How soon will God act?

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 yesterday 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. Last weekend 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).

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6 thoughts on “How soon will God act?”

  1. Brilliant and inspiring as ever. When the scriptures are rightly divided Paul they really are a comfort and a source of great confidence. Thanks as ever.

  2. Hi Ian,

    True enough. Jesus compares apathy towards and unexpectedness of His apocalyptic return with the dismissive complacency of the antediluvian world towards Noah’s : ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matt.24:35-37)

    This, of course, was prompted by the disciples’ questions about the signs of the end of the age appear to follow on from Jesus’ prophecy about the AD 70 siege of Jerusalem and resultant destruction of the Temple.

    However, Peter adds to this explanation by emphasising the wilful ignorance of the immense latent destructive capacity which is inherent to the very elements from which the universe was formed:
    ‘Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.

    By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Pet. 3:3-7)

    While there’s some danger in correlating scripture to modern scientific knowledge, the notion of apocalyptic conflagration certainly isn’t so far-fetched when we consider the latent destructive capacity of atomic energy:
    ‘That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.’ (2 Pet. 3:12)

  3. As a footnote to my last comment, Jesus appears to caution against allowing the unraveling of human society to provoke them to such desperation as to convince them to follow false Messiahs proclaiming ‘I am he’ and ‘the time [kairos] is near.’

    The time of Christ’s return will be as sudden and unexpected for both Christians and non-Christians alike.

    However, only perpetually sacrificial servanthood will ensure that those in charge of His household are stil providing their fellow servants with ‘meat in due season’ at Christ’s return, rather than resorting to arrogating power to themselves at the expense of the congregations they are meant to lead, as they declare ‘my lord delays his coming’. (Luke 12:45)

  4. I love the typo in para 2: happy…… “when something in everyday life doesn’t happy the way we wanted or hoped after praying about it”, then we get unhappy because the Lord hasn’t sorted it the way we wanted…………

  5. What do you think of Tom Wright’s interpretation of Mark’s mini-apocalypse? He seems to argue that it refers wholly to the events surrounding the destruction of the temple, and that the coming of the Son of Man refers to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. I was unconvinced by this. Have I understood him right do you think and what’s your view?


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