Maranatha! Our Lord, Come!
This early Christian Aramaic prayer encapsulates the desire of every Christian since the Lord Jesus Christ ascended to heaven almost two thousand years ago. Innumerable generations of Christians have thought that they were living in the last days and were looking for the return of Christ. Indeed, the Second Coming of Christ for His church is one of the basic tenets of Christian doctrine.
However, is this Second Coming of Christ “imminent”? Can believers really expect the Lord to return at any moment, or must we wait until certain prophetic signs have been fulfilled? If the former is true, then believers need to be ready at all times to meet the Lord. If the latter, then Christians can look forward to a future time when He will come; but certain events, such as the Tribulation period, must take place first.
What was the belief of the apostles and the early church? Naturally, they looked for the return of the Lord. James exhorted believers to be patient while suffering through trials because “the coming of the Lord draweth near” (Jas. 5:8). Paul talked about the Day of the Lord coming “as a thief in the night” (1 Th. 5:2) and said that believers are to live godly lives in this age, “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ” (Ti. 2:13).
Likewise, Peter instructed his readers to live holy lives, “Looking for and hasting [hastening] unto the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:12). John believed that the visions shown him on Patmos (where he was exiled) of the Lord’s Coming would “shortly come to pass” (Rev. 1:1) because “the time is at hand” (Rev. 1:3). Echoing the Aramaic prayer, John prayed in Greek, “come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). This expectation is based on the Lord’s promise recorded in John 14:2–3, where Jesus said,
In my Father’s house are many mansions [dwelling places]; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also.
Many have noted the parallels here with ancient Jewish marriage customs: The prospective bridegroom would leave to build a house for his bride, then return to marry her and take her to that home. In the meantime, the bride was to be ready for his arrival by keeping herself pure.
In the same way, the second generation of believers (Christians living in the early part of the second century A.D.) also were expecting the return of the Lord. Clement, one of the early church fathers, exhorted his readers to godliness because Christ was expected to come quickly and suddenly. He quoted Malachi 3:1 for support.1 The author of 2nd Clement also exhorted his readers to “await the kingdom of God betimes in love and righteousness, since we know not the day of God’s appearing.”2 The Didache, an early church work, repeated the prayer Maranatha3 and warned readers to be ready, despite the future coming of the world deceiver (the Antichrist).4
Ignatius, the bishop of second-century Antioch, exhorted the Roman church to be patient in waiting for the return of Jesus Christ;5 and Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was told to “await Him who is above every season.”6 The clear message of the early church was that believers should be ready and looking for the return of the Lord, even though future prophetic events, such as the Tribulation period, were yet to occur.
Does this scenario then make the doctrine of imminency a logical impossibility? If certain things must happen before the Lord returns, is the idea that the Lord can return at any moment just wishful thinking? Paul himself taught the Thessalonians that the Day of the Lord will not come until the man of sin (the Antichrist) is revealed (2 Th. 2:1–12). Even Jesus taught the disciples about the sign of His Coming (Mt. 24:29–31). If there are signs that signal the return of the Lord, how can His return be imminent? Should we then be looking for the signs?
There appears to be a purposeful tension in Jesus’ teaching on His Coming in the Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24—25). The disciples asked Jesus directly, “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the age?” (Mt. 24:3). Jesus’ answer to these questions is very interesting. He told his disciples about future events—earthquakes, wars, the Great Tribulation, the abomination of desolation, the sign of His Coming (Mt. 24:4–31). But then He told them that He Himself did not know the time of His Coming, so they should be on the alert at all times (Mt. 24:36–44). Again, isn’t this a logical inconsistency?
Some interpreters solve this dilemma by seeing the prophecy in the Olivet Discourse as having a near view (the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70) and a far view (the Second Coming), so that the signs of judgment and the unknown time of His Coming are kept separate (or partially fulfilled). It appears, however, that the whole prophecy, from Matthew 24:3 onward, speaks of the future period and not the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 because, in Matthew 24:15, Jesus referred to the disciples (future Jewish disciples alive during the Tribulation period) and said that when they see the abomination of desolation set up in the Temple, they are to flee Jerusalem. According to Josephus’ account of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, by the time the Romans and Titus (the Roman general) arrived at the Temple, the battle was over and the city was destroyed.7 The time to flee was well past. This prophecy, therefore, obviously describes the future appearance of the image of the Beast in the Temple as spoken of in Revelation 13:11–18, which coincides with the woman (Israel) fleeing into the wilderness in Revelation 12:13–17. Thus the dilemma is not resolved by separating the prophecy into a near view and far view.
Jesus’ seemingly illogical teaching about signs while warning believers to be ready at any moment must be intentional. Why? A close look at Matthew 24:4–31 reveals that Jesus’ main concern when teaching about signs was that the disciples not be deceived (24:4, 11, 24–26). Jesus’ teaching about future signs and events was not to tell the disciples when He was coming back, but rather to tell them not to be misled and mistaken about His Coming in view of Messianic pretenders (such as Antichrist).
When Jesus dealt with the question of the time of His Coming, His answer was astonishing. Loosely paraphrased, He said, “I can’t tell you, because I don’t know” (Mt. 24:36). Since the time of His Coming is unknown, Jesus exhorted His disciples to “Watch [be alert], therefore; for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Mt. 24:42). This exhortation is followed by three parables, all having to do with how believers should show their faith and obedience to Christ by being ready at all times for His return (Mt. 24:45—25:30). Repeatedly, the warning is to be ready. Jesus says,
But know this, that if the householder had known in what watch [time of the night] the thief would come, he would have watched [been on the alert], and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore be ye also ready; for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh (Mt. 24:43–44).
How can Jesus exhort His disciples to be ready at all times for His return when He just finished teaching them about all the future things they must watch for before He comes back? Is Jesus merely using the threat of an imminent return to engender godly fear and moral living—much like parents tell their children to be good all year because Santa is watching? Three reasons suggest not.
First, it would be inconsistent with the Lord Jesus’ character to hide truth or deceive us, even for our own good. Second, Jesus Himself said He does not know when He is returning, so He can honestly say, “Be ready at all times because even I do not know the time of my return.” Third, the hope that the Lord could return at any moment gives believers a proper impetus toward sanctification. As Jesus illustrated in the parable about the wicked slave, the faithless say in their hearts, “My lord delayeth his coming” (Mt. 24:48) and therefore act wickedly (Mt. 24:48–51). Our sinful hearts need the accountability provided by the realization that the Lord can appear at any moment.
This exhortation by Jesus to “be ready” despite His teaching about future signs and events is one of the basic and important reasons for arguing that the Rapture of the church constitutes the first part of Christ’s Coming. It resolves the tension between the future signs and the teaching on imminency. Jesus taught His disciples to be ready because He will gather them out of the world before the Tribulation signs appear (1 Th. 4:13–18).
In addition, the doctrine of imminency is extremely important for the church regardless of eschatological bent. In fact, it is unfortunate that this doctrine, in a sense, has become associated with a particular eschatological position and has become a theological point of contention. Why? Because imminency is important for the spiritual health of every individual believer and the church as a whole. When Jesus tells us to be ready because we do not know when He is coming, it becomes our responsibility to believe His Word and to make sure that we are ready. We should not be caught by surprise because we mistakenly were looking for something else and were not looking for his Coming. Ultimately, the doctrine of imminency is not a question of eschatology as much as it is a question of obedience and faith. Will we, as believers, live our lives in a way that prepares us to meet the Lord at any moment? Jesus’ desire and warning is that we must.
So let us say, without any hesitation and with a heart of hope, Maranatha, Our Lord, Come!