The Nearness of Christ's Coming
By Prof. David Engelsma
At the end of a year, and much more the end of a millennium, it is perfectly proper that we encourage ourselves with the thought of the end of the world. Not as though this is an occasional thing with us! But the end of a year and the close of a millennium impress upon us the swift passing of time. And time is hurrying toward its goal: the coming of Jesus Christ.
Not that there is any special significance for the end of the world in the arrival of a year with three zeros. 2000 has no more-but also no less!-significance for the coming of Christ than 1999 had, or than 2001 will have.
Nor does the Y2K scare, so closely associated with the year 2000, have some special importance for the last things. It is discouraging that professing Christians, blind and unresponsive to the real signs of the end, react to a possible computer problem with eschatological excitement.
Y2K distracts the ungodly world from its real problem: the wrath of God now falling upon it with ever increasing heaviness. The seals are being opened; the trumpets are blowing.
Y2K draws the attention of many members of the churches away from the genuine signs of the end: the preaching of the gospel everywhere in the world; the appalling lawlessness; the falling away of churches-in many cases, their own churches; the development of the nations of the West as malignant, antichristian states; and the coming together of all nations-"globalization!" "a new world order!"
Not Y2K, not the new millennium, but the biblical signs show that the coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the world are near.
And now, when the church must testify and hear the nearness of the coming of Christ as never before, this nearness is denied.
This denial of the nearness of Christ's coming is a threat to the hope of the church. For those who deny the nearness of Christ's coming are scholars and teachers within the churches. They are the unbelieving scoffers-the "liberals"-foretold by Peter in II Peter 3, who think that all things continue in history as they have from the beginning of the creation. They are also today the postmillennial Christian Reconstructionists who think that the near coming of Christ took place in the past, in AD 70, at the destruction of Jerusalem.
Scripture teaches that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near. Jesus taught this in Matthew 24:33: "So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors." Paul taught this in Philippians 4:5: "The Lord is at hand" (Greek: "near"). John taught this throughout that most eschatological of all the New Testament books, Revelation. He introduced the doctrines of the last things as "things which must shortly come to pass" (1:1). He concluded by quoting Jesus, "Surely I come quickly" (22:20).
The old liberalism stumbled over this biblical testimony to the nearness of Jesus' coming. Taking nearness in the sense of a few years and pointing to the obvious historical fact that some 1800 or 1900 years had gone by since the time of the New Testament, the liberals concluded that Christ and the apostles were mistaken when they proclaimed the end as near. Of course, Scripture is then mistaken as well. The "delay of the parousia (coming of Christ)" exposes Christ as a fraud, the apostles as deceived, and Scripture as fallible in a major doctrine.
Both main forms of millennialism likewise seriously err in the matter of the Bible's teaching that the coming of Christ is near. Millennialism is the doctrine of the last things that looks for a literal fulfillment of the 1000-year period of Revelation 20 in the future, before the end, in the form of an earthly kingdom of Christ. Millennialism expects a "golden age" in which the saints will have earthly, political dominion over all the world.
One form of this millennial error is premillennial dispensationalism, which gives dominion to the Jews. The other is postmillennial Christian Reconstruction, which gives dominion to the church.
Both of these forms of millennialism misunderstand the nearness of Christ's coming. For both, this misunderstanding is fundamental to their millennial error.
The premillennialists explain the nearness of Christ's coming as His possible coming "at any moment." C. I. Scofield taught that the meaning of nearness is that "no known or predicted event must intervene" between the church in the world and the coming of Christ for the church in the secret rapture. Nearness refers to the secret rapture "at any moment." And this "at-any-moment-rapture" is fundamental to the entire premillennial doctrine of the last things.
The postmillennial Christian Reconstructionists, on the other hand, agree with the liberals that nearness is a few years of time, 40 at the most. But the Christian Reconstructionists believe that Scripture cannot err. Therefore, they conclude that the near coming of Christ must have happened within a few years of the New Testament prophecy. In relation to us who live at the end of the 20th century, the near coming of Christ that is promised in the New Testament is past, long past. It happened, say the Christian Reconstructionists, in AD 70.
Just as in the case of the premillennialists, the explanation of nearness by these postmillennialists is fundamental to their millennial dreams. For now the second (third?) coming of Christ-the bodily coming-and the end of the world are far distant, perhaps as many as hundreds of thousands of years distant. Since apostasy, antichrist, and persecution of the church are connected in Scripture with the near coming of Christ, also these events are past. They all occurred in AD 70, or, according to some, during the later times of the Roman empire. Thus, the way is open for the world to be largely converted to Christ and for the church to take power and exercise dominion.
Note well: the coming of Christ is no longer near. Christ no longer comes quickly. These things were true only for the church before AD 70. The gospel of Christian Reconstruction for us today, if it ever mentions Christ's bodily coming and the end of all things, is: "The Lord is far, far off. The end is remote. Behold, He comes slowly. Rejoice that it is so."
