pressed by a hostile culture and government.
“In case his readers have forgotten under the spell of his vast survey of history from creation to the end of time, he reminds them that the whole panorama may also be contracted to a span whenever a Christian is called upon to testify to his faith at the cost of his life. In the Roman court-room, at the Roman scaffold, in the Roman arena, the ears that are attuned to the songs of Zion may hear the lament, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great’, and the eyes of faith may see both the monster rising from the abyss and going to perdition and Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. John knows that at last, far off…the day will come when a voice will cry ‘Stop!’ and all earth’s traffic will be halted in its track.” [Caird, 284]
How quickly time passes. The present advances swiftly and inexorably. I can hardly believe that in the few moments of my life nearly six tenths of a century have passed. How much more quickly it must seem to pass to the eternal God. How soon he will come; however long his coming may yet be.