Will God act ‘soon’ in answer to prayer?

5119474850_0fbb561cb2_bUnless you are a deist (even perhaps a moral therapeutic deist) then belief in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity implies an expectation that God, by his Spirit, is at work in the world and in the life of the believer. In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes the active work of the Spirit in the congregation at Corinth; in Romans 8 he particularly focusses on the work of the Spirit in the individual believer; Luke in Acts recounts how the work of the Spirit amongst the apostles and others in the early church continued the work and ministry of Jesus amongst them and in public ministry. The claim of the New Testament is that, even though we live in different times in history, we inhabit the same theological time: the season of the post-Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit, and so (in some way or other) we should have the same expectations.

But any sense of expectation will, as anyone in pastoral ministry knows, also bring with it the inevitable frustration, disappointment and even heartbreak when it seems as though God fails to act. This ranges from the trivial, when something in everyday life doesn’t happy the way we wanted or hoped after praying about it, to the tragic when we witness the death of a friend or relative, and are left asking ‘Why?’

Part of the issue relates to the language that the New Testament uses about God coming ‘soon’ or acting ‘soon’, and in fact this language extends the challenge beyond the pastoral to the eschatological: did the first followers of Jesus expect the kingdom of God and that end of the world to come ‘soon’?

There are two small but important words in NT Greek here. The first is the adverb tachus, which comes 13 times in the NT, and consistently means ‘quickly’, in the sense of something happening without delay. (See Matt 5.25, 28.7–8, Mark 9.39, Luke 15.22, John 11.29, James 1.19 for examples.) But there is also the phrase en tachei, which makes use of the noun tachos ‘quickness’ or ‘suddenness’. This is less frequent, only coming 8 times (Luke 18.8, Acts 12.7, 22.18 and 25.4, Romans 16.20, 1 Tim 3.14, and Rev 1.1 and 22.6). Ben Witherington points out that, whilst this phrase can mean something similar to the adverb tachus in describing the timing of an event (‘quickly’, ‘immediately’), as in the examples in Acts, on other occasions it refers to the manner of the action—suddenly and unexpectedly, rather than without any temporal delay.

In Luke 18.8, for example, the point of the story of the unjust judge is precisely that there will be a delay before prayer is answered—but when the answer comes, it will be swift and decisive. Similarly, in Romans 16.20, Paul’s point is most likely not that Satan’s defeat will come in a short while, but that it will be sudden and decisive. This meaning is also confirmed by examples of the phrase in the LXX (Septuagint), the Greek translation/paraphrase of the OT, in Josh 8.18–19, Psalm 2.12 and Ezek. 29.5, as well as Sirach 27.3.

This use of language connects very powerfully with our own experience of how time feels before and after we are waiting for something to happen. As the saying goes, how long a minute lasts depends on which side of the bathroom door you are standing. When we are waiting for something to happen, time seems to drag and be drawn out—yet when the longed-for action take place, there is a sense in which we forget the waiting in the relief that now comes. If this is true for the trivial, it is certainly true in the tragic. I was struck a while ago by the language of the parents of Becky Godden, who was tragically murdered, but whose case was delayed by five years because of police error. Her mother talked of the ‘eternity’ of waiting, and you could see the suddenness of the relief when the verdict finally came.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that both Old and New Testaments draw on the language of painful human waiting when talking about the nature of God’s intervention in history. In Is 66.7–11 (and in Micah 4 and 6), the distress of God’s people waiting for his intervention is likened to a woman in labour pains waiting to be delivered. (The double use of ‘deliverance’ in relation both to given birth and to God’s salvation works in Hebrew and Greek as well as English, since it depends not on language but on experience.) This is the idea picked up in Rev 12: the woman ‘clothed with the sun’ is not any individual, but the people of God awaiting the promised messiah. Jesus uses similar language in Matt 24.8: ‘these are but the beginning of birth pangs…’

It is still commonly claimed that Jesus (and his followers) expected The End to come soon, and that the failure of the kingdom of God to fully materialise caused a crisis which led to a reconfiguration of Christian theology. But this is largely based on a misreading of Matt 24 and its parallels, which in turned is based on a failure to understand Jesus’ and the gospel writers’ use of the Old Testament.

