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What Does the Bible Mean When It Says Jesus Is Coming ‘Soon’ and that the ‘Time is Near’?

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In a previous article, I commented on Ron Rhodes new book Jesus and the End Times. You can read it here. As I mentioned, I’ve dealt with most of the topics he covers in my books Last Days Madness, Wars and Rumors of Wars, and Is Jesus Coming Soon?

In this article, I would like to delve into the always controversial time words “soon” and “near.” I believe that these words refer to Jesus’ coming in judgment against Jerusalem, an event that took place in AD 70.

Rhodes contends that specific time words in Revelation 1:1 and 1:3 don’t mean what they seem to mean as they were revealed to John and read by his first audiences. The following is from his book:

The book of Revelation begins with these words: “This is the revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the events that must soon take place…he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near” (Revelation 1:1-3). Later, toward the end of Revelation, Jesus affirmed “Look, I am coming soon! Blessed are those who obey the words of this prophecy written in this book” (22:7). (121)

There are two “time words” used in Revelation: “soon” or “quickly” and “near.” Of “soon,” he comments:

In the original Greek … the term “soon” often carries the meaning “swiftly,” “speedily,” or “rapid rate.” An example is Luke 18:8, where this word is used to indicate that justice was to be rendered speedily. It appears likely that in Revelation 1:1-3, the term is intended to indicate that when the predicted events first start to occur, they will progress swiftly, or speedily, or in rapid succession. (121-122)

The unrighteous judge in Luke 18 gives justice to the widow in her lifetime! She receives justice before she dies. The point of the parable is to show how God brings about justice for His elect in a timely manner. He will not delay. “I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly [τάχει]” (18:8). If the woman received justice from the unrighteous judge in her lifetime, then how can we say that God acts “speedily” when nearly two thousand years have passed since John and the seven churches in Asia Minor were told that the “time is near” and that Jesus was “coming quickly”?

Compare the story of the widow and the unrighteous judge to the following from Revelation

When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10-11)

What if Jesus said, “I’m coming quickly; I’ll vindicate you soon.” What would these martyrs have thought if after a long period of time passed and they found out that when Jesus decided to come it would be fast? The question is, How did those who first read Revelation understand the word translated as “soon”?

Notice how Rhodes equivocates with words like “often” and “likely.” He only gives one example (Luke 18), and it’s not a very good one. Why didn’t he look at all the examples of how the Greek word (τάχος) translated “soon/quickly” is used? Here are a few of them:

  • John 11:29: “And when she heard it, she arose quickly [ταχύ], and was coming to Him.”
  • John 11:31: “The Jews then who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly [ταχέως] and went out, followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.”
  • John 13:27:And after the morsel, Satan then entered into him. Jesus, therefore, said to him, ‘What you do, do quickly’ [τάχιον].”

There is no delay in their actions. It’s not that when they decided to move, they would move fast, but that they acted quickly. Consider this verse:

And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands (Acts 12:7).

The angel didn’t mean that when Peter decided to get up, he would do it speedily. From start to finish his actions took place in a short period of time.

If an employee says, “I’ll do what you ask quickly,” and then waits three months, he or she has not done it quickly. When the employer inquires, “You said you would do it soon. Why hasn’t it been done?” The employee answers: “Soon means that when I decide to do it will be done ‘swiftly,’ ‘speedily,’ or at a ‘rapid rate.’  The time in between the assignment and the job does not figure into the meaning of ‘soon’ and ‘quickly.’ When I eventually did the job, I did it fast.” James Glasgow offers a helpful analogy:

“Wait for the Lord from heaven (after 1000 years); Behold, I come as a thief (after 1000 years); Go ye out to meet Him (after 1000 years); Come, Lord Jesus, quickly (after 1000 years),” etc. etc. … For it is not in our day that the promises of coming quickly were given, but in the day of the apostles; and from their standpoint they must be interpreted. [1]

The book of Revelation uses the word taxos (Rev. 1:1; 22:6) and taxus (2:5, 16; 3:11; 11:14; 22:7, 12, 20) a total of nine times. We find in Revelation 11:14 that the “third woe is coming quickly.” Futurists like Rhodes believe Revelation 11 describes events of the last days during a concentrated period of seven years. If “quickly” and “soon” can mean an extended period of nearly 2000 years (so far), then how should the use of “quickly” be interpreted in Revelation 11:14? If “quickly” can mean nearly 2000 years in Revelation 1:1, then it should mean the same thing in 11:14, and yet, what’s being described in 11:14 happens in a short period of time. Given Rhodes’ definition of “quickly,” the time between the past two woes (9:12) and the woe to come could be thousands of years, and yet the time span of Revelation 4-19 is only seven years.

