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
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
"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
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
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
(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
"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.