It is quite common to read the whole of Matthew 24 as if it was all about Jesus’ second coming at the end of the age. But in fact the chapter is in two sections, corresponding to the two-fold question of the disciples at the beginning of the section: ‘When will all this happen, and when will be your coming and the end of the age?’ The first main section Matt 24.1–35 is about the immediate future and the destruction of the temple, but the second main section Matt 24.36–51 concerns a more distant expectation of Jesus’ second coming at the end of the age. We can see that in the switch from Jesus’ language about ‘this day’ and ‘these things’ in the first half, to a  focus on ‘but about that day…’ in 24.36. And this is underlined by Jesus’ solemn declaration near the end of the first section:

Amen I say to you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matt 24.34)

Jesus’ saying here is quite emphatic in form, including the emphatic form of the negative, mentioning ‘all’ these things clearly, and opening with the ‘Amen’ formula, characteristic of Matthew’s record of Jesus’ teaching, and suggesting recollection of Jesus’ actual words in Aramaic. This is very difficult to evade; Jesus draws here a striking contrast between the immediate events relating to the destruction of the temple, about which we are to ‘discern the times’, and the distant events of ‘the end of the age’ which will come after a long delay, but which might therefore take us by surprise. (For an exploration of all the issues in this reading, see my more detailed blog post on Matthew 24.)

This kind of dynamic is also present in the Book of Revelation. Right from the very beginning, it uses the language of ‘soon’ and ‘the time is short’ (1.1 and 1.3). This appears to set up an expectation of God’s immediate intervention in the situation facing the fragile Christian communities. But closer inspection suggests something more nuanced. The word translated ‘soon’ in 1.1 is not the adverb tachus (with the sense ‘immediately’) but the phrase en tachei with the sense ‘with suddenness’. And the ‘time’ that is ‘near’ is not chronos, meaning days and hours (from which we get ‘chronology’) but kairos—the moment of opportunity. In fact, the phrase ‘the time is near’, kairos engus, is strongly reminiscent of Jesus’ own proclamation in Mark 1.15: ‘The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand.’

The word kairos occurs seven times in Revelation, and so appears to be of some importance. Three of these come in the phrase in ‘time, times and half a time’, which is equivalent to both the 1,260 days and 42 months (you can do the sums to check, taking ‘time’ as a year, and a month as being an ideal religious calendar month of 30 days) signifying the interim time from Jesus’ death and resurrection until his coming again. John is hear stealing a phrase from Daniel, of intense but limited ‘tribulation’, and using that to describe the experience of Christians as we wait for Jesus’ return. Significantly, John also uses this kairos language in relation to the work of the devil: ‘he knows his time [kairos] is short’ (Rev 12.12). This is focussing not on the length of time, so much as the limited opportunity the devil now has, given that he has been overturned by the death of Jesus (‘the blood of the lamb’) and by the faithful witness of Jesus’ followers (‘the word of their testimony’).

All this has direct relevance to the pastoral issue that we started with. Some time ago I was teaching on Revelation at a Community Church which is part of the Salt and Light network (one of the ‘new’ churches). I had answered a question at the end of the session, explaining the difference between kairos and chronos and Revelation’s use of the terms. At the end someone came up to me in tears; this person was suffering from a quite debilitating illness, and believed that God had promised to bring healing ‘soon’. Understanding the perspective of Revelation (and the rest of the NT) enabled her to move from anxiety and frustration at the fact this hadn’t yet happened, and instead have a sense of hope that God will act, and patience to wait until that moment came. This is surely what John means by being our ‘brother in kingdom, tribulation, and patience endurance’ (Rev 1.9).

(First published in 2016)

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6 thoughts on “Will God act ‘soon’ in answer to prayer?”

  1. I appreciate a lot of what you say, but…
    There is no way in which 1900 years is “soon”. I also don’t quite understand when you say the New Testament claims that we’re all still in the post-Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit, with the implication that we can expect the same kind of things to happen now as did then.
    Didn’t Paul tell people not to marry because the present time wouldn’t last long?

    • Hi, Penelope,

      I hope you know that the Pentecostal churches believe that we should be seeing the same work of the Spirit today as in the first century. Many think that the future of Christianity over the next century will be either Roman Catholicism or Pentecostalism, as these are the dominant forms growing in the world today.

      On Paul, I presume you are looking at 1 Corinthians 7, so I had a look, and see that the NIV has for 1 Cor 7.29a “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short” and the ESV “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short.” The difference should alert us to translation issues. I don’t pretend to be a Greek expert, but an interlinear will show one that ‘time’ here is ‘kairos’ – which perhaps speaks of the quality of a time – rather than ‘kronos’ which is measured time. Given the other words, a very literal translation is “the time is shortened”. The verb ‘to shorten’ is an interesting one. The only other NT use is in Acts when it refers to a body being wrapped up for burial.

      Gordon Fee in his commentary writes about the meaning:

      “the event of Christ has now compressed the time in such a way that the future has been brought forward so as to be clearly visible, not so much with regard to its timing as to its reality and certainty.”