The time indicator words in Revelation should have the same meaning throughout Revelation as they do every other place in the New Testament (Matt. 5:25; 28:7-8; Mark 9:39; 16:8; Luke 18:8; John 11:29; Acts 12:7; 22:18; 25:4; Rom. 16:20).

Paul’s use of “soon” can’t mean anything other than a short period of time, most likely after Pentecost (1 Cor. 16:8), otherwise, why qualify his statement that he will come soon? Paul writes in Philippians 2:19: “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly. “Shortly” obviously means “soon.” But Paul is not sure if it will happen as he plans, so he qualifies the expectation with “I hope.” Similar qualifiers are found in Philippians 2:24 and 3 John 14.

Paul asks Timothy, “make every effort to come to me soon” (2 Tim. 4:9). Does anyone think that Timothy thought that “soon” meant anything other than within a short period of time? No such qualifiers accompany Revelation 1:1 and 22:6-7. In fact, the text states “the things that must soon take place” (1:1). Revelation 1:1 doesn’t just say that the events outlined in Revelation “must take place,” leaving the possibility that they could take place at any time; it says they “must soon take place.” It’s a divine necessity, and that includes the timing.

Henry Cowles reiterates that the meaning of the time words “near” and “shortly” can’t be stretched to mean an elusive period of time without doing irreparable harm to the authority of Scripture:

“Things which must shortly come to pass,” must be said in general of the contents of this entire book, and not, as some have supposed, of the first three chapters only. “Shortly” can have no other and no less meaning than very soon. This sense of the original Greek words is absolute and decisive. It is only serious trifling with God’s words to say that “shortly” may mean a thousand years distant, or two and three thousand, according as the exigencies [demand] of some preconceived scheme of interpretation may require. Why should not God be permitted to be his own interpreter and give his own views in regard to the time of the events here foretold? The rule of fair common sense must be, that whatever God may say in explanation of his own prophecies—e. g., as to the time of their fulfillment, must be taken to its plain and most obvious sense.

*****

We know that the temple, altar and holy city were standing at the time of this vision; we know they were on the very eve of their desolation; we know therefore that this desolation — so “shortly” after these visions were seen and recorded — cannot possibly be any other than that effected by the Roman armies A. D. 70. It should be some comfort to us to know where we are in place and in time in this series of prophetic events. It gives a pleasing sense of certainty in the results of our investigations. [2]

Rhodes quotes Revelation 1:1 and 1:3 but he never deals with 1:3 and the Greek word translated as “near.” It may be because there’s no way to make “near” mean anything other than “near.” The Greek word (engus) translated “near” or “at hand” should have the same meaning in Revelation as it does in other New Testament contexts (Mt. 24:32-33; 26:18; Mk. 13:28-29; Lk. 19:11; 21:30-31; Jn. 2:13; 3:23; 6:4, 19, 23; 7:2; 11:18, 54-55; 19:20, 42; Acts 1:12; 9:38; 27:8; Rom. 10:8; Eph. 2:13, 17; Phil. 4:5; Heb. 6:8; 8:13). In fact, “near” is defined for us by Scripture:

You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door (James 5:8-9).

“Near” is defined as “at the door” (cp. Rev. 3:20), not down the street, around the block, or in the next state. A similar definition is given in the Olivet Discourse:

Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near (Matt. 24:32).

The appearance of leaves on trees (Luke 21:29) indicates that summer is near. This use of “near” can’t possibly mean hundreds or thousands of years in the future. In this context, “near” means a single growing season.

Any concordance will show that the Greek word engus (ἐγγύς) and its cognates always refer to events, things, or persons that are near. The following is from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon on engus:

2. of Time; concerning things imminent and soon to come to pass: Matt. 24.32; xxvi.18; Mk. 13.28; Lk. 21.30, 31; Jn. 2.13; 6.4; 7.2; 11.55;  1.3; 22.10; of the near advent of persons: ὁ κύριος ἐγγύς [the Lord is near], of Christ’s return from heaven, Phil. iv.5 (in another sense, of God in Ps. [145:18]); [3] with the addition ἐπί θύραις, at the door, Matt. 24.33; Mark 3.29; ἐγγύς κατάρας, near to being cursed, Heb. vi.8; ἀφανισμοῦ, soon to vanish, Heb. 8.13. [4]

Philippians 4:5 does not say “Christ’s return from heaven” is near, only that “the Lord is near” (also Deut. 4:7; Ps. 34:18; 119:151; Isa. 50:8). Even so, the Lord being near to judge Jerusalem as He promised before that contemporary generation passed away (Matt. 24:34) fits the preterist argument (James 5:8-9). The most widely used Greek lexicon agrees:

‘Εγγύς occurs two times in Revelation (1:3; 22:10) and is usually translated “near” or “at hand.” It means “close proximity spatially” or “close in point of time.” [5]

The contextual and Lexical evidence is clear. The Greek words translated as “soon/quickly” and “near” refer to events that were proximate to the first audience. If these words don’t mean what they mean in other contexts, then what words could Jesus have used if He wanted to say that His judgment coming was “soon” to take place because the time was “near”?

