At Christmas time, Christians celebrate the first coming (advent) of Jesus—his birth. Ever since Jesus was resurrected and he ascended to heaven, Christians have been wondering when their Lord will return. In the book of Acts, two men in white robes console the disciples after Jesus has disappeared into the clouds:
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10–11)
In the book of Revelation, Jesus says the following to the church about his return,
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” (Rev. 22:12)
Why did Jesus say he was coming soon, when it’s already been around two thousand years since his ascension? Should Christians doubt Jesus’ second coming, because he is taking so long to return?
The Greek Word for “Soon”
The word “soon” in Revelation 22:12 comes from the Greek word ταχύ (tachy) which means “without delay, quickly, at once.” This word can also mean a “relatively brief time subsequent to another point of time” (BDAG, p. 993).
Some early Christians believed that Jesus would come back in their lifetime, and they wondered why he hadn’t returned yet. The apostle Peter addressed their concern in his second letter:
Knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? (2 Pet. 3:3–4)
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Pet. 3:8–10)
There was apparently some confusion among early believers as to what Jesus’ words regarding his second coming meant. Peter reminded them that God’s view of time is different from ours, so they shouldn’t think that Christ’s delay meant he would not keep his promise.
In Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Eerdmans, 2015), theologian G. K. Beale notes the possibility that the phrase “I am coming soon” in Revelation 22:12 could allude to Christ’s final coming as “the next major event to occur in God’s redemptive historical program.” Yet, Beale concludes that this phrase most likely refers to the suddenness of Christ’s return:
It is more probably a reference to a swift “unexpected” appearance, the latter with respect to the possibility that Jesus could come at any time, as in Matt. 24:3–25:13. (p. 516)
In light of the fact that Jesus has not come back yet, we find support in other Scripture passages for Beale’s conclusion that “soon” most likely indicates the manner of Christ’s return.
“Encourage One Another with These Words”
Jesus makes specific mention of the swiftness of his return in the gospels of Matthew and Luke:
“Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matt. 24:42–44; see also Luke 21:34–36)
The apostle Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to live sober lives in light of the unpredictable timing of Christ’s return:
For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thess. 5:2; see also Rev. 16:15)
While we cannot know when Jesus will return, we must always be ready, because his second coming will happen quickly and unexpectedly. When the first-century Christians looked for Jesus to return in their lifetime, they were right to do so because Jesus consistently told his disciples to be ready at all times (Matt 24:44; Rev 16:15). During this time of waiting, Jesus continues to gather his people to himself, building his church by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 16:18; John 14:15–17). Christians can take heart during this time between the first and second advents that Jesus keeps all his promises and will indeed return one day to consummate his glorious kingdom:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:16–18)