“The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.” (Romans 13:11,12)
“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:5)
Did Paul expect the Lord to return in his lifetime or his generation? Statements like those above have led some to suggest that he did. If so, Paul was obviously wrong. And if so, the exhortations and instructions he gave on the basis of Christ’s soon return lose much of their force. But a careful consideration of the matter unearths some strong reasons for believing that Paul conceived of the possibility that Christ might not return immediately, and that the basis of Paul’s exhortations was not primarily the shortness of time before Christ returned, but the fact that the final hurdle before the finish line had been jumped.
How many believers had died when Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians 4:15, “We who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” He was speaking of the resurrection. And surely, when he faced the real possibility of his own death in Philippians 1:22-26 or 2 Timothy 4:6, this was a proper moment to admit that expectation of living to see the second coming was not appropriate. But Paul had never set a proposed date for Christ’s return and surely was aware of the Lord’s teaching that His return might not take place for a long time (Matthew 25:19). In reality, Paul’s perspective on the coming of Christ was much deeper than that.
For Paul, the nearness of Christ’s return might be described in terms of a school graduation. All the finals have been taken. All that awaits is the handing out of the diplomas. For centuries God’s people have awaited the coming of God’s Messiah. They did not perceive that He must come twice. But when He came the first time and purchased salvation, nothing could hold back His coming in the Kingdom except the plan and timing of God. His first coming began the inevitable onslaught of the Kingdom of Light against the kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:12,13). The final hurdle is jumped and the finish line is clearly in sight. Yes, certain events, like the revelation of the man of sin (2 Thessalonians 2:3), must first take place, as Paul himself declares. But Paul was like a man who rises early and can see the glimmer of the new day just over the horizon.
It remains so today. There is nothing holding back the Day. The darkness is already conquered in principle and yet is to be conquered in actuality soon, Biblically speaking. Though the signs appear to point toward Christ’s quick return, God could unmake all that we deem necessary for preparing the way and start over again. Nevertheless, we would do well to watch and be ready. Nothing holds back the final victory for it has been won already at the cross. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”