_________________________________

VARIOUS INTIMATIONS OF A SPEEDY COMING OF CHRIST
WERE FULFILLED IN THE BEGINNING OF THE GOSPEL AGE

From James Glasgow’s The Apocalypse (59-60).

These are expressed principally by the words ἐγγύς and ταχύ in the Revelation, and ἐγγίζω in the Gospels and Epistles. I shall exhibit a few examples: —

Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” — ἤγγικεν.

Matt. 26:45: “The hour is at hand” — ἤγγικεν.

Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9, 11: “The kingdom of God is at hand” — ἤγγικεν.

Mark 14:42: “He that betrayeth me is at hand” — ἤγγικεν.

Luke 16:8: “The time draweth near” — ἤγγικεν

Luke 21:20: “The desolation thereof” (of Jerusalem)” is nigh” — ἤγγικεν.

Rom. 13:12: “The day is at hand”— ἤγγικεν.

Heb. 10:25: “Ye see the day approaching” — ἐγγίζουσαν.

James 5:8: “The coming of the Lord draweth nigh” — ἤγγικεν.

1 Pet. 4:7: “The end of all” (Πάντων — of the spiritually dead in the previous verse) “is at hand” — ἤγγικεν.

Matt. 26:18: “My time is at hand” — ἐγγύς.

Luke 21:31: “The kingdom of God is nigh at hand” — ἐγγύς.

Phil. 4:5: “The Lord is at hand” — ἐγγύς.

Rev. 1:3; 22:10: “The time is at hand” — ἐγγύς.

The examples now given relate principally to time; but the words in more than forty instances refer to place and denote immediate contiguity.

So ταχύ and cognates may be exemplified:

Luke 14:21: “Go out quickly into the streets” — ταχέως.

Luke 16:6: “Sit down quickly” — ταχέως.

John 11:31: “She rose up hastily [quickly]” — ταχέως.

1 Cor. 4:19: “I will come to you shortly.” — ταχέως

2 Thess. 2:2: “That ye be not soon (ταχέως) shaken” — ταχέως.

2 Pet. 1:14: “Shortly (ταχινή) I must put off this tabernacle.”

John 13:27: “That thou doest, do quickly” — τάχιον.

Acts 12:7: “Rise up quickly” — ἐν τάχει.

Rom. 16:20: “God shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly” — ἐν τάχει.

Matt. 28:7: “Go quickly (ταχύ) and tell His disciples.” — ἐν τάχει.

John 11:29: “She rose quickly” — ταχύ.

Rev. 1:1; 22:6: “Things which must shortly come to pass” — ἐν τάχει.

Rev. 2:16: “I will come to Pergamos quickly” — ταχύ — in the Neronian persecution.

Rev. 3:11: “I come quickly” — ταχύ: viz. on Jerusalem.

Rev. 11:14: “The third woe cometh quickly” — ταχύ — in three and a half years.

Rev. 22:7, 12, 20: “I come quickly” — ταχύ.

If we are content to be guided by the Scripture usage of the words, the truth of the section will be at once established.

But many are not disposed to acquiesce in this. They prefer their pre-formed theories, — as that the Lord has never yet come again since His ascension, and consequently that the various promises of coming quickly meant that He would not come for at least 1870 years, and perhaps not for an indefinite number more. This applies both to pre-millenarians and post-millenarians, though from different standpoints — so very non-natural is the principle of scriptural interpretation which multitudes dogmatically lay down, and so purblindly do they adopt a position which charges the apostles either with error or with deception. Nothing can be taught more plainly in human vocables, than the apostles (as well as John the Baptist and Jesus Himself), in such places as those cited, taught that His coming after the ascension was to be expected quickly (ταχύ), in the plain meaning of that term.

  1. James Glasgow, The Apocalypse: Translated and Expounded (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1872), 61.[]
  2. Henry Cowles, The Revelation of John; With Notes, Critical, Explanatory, and Practical (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880), 53, 126.[]
  3. “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Ps. 145:18).[]
  4. Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House [1901] 1977, 164-165.[]
  5. Walter Baur, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., rev. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 271.[]
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