The Agora
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Why the delay?

With every passing day, we are closer to the Return of Jesus the Christ. The message of his imminent Return is as urgent as ever. The certainty of his Second Coming is clearly good news for a world in distress: there is not a country on this earth which is not suffering from confusion, hardship and turmoil. Our world needs God's help now.

Why then the apparent delay in the Second Coming?

When asked privately by his disciples, "Tell us, when will this [the destruction of the Temple] be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?" (Mat 24:3), Jesus gave several examples and predicted specific events that would be perceived and understood as indicating a soon fulfillment of his prophecy. Near-term fulfillment was the authenticating mark of a true prophet (Deu 18:22). And Jesus was proved true. Spoken around AD 30, the parts of the Mount Olivet prophecy about the overthrow of Jerusalem were fulfilled in AD 70.

Jesus' complete prophecy as recorded in Matthew 24-25 also included a number of parables: the budding fig tree, the unwatchful householder, the wise and wicked servants, the wise and foolish maidens, and the servants entrusted with money. All were calculated to teach his disciples their need to "watch", ie, to be ready, to be prepared, and to be occupied in his work, while the Lord was away (Mat 24:42,44; 25:13). For how long? No one knew, not even Jesus (Mat 24:36). The wait for fulfillment is going on nearly two thousand years. Did the parables indicate such a long delay?

One parable did speak of a delay. Concerning the ten maidens "who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom" (Mat 25:1), the story goes on to say: "As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept" (Mat 25:5). Jesus did not state the reason for the delay. However, it did have the effect of allowing slumber to overcome both the wise and the foolish maidens. Assuming that the correct interpretation is that Jesus is the bridegroom (cp Luke 5:35; 12:35-38; Rev 19:7), what might be the reason(s) for his delay in returning to the earth?

Consider the story of the death of Lazarus told in John 11. When Jesus had been informed that "he whom you love is ill" (v 3), he said: "This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it" (v 4). So Jesus was very clear on his purpose and priorities. The next two verses are illuminating:
"Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister [Mary] and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer at the place where he was" (vv 5,6).
Having emphasized his love for the whole family -- which is repeated from v 3, and which is pointed out again in v 36 -- the text indicates that Jesus deliberately delayed his going. Why? For the glory of God mentioned earlier. And for the instruction of his disciples, as the story unfolds. When Jesus finally said, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him out of sleep" (v 11), the disciples were glad to hear that recovery was imminent (v 12). "Then Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe' " (v 15). So the delay was for the benefit of the twelve.

The delay was also for the benefit of Martha and Mary when Jesus finally arrived. Both in turn, when they went out to meet him, reproachfully said: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (vv 21,32). Yet Martha was quick to add: "And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you" (v 22). The ensuing verses are wonderful to read:
"Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' Martha said to him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.' Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?' She said to him, 'Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world' " (vv 23-27).
Jesus knew how Martha and Mary would be tortured by his delay. He also knew that their belief in the resurrection was solid. Yet he held back in order to let their faith grow. He stretched them to the limit. He took the sisters to the tomb. With mourners wailing, bystanders questioning ("Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"), and a body starting to smell after four days of death, Martha could hardly believe Jesus' instruction to take away the tomb's stone door (vv 34-39). Jesus then reminded her: "Did I not tell you that if you would believe, you would see the glory of God?" (v 40). Simply, but magnificently, the text then says: "So they took away the stone" (v 41). This was GREAT faith!

That Jesus was always looking for his Father's wisdom in this situation is evident from his acknowledging prayer:
"Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me" (vv 41,42).
Who knows what blessings came to the people in Perea during those two extra days of bewildered uncertainty before Jesus set out for Bethany? We do know of the saving belief that was generated at the graveside in the next few moments, to the glory of God. For when he finished his prayer, Jesus "cried with a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, 'Unbind him, and let him go.' Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him" (vv 43-45).

To summarize the reasons for Jesus' delay, it was for:

(1) the glory of God,
(2) the instruction of the twelve apostles,
(3) the "faith-stretching" of Martha and Mary, and
(4) the convincing of the tomb bystanders.

The last three are clearly benefits for people who thought that Jesus had done wrong in delaying his coming to save Lazarus.

This is exactly the point made in 2Pe 3. Having written that in "the last days" there would be scoffers saying, "Where is the promise of his coming?" (vv 3,4), Peter went on to write: "The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward us, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (v 9).

In other words, any delay on God's part is for the purpose of saving men and women. For Peter, there was no doubt that "the day of the Lord will come" (v 10) as promised, along with the dissolution and destruction of the world of sinful men, in order to make way for "a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (v 13).

But eventually the Day will come. So Peter exhorted his readers:
"Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God...?" (vv 11,12).
This "hastening" is alternately rendered "earnestly desiring" in the RSV, and the NIV reads: "You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming." Like the wise maidens who went out to meet the bridegroom, their keenness and preparation was represented by their extra oil. For them, there was no problem with delay. Let us take heed, and live likewise.

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