      Then on 1 Cor 7.31b (“for this world in its present form is passing away”), he writes:

      “As elsewhere the use of the ‘progressive present’ (‘is in the process of passing away’) reflects Paul’s already/not yet eschatalogical perspective.”

      Thus, on Fee’s view of this, the passage does not really talk about some consummation coming in a short amount of time.

      (1 Cor 7.29b is in conflict with the beginning of the chapter if one takes that very literally.)

  2. Dear friends, don’t ignore this fact: One day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. 2 Peter 3:8
    The return of the Lord will be sudden, soon, in the dimension of eternity.
    The work of God in eschatology, in a new creation, started in Genesis, after the Fall including de-creation in the flood culminating in the second man, the last Adam and a new humanity in Him, with a global spread and that has died and been raised, new creation, in Him, which awaits consumation with his return and new heaven and earth in its fullness.
    As you have written elsewhere, Ian, we live in the kingdom now but not yet, times. Soon, suddenness, is to be set in the context of the biblical theology, meta narrative and meta physics.

  3. Thank you, David Wilson, for your comment, and for looking up my Bible reference for me! I don’t know the Greek differences in vocabulary, but my point was that surely the implication of 1 Cor 7: 26 and 29-31 is that Paul is not expecting us to need a next generation; therefore marriage is unnecessary.

    • Hi Penelope,
      It has taken me a while to get back to you. I think in reading the NT one must bear in mind that there are (at least) two different things which are in the frame in this. One is trouble in the present or the near future. The other is the final ‘eschaton‘ when the rule of God will be fully established, there will be a new heaven and earth, etc.

      (https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/what-is-matthew-24-all-about/ explores this area.)

      Clearly, 1 Cor 7:26 relates to the first of these. It is in relation to the ‘present distress’ (ESV) or ‘present crisis’ (NIV) that, among other things, one would be better refraining from marriage. If one is to be subject to persecution, perhaps imprisonment and death, then taking a wife and having children would not be wise. (My mother’s best friend’s first husband was a fighter pilot in WW2 and died in the conflict leaving his wife and young daughter.)

      1 Cor 7:29-31 relates to the second. The defining sentence is the last: “this world in its present form is passing away.” Note, as I said, the present tense. A process was under way at the time Paul was writing. However, there is an end in view when the process will be completed and ‘this world’ will be no more. The first sentence, it seems to me, expresses the certainty of this, rather than its imminence. Between these are five imperatives. Isolated from the immediate textual frame, they are strange. The first seems specifically to contradict what Paul wrote earlier in the chapter, for example. Fee regards these as rhetoric, and in the Greek even I can see the significant rhythm to the words. My thought is that there may be here some rabbinic hyperbole. The basic sense is about our general attitude towards this present world. We should not hold to it too closely because it is passing. We belong elsewhere (Phil 3:20).

      There is a relation between the present distress/crisis and the passing of the world. In relation to the former, we should act wisely. In relation to the latter, we should have a right attitude to the world.

  4. I’m not sure the first sentence is entirely logical: even a deist can appreciate the implications of a particular belief which he himself does not hold.

    To believe in the Trinity is to believe that God is three co-eternal, co-equal persons, i.e. belief in three gods. (The trinitarian of course would say: it is possible to be three persons yet one god; but this again seems questionable on purely logical grounds.) I would maintain that my non-belief in the Trinity is orthodox, if orthodox be defined as what is consistent with Scripture, whereas belief in the Trinity is simply belief in the inspired inerrancy of a 4th-century creed and contrary to Scripture, in that sense unorthodox. In any case, it is possible to believe that ‘God, by his Spirit, is at work in the world and in the life of the believer’ without believing that the Spirit is a separate person co-eternal with … well, with whom exactly? ‘God’? ‘The Father’? You yourself say that the Spirit is God’s Spirit, i.e. God has a spirit or is spirit. While this is a scriptural way of speaking (e.g. Rom 8:11), it is not a trinitarian one. The NT repeatedly says that the Holy Spirit is the spirit of the Father and of the Son, not a separate person/god.

    ‘The time is near’ in Rev 1:3 implies that he is coming soon. I am not convinced there is much distinction between ‘en tachei’ and ‘tachu’, or much significance in the distinction. In Rev 22:6-7 both phrases are used. The future things described in the book will happen with speed, and he will come speedily.

    I am grateful for this discussion of the parable in the light of Revelation. I hadn’t really cottoned on to the fact that when Jesus says that God will give justice to his elect ‘with speed’, he was referring, as Luke 18:8 indicates, to the return of the one you believe in as the second person of the Trinity, though Jesus refers to him here as ‘the Son of Man’ (i.e. Adam) – like ‘the Son of God’, not a trinitarian title.


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