|By: Dr. Robert Thomas; ©1999|
|What is the difference between “imminence,” “immanence,” and “eminence”? How do each of these terms relate to Christ?|
THE IMMINENCE OF CHRIST’S RETURN
The last book of the Bible, beginning with its very first verse, indicates repeatedly that Jesus Christ will return soon. “Things that must happen soon” (Rev. 1:1) summarizes the content of the prophecy that God gave to Jesus to transmit through His prophet John. Some Bible versions translate the Greek expression for “soon” by “quickly,” but “quickly” is not a satisfactory rendering. The emphasis of Revelation is not on the quickness with which predicted events will occur, but on their closeness in time, as Revelation 1:3 indicates: “the time is near.” “Imminence” is the word that emphasizes the nearness of Christ’s return.
Two other words in the English language sound about the same as “imminence.” One of them is “immanence” [note the difference in spelling] which speaks of God’s presence throughout the universe. The other one is “eminence” which denotes superiority in rank, position, character, achievement, or some such thing. The doctrine of Christ’s imminent return, however, teaches that Jesus may come back at any time. His coming is impending because no prediction in the Bible remains to be fulfilled before His return. It could happen at any moment, even before a reader finishes reading this article.
Not everyone has understood the expression translated “soon” in Revelation 1:1 and elsewhere in the book in this way, however. Recently a few have followed a theory that the two Greek words en tachei (“soon”) set a time limit by which the return of Christ must occur. They view the word “soon” as setting a limitation on how near are the fulfillment of the predictions. They connect “soon” with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24:34: “This generation will not pass away until all these things occur.” By assuming that Jesus uttered the words in the year A.D. 30 and adopting a forty-year-per-generation guideline, they conclude that the coming of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 24 had to happen no later than A.D. 70.
They then assume the events just before 70 to be the tribulation about which Jesus spoke earlier in Matthew 24 and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 to be the coming of Christ specifically cited in Matthew 24:29-31. They try to justify such a loose interpretation of Christ’s words by saying the language is “poetic and symbolic.” They say the words depict a “cloud-coming” of Christ, not His personal reappearance.
Such an understanding of Jesus’ words completely ignores the immediate context of Matthew 24:34, however. Just two verses later Jesus specifically stated, “Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matt. 24:36). Setting a time period within which Jesus had to return directly contradicts Jesus’ own words to the effect that no one except the Father, not even Jesus Himself, knows the timing of His return. The setting of dates for the time of the second coming lacks a biblical foundation and is in fact quite contrary to the Bible.
Another very obvious fact is that Jesus did not return to earth in A.D. 70. That He would return personally to earth is the plain meaning of His words in Matthew 24:29-31. Assigning them any other meaning amounts to distortion of the truth in these verses.
What then does “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 mean? A comparison of “this generation” with Jesus’ use of the expression earlier on the same day during which He spoke the words of Matthew 24:34 shows that its meaning has to do with a quality of the people so designated, not with how long before His immediate listeners would pass off the scene. When Jesus said, “All these things will come on this generation” (Matt. 23:36) earlier in the day, the context of His remarks shows clearly He was designating a hardened, unreceptive nation of people who would not repent until the time of His return. He did not have in mind the length of time they would be on earth in the earlier passage, nor did He in later words of 24:34.
When the Bible uses “soon” (Rev 1:1; 2:16; 3:11; 22:6, 7,12, 20) or “near” (Rev. 1:3; 22:10) to describe the timing of Jesus’ second coming, it means something entirely different from setting a time limit for Him to arrive back on earth. Rather it is encouraging an attitude or a motivation that will move people toward proper behavior and activity. During His ministry on earth Jesus frequently told people to watch for His return and to be ready for it to happen. He expressed the importance of watchfulness and readiness in a number of different ways. For example, He said, “Blessed are those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes” (Luke 12:37); “When you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door” (Mark 13:29); “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mk 13:33). It was His intent that His people be busy in serving Him while He is away and not be caught in any unwholesome pursuits when He returns.
Is it possible that the Bible has erred in speaking of Christ’s return as coming soon? Unfortunately some say so, but they do not comprehend that sometimes Scripture views time from God’s perspective rather than from man’s point of view. From man’s perspective 2,000 years since John wrote Revelation is a long time, but from God’s perspective that is not true. Second Peter 3:8 notes that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” For an eternal God time is not a limiting factor. The past, present, and future are always present for Him. Thus in these instances in Revelation we have cases where the Bible computes time relative to the divine apprehension, and “soon” is not an error.
It is simply God’s way of telling us Jesus may come back at any moment. We must be ready in case it happens while we are still alive. Paul had that kind of expectation. He included himself among the living who will be caught up to be with Christ at His return. He wrote, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, 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, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15-17, emphasis added). He expected Jesus to return in his lifetime. He also wrote, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52, emphasis added). Paul anticipated being among the living when Christ returns. As it turned out, Paul died and Christ has not yet returned. That does not nullify, however, the correctness of Paul in remaining prepared throughout his life to meet Christ personally at any moment.
That exemplifies what our attitude should be. Should He return while I am alive, I must give an account of my faithfulness to Him before I die, so I need to keep my life in accord with His will at all times. Our ambition should be to live so that “when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from Him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28).
Anyone without a vital personal union with Jesus Christ, of course, cannot have a life acceptable to God. His sins remain unforgiven. His expectations when judged by a holy God are to be doomed to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). Before Jesus returns, such a person needs to initiate that union through faith in the Lamb of God who bore the penalty for the sins of the world when He died at Calvary. Then he/she can be ready for the “any moment” return of Christ.
Note: For more information about imminence in the book of Revelation, see my more detailed discussion in Revelation 1–7 (Moody Press, 1992), pp. 49-82, and Revelation 8– 22 (Moody Press, 1995), pp. 493-523. My somewhat briefer discussion is available in Four Views on Revelation (Zondervan, 1998), pp. 179-229. To order either of these by phone, you may call Grace Book Shack at (800) GRACE15.