(Grateful acknowledgments to Don K. Preston)
Everyone admits there are numerous New Testament passages that say "The coming of the Lord is at hand;" or in other ways indicate Christ's return was imminent--and that was almost two thousand years ago! One of the ways men have dealt with the problem is to say "Yes, the Bible said the coming of the Lord was 'at hand' in the first century, but time doesn't mean anything to God therefore 'at hand' didn't really mean it was imminent."
Do you see the problem? The problem is real and has troubled honest Bible students for centuries. The question is "Can God tell time?" As we have seen, when God uses time words he does not have a special hidden meaning unknowable to man! Prophetic time statements are not so "elastic" that the words "near" and "at hand" can encompass hundreds, or even thousands of years! At hand means at hand whether it referred to the coming of the kingdom or the coming of the Lord!
There is no question that "time" is nothing to God. A thousand years are like yesterday to Him (Psa. 90:4). In II Peter 3:8, we find the statement about "one day being as a thousand years," etc. [By the way, please note the verse does not say one day IS a thousand years with the Lord]. In verse 9 we find a forgotten statement: "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness;" The word "slack" means "slow" [Greek "braduno"]. Peter's point is that if God sets a time for fulfillment, God fulfills on time! He is not slow; God can tell time and knows how to keep his promises on time! This verse asserts in no uncertain terms that God is a God who keeps his promises!
But time is nothing only to God. When God communicates time to man, He reasons with His creation in a way that man can understand Him. But in the scripture, God spoke to MAN! The time statements about the kingdom's establishment were made to MAN! The time statements in the Bible were spoken to man to encourage or to warn man. If God did not mean TIME when he used time words, what did he mean? Since man thinks in time when "a long time" or "at hand" is used, would it not have been misleading on God's part to say something was not going to happen for a long time when in fact it was imminent? Conversely, would it not have been misleading for God to say something was at hand when it was really not to happen for centuries?
The question here is one of communication. Can God communicate with his creation in an understandable way; or does God speak in purposely ambiguous ways? Does the Lord hold out a carrot stick of imminent blessings to his hurting creation while knowing all the time he is not really going to bring the promises soon? Did God constantly threaten nations with imminent judgment and not punish them for centuries? Where then is the reality of the threat to the wicked? Does God's transcendence over time prevent him from speaking to man in words that convey genuine nearness?
Here is a question to consider: if God is in the practice of saying something is imminent when in reality it may not transpire for centuries, why is there not one single Old Covenant prophecy of the kingdom that said it was "at hand?" Daniel said the kingdom would be established in the days of the Roman empire; he called it "the last days" (Dan.2:28). From Daniel's perspective, it was several hundred years away. From God's perspective of course, it was only a moment; but that is not the issue. God was speaking to Daniel about things to happen in man's world--not in timeless eternity. This is why God did not cause Daniel to say the kingdom was "near," "at hand," "right at the door," or coming "very, very soon."
It was not until John the Baptist came that the message "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" was preached; and the kingdom was established in the very generation that heard John say it was at hand! In other words, God did not allow his prophets to say the kingdom was at hand until it was REALLY AT HAND! It would have been something less than honest if God had said the kingdom was imminent when it was really hundreds of years away!
Why did Isaiah, who wrote over 600 years before the birth of the Messiah, never say his coming was at hand? Would it not have been terribly distressing for the Jews to have heard a constant message of the imminence of the kingdom and their savior yet hundreds of years roll on and on without fulfillment? The writer of Proverbs correctly noted mankind's attitude toward waiting for fulfillment of promises "Hope that is deferred makes the heart sick" (Prov.13:12).
It is one thing for God to promise something and not give any indication as to when he would fulfill the promise, for then man has no indication of when to expect fulfillment. It is an entirely different thing for God to indicate a time frame for fulfillment and not bring the promise to fulfillment in that indicated time frame! This involves a basic attribute of the nature of God.
We are told that prophetic time may INDICATE imminence, when in fact hundreds of years are involved. In order to demonstrate the utter falsity of this concept let us see how God has dealt with time statements in scripture.
In Numbers 24:17-18, Balaam the prophet made a prediction of Christ's coming: "I see him but not now, I behold him but not near." Notice he said Christ's coming was NOT NEAR; IT WAS NOT AT HAND. Why did he say this? Because Christ's coming was over 1400 years away, and 1400 years really is a long time! Here is a concrete example where God referred to a long time as just that.
In Daniel 10-12 is a vision encompassing a period of time from 536 BC to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD; about 600 years. Two times in this text Daniel was told "the appointed time is long" and "the vision refers to many days to come" (Dan.10:1,14). Remember, this vision was relayed to Daniel from God. While God is not bound by time, he was communicating to man who is bound to time. God called this 600 year period of time "long;" he said it involved "many days." God can most assuredly tell time and read a calendar!
Daniel contains another important example of how God used time words. Chapter 8 contains a prophecy that extends from 530 BC to about 165-164 BC and the death of Antiochus Epiphanes. The time covered is about 365 years. How did God express the prophecy? Did he say it was at hand? Did he say SOME of it was at hand while some of it was for a long time off? No! God viewed the prophecy as a whole. He said the vision "refers to many days in the future" (Dan.8:26). Here is a prophecy that covers 365 years and God called it "a long time." Friends, if God called 365 years a long time, how can man say that time, when God is speaking to man, means nothing?
