Patience and the Parousia: Was James Mistaken about the Time of the Second Coming?1
Three times in James 5:7-9 the author of this letter calls for Christians to be “patient” in light of the impending return of Jesus Christ. Continue reading . . .
Three times in James 5:7-9 the author of this letter calls for Christians to be “patient” in light of the impending return of Jesus Christ. Here is the text:
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:7-9).
But before I try to account for its significance, I need to address a problem.
James appears to believe that the second coming of Christ would happen in the lifetime of his readers. Although in v. 7 he merely states the “fact” of Christ’s return, in v. 8 he declares that it is “near” or “at hand” (v. 8b). Was he mistaken? And if so, how can we continue to affirm that the Bible is inerrant, or free from error?
No, he was not mistaken. We must remember that we have been living in the “last days” ever since Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of the Father in heaven. Several texts confirm this. In preaching on the day of Pentecost Peter referred to the present church age as “the last days” when God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17). Paul uses the language of the “last days” in a similar fashion in 2 Timothy 3:1. The Apostle John boldly declared that he and his fellow believers were living in the “last hour” (1 John 2:18; see also Jude 18; 2 Peter 3:3).
But no one knew how long the “last days” would last. It may well be that we are living in the “last days” of the “last days,” but no one can be certain. What we do know for sure is that every generation of Christians should understand that the “last days” are already here and have been ever since Christ ascended into heaven.
Therefore, it is entirely legitimate for every generation of Christians, including that of James, to live knowing that the next great event in God’s saving purposes is the return of Christ to the earth. All believers should live conscious of the fact that Christ could appear at any time. And that knowledge ought to serve as an incentive to obedience and holiness and trust.
So James says in v. 7, “be patient . . . until the coming of the Lord.” And in v. 8 he again says, “be patient . . . for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” And in v. 9 he reminds them again that “the Judge [i.e., Jesus] is standing at the door.” All of us should wake up each day with that possibility firmly settled in our hearts as well. And not for the purpose of fueling end-time speculation or a reason to run and hide in fear and panic.
The prophetic certainty of Christ’s coming is designed to stir our hearts and move our hands in the pursuit of holiness! As John said, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2b-3).
In the case of James’s original audience, they were suffering economic exploitation and injustice at the hands of wealthy non-Christians. James does not tell them to get even. He does not encourage them to exact vengeance or to hate their oppressors. He tells them to be patient; to endure in the face of trial; to remain steadfast; to strengthen their hearts. James is not suggesting that they should not avail themselves of the appropriate legal system to seek justice. If that proves to be a possibility then they should surely pursue it. But the problem is that the wealthy controlled the courts through bribery and blackmail.
In such cases, the one thing that will sustain you and protect your heart from growing bitter and angry is the rock-solid assurance that Jesus is coming back. And when he does he will judge the wicked who take advantage of you and will lead you into the indescribable blessings and joy of life with Christ in the new heavens and new earth.
Some of you may be inclined to say, “That’s not good enough! I need relief now! I need for my enemies to be held accountable now! I want to see them judged now!” If that is the attitude of your heart, I have nothing else to give you. I have nothing more to say. The only comfort that God gives us in the present day is the reassurance that he will deal righteously with those who have dealt unrighteously with you.
So, be patient until the coming of the Lord!