Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Delay of the Parousia in the Early Church

I've said repeatedly that one of the primary issues for the church in Thessalonica- and for the early church generally- is the delay of the parousia, that is, the fact that Jesus had not returned as quickly as they had expected. (Parousia is a transliteration of the Greek word which is translated 'coming,' 'advent,' etc. and is often used in the NT to speak of Jesus' second coming.) Let's spend today just trying to grasp how important of an issue this was for the early church. By the end of the week we'll try to say what that issue might mean for us today. Today, let's focus on what I think is the starkest example of this problem, which is not from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians.

In I Peter 4:7, we find this: "The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers."

There's the common assumption throughout the New Testament: The end is near. It gets expressed in many ways, but generally for Christians it was a word of coming salvation/rescue as well as coming judgment for their oppressors. As you can see from its use in this verse, it was also the root of Christian Ethics- 'act this way because the coming of the Lord is near.' In troubled times, that means something like, "don't return evil for evil (a very oft-repeated sentiment in the NT among a variety of writers), because God will judge our persecutors soon and righteously." You can see how it might be a word of encouragement for those who are suffering or anxious, a word of caution for those who might be tempted to join a revolution against Rome or to retaliate against local authorities or temple leaders, and so forth. Some biblical scholars even say that the New Testament generally espouses an "eschatalogical ethic," a way of speaking about right and wrong that is primarily grounded in the expectation of Jesus' soon return.

But, then, look at II Peter. In the first chapter, the writer says that Christians have already received everything they need for life and godliness from Christ's divine power (v.3). In other words, their ethical life is based, not on hanging in there because Christ is returning soon to set everything right, but on the power that Christ had already endowed on them. Also in that first chapter, the writer says that he is reminding them about things they already know because the Lord Jesus had made clear to him that he was going to die soon and he wanted them to remain faithful after he was gone. This is not the language of the first letter; not by any means.

Then, in the 3rd chapter, the writer says that 'scoffers' will come, saying ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’ In other words, the delay in the parousia was becoming a point of deep contention among the church. Some people felt that history was just 'one damned thing after another' (as someone famous put it- Mark Twain perhaps?), so there was no great moment of awakening or judgment ahead. And, some people were using that delay to question the need for Christians to act ethically at all.

The writer's response is to point to how reliable God's word has been throughout the ages and then he says, "But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance." To be sure, the writer continues to expect the Lord's return, but is conceding that it has not happened with quite the swiftness that he had anticipated in his earlier letter (or, he adds at the end of the 3rd chapter, as quickly as Paul anticipates in his letters!)

I don't know a lot about I and II Peter, but this is a very insightful glimpse into the problem of the delay of the parousia for the early church. It is more than simply a calendrical guessing game, with the various people saying, "Oh, I don't know ... when do you think Jesus is coming back?" to one another. It was a question about their orientation for living. If you base your entire ethical system- especially the ethic of non-retaliation against enemies- on the expectation of Christ's soon return, then the delay of Christ's return means ... what?

Here's my reading of I and then II Peter. The writer was clearly backing away from his earlier language about how soon the second coming was going to be, as well as how the anticipation of that soon-ness was the ground of their ethics. But, he still anticipated the second coming because it was grounded in God's steadfast love, which endures forever. "The Lord is not slow about his promise," means that what is reliable here is not the timing but God's faithfulness. The timing issue- on which the writer had been clearly wrong when writing his first letter- was a human problem because we see days as 24 hour segments and he had been forgetting that God is the author of time, therefore God is not bound by any specific calendar of events.

In I and II Peter we see at least one person's attempt to reckon with the delay of the parousia. More importantly, we see that it was not simply a matter of 'eschatology,' a separated and perhaps minor issue of the end times. It was the major issue of ethics, hope, and faith. Most importantly, the writer ultimately turns to God's faithfulness as that which is reliable, more than our ability to guess some hidden timeline of events.

Tomorrow we get back to I Thessalonians to see how Paul dealt with this same issue.

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