God, Man and the Parousia

Can believers have an impact on the timing of Christ’s return?

We Christians believe that Christ did not come just once, but is coming again. And we believe that God is sovereign in this matter, and has a perfect timetable for when this will take place. We are also told in Scripture that no one knows exactly when this will be. But there are other things to consider.

Before proceeding, I should point out that the Greek word parousia can mean an arrival or coming in general, and more particularly, the second coming of Christ. The term, and versions of it, are used over 25 times in the Greek New Testament. The former use of the term is found in texts like 1 Corinthians 16:17: “I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence.”

But it is the latter more specific usage that I wish to discuss here. It is found in passages such as the following:

Matthew 24:37-39 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

1 Corinthians 15:22-24 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.

1 Thessalonians 2:19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?

My title speaks of God and man. As mentioned, when Christ returns is ultimately a matter of God’s doing and timing – end of story. But not quite! There are some passages that seem to suggest that in some sense his return just might be impacted by things that we humans do.

That is, it is possible that Christ’s coming may depend upon us at least to a certain extent? Four passages come to mind here – some being more clear than others on this matter. Let me speak to each one briefly and see if such a case can be made.

In Matthew 24:14 we find these words: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” A shorter version of this is found in Mark 13:10: “And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.”

The Greek word for nations (ethne) is used by some modern-day believers to refer to “people groups” and the point is to seek to win over every such group in order that the Lord may return. That is possible but not all NT scholars agree with this. Indeed, some take it that a passage like Matt. 24 is about what happened before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and not some future event.

While all Christians should have a sense of urgency when it comes to evangelism and world missions, it is not fully clear if texts like these can be used to suggest that our activity determines at least in part when Christ returns. This is a possible, but not a decisive, understanding of these verses.

Another interesting passage is found in the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:9-10 (see also Luke 11:2) says this:

Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.”

Here we have some sort of connection between our prayers and the coming of the kingdom. Of course the whole topic of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a massive one, as is the idea of how we are to understand how our prayers might make a difference to divine purposes. Suffice it to say that our prayers MAY play a part in when Christ does return.

A third passage that possibly indicates some role that we might play in the Lord’s return is found in Acts 3:19-21. What did Peter mean by these words?:

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.

Here it seems that human repentance may in some way have something to do with the Lord’s return. Is the implication that repentance and obedience are also elements that will determine when Christ comes again? Again, this is not a fool-proof passage on this issue, but it is another text to ponder. Certain things may need to occur before Christ does return.

A final text worth considering is 2 Peter 3:11-12 which says: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”

The context (3:1-13) is all about the Lord’s coming. But the key term is in verse 12: “hastening”. Does this mean that certain things that we do might hasten the day of his return? If so, does this also imply that we can impede or slow down his return?

Image of 1-2 Peter and Jude: The Christian Standard Commentary
1-2 Peter and Jude: The Christian Standard Commentary by Schreiner, Thomas R. (Author) Amazon logo

Let me offer just one bit of commentary here, which also refers to some of the other texts I have cited. In his recent commentary Thomas Schreiner says this:

We may be surprised about the notion of hastening the day of God. . . . Peter clearly teaches that believers can advance or hasten the arrival of God’s day by living godly lives. We think here of the prayer, “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). Surely the idea is that our prayer has some impact on when the kingdom arrives. Such an idea was current in Judaism as well since some rabbis taught that God would fulfill his promises if Israel would repent… Acts 3:19-21 appears to teach a similar idea. God would send his Christ and restore all things if Israel repented fully.

Again, the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility arises here, and Schreiner speaks to this as well:

But does not such an idea threaten divine sovereignty, his control over history? Was Peter suggesting that God himself does not know when the end will be, since he does not know if his people will live in a godly way? We can dismiss the idea that the future is obscured from God because if that were true, how could we know that history would ever end? After two thousand years of history, how could we be sure that Christians would ever live righteously enough to bring about God’s day? Divine sovereignty is not threatened since God himself foreknows what his people will do. Indeed, he even foreordains what we will do (e.g., Prov. 16:33; Isa. 46:9-11; Lam. 3:37-38; Eph. 1:11). Nevertheless, God’s sovereignty over history must never cancel out the call to live godly lives and the teaching that our prayers and godliness can speed his coming. We must not fall prey to rationalism that either squeezes out divine sovereignty or ignores human responsibility. Both of these must be held in tension, and here the accent falls on what human beings do to hasten the day of God. God uses means to accomplish his purposes.

