God’s people endured centuries of waiting for Messiah. When the time finally came and the message into which God’s prophets “longed to look” was introduced, Mark told The Story using the adverb “immediately” with conspicuous repetition. Maybe it was intentional? An introduction to a state of alertness and attention that the Son of God Himself teaches throughout His ministry?
The fact is this ‘perpetual urgency’ is a hallmark of the gospel message. In a sense, it is the gospel. Instruction to “hurry up and wait” can be put right alongside the many other gospel ironies such as “the rich become poor,” “freedom as a slave to Christ,” and “die in order to have eternal life.”
In an early-ministry address to the people, Jesus declares that “an hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (Jn 5:25) With this He confirms that the centuries-long wait for Messiah had finally arrived! But only two sentences later He alludes to yet another “hour” and says, “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.” (Jn 5:28ff) Almost as soon as He arrived, He began to speak of what was next.
A central theme of Jesus’ teaching during His mission was about what was next, or “that day”. He warned the unrighteous that it would “be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom” (Mt 11:24). While to anyone drawn by the Father he promised to “raise him up on the last day.” (Jn 6:44)
Jesus’ call to hurry up in preparation and wait for “that day” also dominated His parables. Being ready and watchful and the ubiquitous tone of perpetual urgency was the message in the “master’s return from a wedding feast” (Lu 12:35-40), the “faithful steward” (Lu 12:41-48), the “fig tree” (Lk 13:6-9), the “faithful/unfaithful slave” (Mt 24:45-51), the “ten virgins” (Mt 25:1-13), and the “talents” (Mt 25:14-30).
But it didn’t end with Jesus…
Is there a single epistle whose objective doesn’t include imploring Christians to remain strong and faithful until “that day”? Their message that Christians today should “Be ready!” is uniform throughout. Its absence would render statements from Paul like, “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead” (1 Th 1:10) completely feckless. In fact, without a fundamental condition of perpetual urgency, much of the point of the epistles is totally empty and meaningless.
Peter implores his Christian readers, “…preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pe 1:13). What’s the catalyst for urgency; the sole motivation that might compel them to action? It’s because “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Pe 4:7)!
John makes the same point. He tells his Christian readers that there are “those trying to deceive you”. The grave threat of these “antichrists“, together with the fact that “it is the last hour”, is the impetus for him to plead that they continue to “abide in Him, so that when He appears we may have confidence and not shrink from Him in shame at His coming.” (1 Jn 2)
Imagine the New Testament without perpetual urgency. Is it even possible? Over and over we are told to hurry up and wait for the second coming of Christ. Removing the former essentially castigates the latter. Throughout the gospel message, there is a perpetual urgency for an individual to act ‘now’ that’s inextricably connected to Jesus’ return. This is true for the sinner and saved alike. Removing urgency removes any human motivation to “persist” (1 Ti 4:16), “continue” (Co 1:23), “strive” (He 4:11), or “endure” (1 Co 4:12).
What are we left with after removing all motivation for an inherently lazy, procrastinating, shortsighted, time-limited humanity to remain focused and vigilant? The power of the promise of a second return hinges on its perpetual urgency. Removing it from the equation waters down Jesus’ triumphal return to a point that at best makes the promise uninspiring. Or worse, the event is questioned and/or presumed to have already happened (e.g. the false ‘AD70’ doctrine)…and working backward from there…the entire gospel message simply unravels.
With the second coming essentially ‘up in the air’, we are left to wonder about the fundamental power of the message itself – preaching Christ crucified! A watered-down (or removed completely a la AD70) promise of His return also removes the promise of the Christian’s “victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 15:57) and a “death [that] is swallowed up in victory”.
No perpetual urgency…a second coming in question…a Christians’ victory redefined…the gospel tenants fall like dominos and then it’s just a race to the bottom. Failing to understand what might appear to mere mortals as an incompatibility with the ‘hurry up and wait’ statements is really no different than the first-century audience (also mortals!) misunderstanding statements like “…unless one is born again…” (Jn 3:3) or “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36).
“Look, here is the Christ!”
Maybe it was inevitable that Christians would be confused by the perpetual urgency that God’s messengers preached. Who knows, maybe the effect of a seemingly contradictory “hurry up and wait” message is similar to the reason Jesus taught in parables. Mere mortals constrained by space and time can become frustrated by that more eternally-oriented message of “things hoped for and unseen” (He 11:1).
And we know that humans continue to be human. Some during Jesus’ day “supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” (Lk 19:11) And because of that it was with yet another parable (the “ten minas” vss 12-27) that Jesus once again taught the ‘hurry up and wait’ principle. His point was simply to be busy bearing good fruit for the kingdom (“hurry up”) and simply be ready (“wait”) for the king’s return.
Furthermore, we know there were false teachers in the first century eager to promote the idea that Jesus had already come. Paul calls out both Hymenaeus and Philetus for doing just that (2 Ti 2:17). And, notably, it was the Thessalonians that had come to believe “that day” had already passed them by (1 Th 4:13-14; 2 Th 2:1-2). Peter also must revisit his, “The end of all things is at hand;” statement from his first letter with a qualification in the second. To the “hurry up” he adds the “wait” by disclosing that “with the Lord, one day is as a thousand years” (2 Pe 3:8).
All of this misunderstanding is in spite of Jesus’ earlier warning that “if anyone says to you, Look, here is the Christ! or Look, there he is! do not believe it.” (Mk 13:21)
The hurry up and wait gospel binds the otherwise irreconcilable concepts of man’s time and God’s eternity. Perpetual urgency is to the gospel like water is to man’s existence. Remove that thread and the entire gospel message unravels. It’s why over, and over, and over again, Jesus and the apostles implored us to be saved “immediately” and be vigilant to “Watch yourselves, so that you may no lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.” (2 Jn 1:8)
We are now centuries removed from what so many waited centuries to reveal. And, just as the Hebrews writer declared centuries ago…who himself was quoting David from many more centuries before that:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”