The Reality of Nearness
Against the common error of the liberals, premillennialists, and Christian Reconstructionists, the nearness of Christ's second coming in New Testament teaching is not proximity according to the standard of human clock-time and calendar-time. The Spirit of inspiration did not mean that Jesus' return was a few years off, or possibly at any moment. Fact is, that in close connection with the assertion that Jesus' coming is near Scripture indicates that this coming is quite distant as regards clock- and calendar-time. According to natural human notions of time, the coming is a long ways off. Indeed, it seems to the waiting church that He delays coming.
In the very same discourse in which He says that His coming is near, Jesus cautions that He tarries: "While the bridegroom tarried" (Matt. 25:5). The reason why the scoffers of II Peter 3 pose a threat to the hope of the church is that many years pass without the fulfillment of the promise of Christ's coming. It is exactly the passing of decades, centuries, and now millennia that occasions the temptation to suppose that the Lord is slack concerning His promise.
II Thessalonians 2:1ff. is decisive against both forms of millennialism, as it is against the old liberalism. The apostle denies that the "day of Christ," which is the day of His coming, is "at hand" (v. 2). The word translated "at hand" is not the same word that is translated "at hand" in Philippians 4:5. That word is the word "near," as the King James Version also translates it in Matthew 24:32. The word in II Thessalonians 2:2 means "imminent," or "soon," in the exact sense of "any moment," or "any day now," or "just around the corner," or "within a few years."
Christ's coming could not occur at any moment or within a few years because it must be preceded by two events, which are, therefore, signs to the church of the coming of Christ. One is the great falling away, or apostasy, of churches and professing Christians. The other is the revelation of the man of sin, who is antichrist. Both of these events require many years of history, at least 2000 years as we now know.
Against the liberals, the passage proves that Christ and the apostles never expected the coming of Christ to be soon. Near? Yes. Soon? No. There is a difference.
Against the premillennialists, the passage explicitly denies that the coming of Christ, which is the gathering of the church unto Him (v.1), is "at any moment." "Let no man deceive you by any means as that the day of Christ is at any moment" (vv. 2, 3). In addition, there are signs of His coming, signs to the church, signs that the believers can and must observe. They are apostasy in the churches and the revelation of the man of sin among the nations.
Against the postmillennial Christian Reconstructionists, the passage teaches that the nearness of Christ's coming does not mean a few years. Biblical nearness is not "soon by human standards." The same apostle who in Philippians 4:5 states that the Lord is near here teaches that a long period of time stretches out between the Thessalonian church at the end of the first century and the day of Christ. Also, the church in every age is here instructed that the one, future, bodily coming of Christ is preceded, not by the conversion of the world but by the apostasy of the churches, not by the earthly dominion of the men of the law but by the reign of the man of lawlessness. When Christ returns, in His one, future, bodily coming-the "day of Christ" (v. 2)-the antichrist, "that wicked (one)," will be on the scene (v. 8).
The nearness of Christ's coming is not proximity in time according to man's natural notions of "soon"-for a child, five minutes; for adults, next week; for premillennialists, any moment; and for Christian Reconstructionists, 40 years.
The nearness of Christ's coming is that the coming of Christ is the next great event on the schedule of God, after the ascension and Pentecost, for the redemption of the world.
The nearness of Christ's coming is that the coming of Christ closes this present age, with no age intervening, e.g., a "golden age" of the earthly dominion of the saints, whether Jewish nation or Gentile church.
The nearness of Christ's coming is that the coming of Christ is rushing toward us. The exalted Christ at God's right hand governs history. He rules every creature and every event so as to bring about His coming as the goal of all that is. He rules all so that He comes as quickly as possible. In all that exists and happens, Christ is coming quickly (Rev. 22:20).
The end is in everything.
How near is His coming?
As near as the sermon preached last Sunday at church and as near as the preaching on the mission field at present. As near as the most recent earthquake, flood, and hurricane. As near as the latest denial of the truth of Scripture by a faithless Protestant church. As near as today's defense of fornication, divorce, remarriage, abortion, and homosexuality in society and in the churches. As near as the ongoing uniting of nations around Man.
The coming of Christ is near for the church at the end of the second millennium, as it was near for the church at the end of the first century.
It is also much closer to us than it was to them.
Now is no time for the churches to waste their energies in the vain and disobedient effort to obtain earthly power, or for the members of the churches to lose themselves in earthly pleasures.
Now is not the time to question whether the coming of Christ is near.
Now is the time to expect the Lord and His full redemption from sin and death.
Now is the time to pray earnestly and without ceasing, "Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly."
And now is the time to live in this hope.This Article is from an Editorial by Prof. David J. Engelsma published in the Vol. 76; No. 5; December 1, 1999 issue of the semi-monthly Reformed Magazine, The Standard Bearer.