Practical application

Why am I speaking to this matter? Given that this is not fully clear and may be somewhat speculative, is it worth discussing? Well, I think so! If you are like me, you often tire of all the sin and depravity and evil and suffering in the world, and you may pray daily, ‘Come quickly Lord Jesus.’

But if the coming of the Lord may in some ways partially depend on what we, God’s people, do, and who we are, then we may need to expand our prayers just a bit. Instead of pleading for Christ to come soon, we may need to pray that God shows each one of us what – if anything – we need to be doing, and what sort of person we should become, which may in some way help bring about the parousia.

As stated, God is sovereign and his timetable is certain. But since God often does things in conjunction with his people – such as evangelising the lost – then in some mysterious ways our actions, or lack of them, may have some bearing on when Christ comes again.

This is something all believers should think about and pray about.

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11 Replies to “God, Man and the Parousia”

  1. You are a blessing to us all. Thank you for your ministry.
    Psalm133 – even if it is only in the spirit. When you said a day is but a thousand years and a thousand years is but a day referring to Christs Crucifixion. It hit me hard in a good way. He took on all the sins of the world. Six thousand years of our sins. Thats beyond comprehension. My Lord my God how great Thou Art. Some people think three days in and three days out. Right? Wow, Iove Jesus so much. He loves us more.

  2. Thank-you for your “food for thought”.
    I would say that modern thinking is not so familiar with the idea of “justified/sanctified, yet continuing to the perfection of salvation”; and “our actions hastening the day” can be seen in some sort of parallel equivalence.
    The importance of our participation is to benefit *us* in the unfolding of God’s (final) plan.
    To use a limited analogy:
    In the story of Robin Hood acting against the Sheriff for justice that was fitting of his era and situation, he was essentially both supporting of, and acting under a kind of proxy authority; that of the true king, Richard the Lionheart (who was away, yet returning).
    Similarly, we transfer allegiance from the king of this world, to that of the *coming King* when we submit to, and act according to, the (true) King’s plan.
    The coming King has life changing authority here and now! The King will return at His appointed time, regardless of what we do or don’t do – it is just that the Bride is better prepared when “we hasten the day”.
    And we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. Rom 8v28
    I feel there would be more scope in this, too.
    Blessings, Eddie

  3. Good article. There is definitely a tension between God, in His almighty sovereignty, absolutely controlling the timing of Christ’s return and our responsibility and activity. If God is absolutely controlling the end, it seems to leave us with no more responsibility but to wait and watch. Yet, we are to evangelize, to take the good news to every nation – to the whole world. Is this every people group? Maybe. We are not clearly told. But we are told to go and tell the whole world. That, then includes every people group in a narrow sense, but in the broad sense it is geographical areas. We can not assume one over the other. Most geographical areas have been covered. Not all people groups have been reached. We must strive for the narrow – even if God meant the broader view. We know only one thing for sure – we are commanded to tell everyone we know of the saving grace of God through Christ.
    So, I tend to think the mention of Jerusalem in all of this is as a type of the end, as was the flood, and Sodom and Gomorra. We know, because of those events, that the end is coming with the return of Christ. Until then, we actively and fervently press on, presenting the Gospel with encouragement – in all of its facets. The idea is there that as we press harder, the end is nearer.
    One final thought comes to mind with the passage from Isaiah which states that “every knee shall bow, every tongue confess”, and which was quoted by Paul in both Romans and Philippians. That thought is this, that whether we are successful as a people to get the word to every nation or not, when Christ returns, all shall know, all shall bow, all confess. That, too, is within the sovereignty of God.
    Great topic in these important times.