This is an important question in light of the traditional interpretations of Revelation. Daniel was told to seal up his vision because the time for its fulfillment was a long time away--365 years. John was specifically told not to seal up his vision because what he saw was at hand (Revelation 22:10)! John is told his vision, not part of his vision, was "at hand" and "must shortly come to pass!" Reader, did God call the 365 years for the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy a "long time" and call the fulfillment of Revelation, which most say has not been fulfilled after 2000 years so far, "at hand?" To say the least, this would hardly be consistent!
In Jeremiah 29:10, Jehovah told his prophet the Babylonian captivity would last for seventy years. In verse 28, the people complained that Jeremiah had told them "The exile will be long...." Here is an example of a prophet specifying a period of time, seventy years, and the people said the prophet, and remember the prophet was inspired of God, said the captivity would be "long." Why was seventy years called a long time by Jeremiah? Because to man seventy years IS A LONG TIME! Thus, God used time words as man would normally understand them. God can tell time when speaking to man!
Many do not realize the Bible gives an example of man attempting to change the meaning of time words used by God; and God's response. In Ezekiel 7, God said the Day of the Lord was at hand. The Day of the Lord in this context was when God used Babylon to punish Israel for her sin. This is the concept of the Day of the Lord; it is not an "end of time" idea. It is when God used a nation to punish another as it related to his chosen people.
In chapter 11, Israel responded to the threat of coming judgment. They insisted that although Ezekiel said it was at hand it was really not. It was time to build houses, not worry about judgment. One can almost hear some of those people: "Well, yes, Ezekiel has said the Day of the Lord is at hand, but after all, 'one day is with the Lord as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day,' (Psalms 90:4)."
When Israel "elasticized" God's words of imminence into relativity, ambiguity and meaning-less-ness, God responded. In Ezekiel 12:21ff, [Please, take the time to get your Bible and read it for yourself!] God told Ezekiel to tell Israel that her days of changing the time for his predictions were over. He had said judgment was at hand; Israel said it was not at hand. God would not tolerate it.
Ezekiel was instructed to tell Israel that in that generation judgment would fall just as God had indicated when he said it was at hand. [Have you read those verses for yourself yet? If not, why not do it right now and see for yourself that what we are saying is true?] What we have, then, is an example of man saying that while God had said something was imminent it really was not; it was for a long time off. We have God's response; when God said "at hand" he meant "at hand!" He did not mean hundreds or thousands of years; he meant "soon!"
Another example of man changing the meaning of God's time words is in Amos 6:3. God warned Israel the time had come for her to be judged (Amos 8:2). In spite of the warnings, Israel "put far off the evil day." Isaiah 56:12 shows they were saying "tomorrow shall be as today." In spite of God's warning that judgment was at hand they insisted "All things continue as they were," II Peter 3:3-4! They refused to believe God meant "near" when he said "at hand!" As a result God said "Woe" to them!
Reader, what is the practical difference between Israel of Old denying "at hand" meant "soon," and Bible students today who read the New Testament time statements and say they did not mean "soon?" What is the difference between those in Isaiah's day who denied the warnings of imminent judgment, saying life was going to go on as usual, and those today who read the time statements made in the first century and say the predicted events were not truly imminent? Those who deny the first century application of the at hand time statements of the New Testament are doing the same thing as the Israelites of Old--denying that "at hand" meant "soon!"
Has God changed his vocabulary? Is it true that "at hand" once DID mean "at hand" but now it can mean "a long time?" If so, where is the evidence for the change? Surely, the honest student can clearly see there has been no such change in God's vocabulary. God can tell time; God can read a calendar. When God says something is at hand it is near. For man to argue otherwise is to reject the inspiration of the scriptures; it is to impugn the faithfulness of God; it is to impugn the ability of God to communicate; it is to do the very thing Israel of old did and for which they were condemned!
Think about this: certain Christians say "Well, you can't take "generation" and "at hand" literally because God's time is not our time." Then what do they do? They go and interpret the thousand years in Revelation as literal! Do you see the problem here?
If, as the amillennialist insists, it is dangerous to deny the time for the coming of the kingdom, why is it not equally dangerous to deny the time-frame for the coming of the Lord? It is clear to us that to deny either the fact or the time for the coming of the Lord is to deny the inspiration of the scriptures. This is a serious matter indeed.
This one fact remains. Jesus promised to return in the generation of his disciples. Language could not be clearer. We have demonstrated above that when God used time words he meant what the words suggest. "At hand" means "at hand;" a "long time" means a "long time." This being true one must acknowledge
The scripture is either inspired or it is not--we believe it is inspired. I believe Jesus also did not lie, fail, or make a mistake. This is why we have changed our mind about the nature of the coming of the Lord. God truly can tell time; he can read a calendar. In the clearest language possible he predicted the time, not the day or hour, but the generation of Christ's return. That was the first century generation. The only way to maintain a belief in the inspiration of the scriptures and Jesus is to be willing to believe he kept his words; this means a change in your beliefs about the nature of the coming. Are you willing to change?
- Jesus lied
- He failed
- He was mistaken
- or He came!
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