  4. My understanding that Christ will return when his conditions for returning have been met.
    I also understand that we as his disciples should not seek to hurry or delay his coming, but rather we should be doing the works he has set before us as diligently as possible.
    Having been in a very long line of farmers, I understand all his teachings in regards to farming. clearing, planting, weeding, fertilizing, harvesting etc.
    All I can do is, fear God, keep his commandments, go about doing good, being led by the Holy Ghost, and if the opportunity arises, share the Gospel of Christ, then move on, not looking back.
    I shall leave the rest in the Hands of God.

  5. Much appreciated you addressing this topic as it has been much on my mind this past year with the unfolding of events.
    You commented on 2 Peter 3: 11-14 about living godly lives. I would add verse 15, that the “Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved” which would indicate that we should be stepping up our evangelism efforts.
    This is exactly what rises in my heart in considering the very real possibility of an imminent rapture. I have prayed more fervently for salvation for loved ones and taken on more boldness to share the Good News with them, before it is too late. A mindset that seemed to be quite prevalent even among the Early Church.
    Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
    Maranatha!

  6. Another argument in the word being proclaimed throughout the nations is the whole pre, mid an post tribulation rapture view. Those who, like me are pretrib or those who are midtrib would point out that while the main body of the church will be gone the tribulation saint could continue this and ultimately fulfill it. In revelation I believe there is even a passage about angels going about preaching so even with a decimated church this could be accomplished!

    I cringe when I hear “people groups” because while yes I am aware that the word race started with ties to evolution and in early academia was used in a derogatory way, probably still is is various parts of academia, in MODERN use of the word it is simply a subset of humanity based on the geographic origin. And far from being continental there are multiple races per continent the total for the world is probably 70-72. Six dozen to ALMOST six dozen. Africa (sub-Sahara), Middle East (Saharan Africa and eastward including India Arabia to Russian border), Europe, Asia, Australia (including New Guinea), Oceania, North America and South America!

    I think the idea behind “replace the word race with the term people groups” is admirable, you want to fight racism, but because language DOES evolve the word race does not have the same terrible meaning it had in it’s beginnings it now is a word that means the same as your people groups so replacing it with people groups to get rid of racism only will give rise to people groupism as racists become people groupists. The other part of the idea/ program is teach people we are all descended of Noah and through him Adam and Eve. This part is good I like it. But always keep in mind racists will always be with us as HATRED will always be with us. And it is HATRED that is the heart of the racism issue not the word or even necessarily the history of the word. Some of these racists even if you show them we are all descended of Noah and through him Adam and Eve they still will hate other races because they are full of hate and that must be excised before any teaching can happen.

    I’m not exactly a big fan of the hasten verse. While yes part of it is I don’t understand it part is misapplication I have seen. I tried to write to Christians I knew to write the Boy Scouts when they were considering gay Scout masters and one reply, from someone in a good sized group so he had people following him, said he wasn’t going to write because gays getting into these role would further the demise of society and hasten the Lord’s return and showing that verse. Some seem to think the faster things go to pot the fast the Lord returns so sit back do nothing and watch society destroy itself. Just put your feet up and watch the world burn! I certainly believe in PRAYER, in GETTING INVOLVED, in HELPING OTHERS, in SPREADING THE GOSPEL and wouldn’t think a extra call for that would be needed. But to abdicate one’s Christian duties simply because you think it will force God’s hand is wrong. Certainly there is a fine interplay between the actions of man and the will of God but in ALL cases I must defer to the will of God. We simply do not have the power to change what he has willed. As I said the interaction between man and God in this regard is a mystery and on smaller issues I am more inclined to believe mans lack of action could, at least seemingly, change the timing of things (like if you don’t pray a person dies now but if you pray they live another month, or if you preach to a person he will be saved and stop his awful sins tonight but if not it will be 6 weeks before he is save during which he continues his depravity) but on the time of his return, and the time of the rapture for those who believe in it, it would seem to be asking for power only the creator would have not the creature.

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