The Cambridge Dictionary describes the word “Imminent” as “coming or likely to happen very soon.”
EXPECTATIONS OF THE EARLY CHURCH
Christ could come at any moment according to Scripture. From the very earliest days of the church, the apostles and first-generation Christians had an earnest expectation and hope that Christ might suddenly return to gather His church to heaven. The New Testament writers often wrote of Christ’s “appearing,” and they never failed to convey the sense that this could happen imminently. James, probably the earliest of the New Testament epistles, expressly told his readers that the return of Christ was imminent:
“Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” James 5:7-9
Peter echoed that same expectation when he wrote, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers” (1 Pet. 4:7). The writer of Hebrews cited the imminent return of Christ as a reason to remain faithful: “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). He wrote, “Yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry” (v. 37). And the apostle John made the most confident pronouncement of all: “Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). John wrote “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:28; cf. 3:2; Col. 3:4; 2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Pet. 5:4). When John recorded his vision in the book of Revelation, he prefaced it by saying that these things “must shortly take place” (1:1).
When the apostle Paul described the Lord’s coming for the church, he clearly was convinced that he himself might be among those who would be caught up alive to meet the Lord: “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thess. 4:15, 17). He obviously looked for Christ to return in his lifetime. He furthermore made it plain that a watchful, hopeful expectancy about Christ’s Second Coming is one of the godly attitudes divine grace teaches all believers: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13).
WILL THE TRIBULATION PRECEDE CHRIST’S COMING FOR THE CHURCH?
Nonetheless, according to some students of Bible prophecy, “the blessed hope” becomes relevant only after the church has gone through the Tribulation. When Christ outlined the events of the last days, He included many prophecies about tribulation and hardship, and He said these signs would precede and point to His return (Matt. 24:21, 30).
First, they argue that all the general “signs of the times” given in the New Testament either have been fulfilled or are being fulfilled before our eyes. They are, in fact, characteristics of the entire church age. Apostasy and unbelief, self-love, sin, wars, rumors of wars, and natural disasters have all been common throughout the church age. Practically every generation of Christians since the time of Christ has believed they were seeing the end-times signs fulfilled before their very eyes. And the church was already in the last days even before the apostolic era ended. In fact, “last days” is a biblical term for the Christian era itself (Heb. 1:1-2).
Second, those who believe the church must suffer through the hardships of the Tribulation period invariably cite 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 as proof:
“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition.”
If 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 indeed means that Christ’s coming for the church cannot occur until after the Antichrist was revealed and the seven years of Tribulation took place, it nullifies everything the New Testament teaches about the imminence of Christ’s return.
So, on the one hand, the New Testament reflects an eager sense of expectancy and the conviction that the blessed hope of Christ’s return is imminent. On the other hand, we are warned about trouble and affliction that will precede Christ’s return. How can we reconcile these two threads of prophecy? How can we cultivate a daily expectation of Christ’s return if these preliminary signs must yet be fulfilled before He returns?
But look carefully at the context of 2 Thessalonians 2. The Thessalonians had been confused and upset by some false teachers who were teaching that the persecutions and sufferings they experienced were the very judgments associated with the Day of the Lord’s final apocalyptic wrath. They were deeply troubled by this, for in his earlier epistle Paul encouraged them by telling them of the Rapture (1 Thess. 4:14-17). He even instructed them to comfort one another with the promise of Christ’s coming for them (v. 18), so they obviously feared they had missed the Rapture.
“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him” (v.1) is a clear reference to the Rapture. But “The day of Christ” mentioned later in verse 2, however refers to the Day of the Lord (in fact, the older manuscripts use the expression “day of the Lord” in this verse). So when Paul says, “that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (v.3), he is talking about the Day of the Lord and its apocalyptic judgment, not the Rapture.
He most certainly was not suggesting that the coming of Christ for the church would be delayed until after the Tribulation events had all played out. If this was what he meant, it would overturn everything the New Testament has to say about Christ’s return being imminent, comforting, and hopeful.
So, the consistent teaching of the New Testament is that Christians should be looking for the imminent coming of Christ for His church, and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 is no exception.
THE SCOFFERS AND THE MOCKERS
Some argue that Christ’s coming could not possibly have been imminent for the early church, given the obvious fact that 2,000 years later He has still not returned, even though James, Peter, John, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews all believed Christ’s return was very near—“at the door” (James 5:9); “at hand” (Phil. 4:5; 1 Pet. 4:7); “approaching” (Heb. 10:25); “coming quickly” (Rev. 3:11; 22:7).
Some sceptics even claim that the apostles have been in error about the timing. What shall we make of this charge against the truthfulness of Scripture? Does the passing of 2,000 years indeed prove that Christ’s coming was not imminent in the early church era and that the apostles were mistaken?
Certainly not. Remember the clear statement of Christ in Matthew 24:42: “You do not know what hour your Lord is coming.” The exact time remains hidden from us, as it was from the apostles. There are no other events that must occur on the prophetic calendar before Christ comes to meet us in the air. He could come at any moment. And it is in that sense that Christ’s coming is imminent. In the very same sense, His coming was imminent even in the days of the early church.
It is also possible that Christ could delay His coming another 2,000 years or longer, but given the rapid decline of society, another 2,000 years do not seem possible. That is why Christ taught us to be prepared, whether He comes immediately or delays longer than we think possible (cf. Matt. 24:42—25:13).
Peter anticipated the scoffers who would arise, mocking the promise of Christ’s return (2 Pet. 3:3-4). Peter’s reply to those scoffers? “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (v. 8). The amount of earthly time that passes is certainly irrelevant from God’s timeless point of view. He is not bound by time as we are, and no amount of time can ever nullify His faithfulness. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (v. 9).
In other words, the real reason for the Lord’s delay is simply because He is longsuffering and kind, delaying Christ’s coming and the wrath that will accompany it while He calls people unto salvation. And Christ will not return before the merciful purposes of God are complete.
Therefore, the fact that 2,000 years have elapsed is utterly irrelevant to the doctrine of Christ’s imminent return. The command to be ready and watchful is as applicable to us as it was to the early church. In fact, the return of Christ should be an even more urgent issue for us because it is drawing nearer with the passing of each day. We still do not know when Christ is coming, but we do know that we are 2,000 years closer to that event than James was in those earliest days of the Christian era, when the Holy Spirit moved him to warn the church that the coming of the Lord was “at hand” and the Judge was already standing “at the door.”
WHY IS CHRIST’S IMMINENT RETURN SO IMPORTANT?
The hope of Christ’s imminent coming has a powerful sanctifying and purifying effect on us. “Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:3). The knowledge that Christ’s coming is drawing closer should motivate us to prepare, to pursue Christlikeness, and to put off all the things that pertain to our former lives without Christ.
The apostle Paul says in Romans 13:11-14: “And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”
The Lord is coming soon, and the event draws nearer every moment. The time to obey is now. The only time we can take for granted is now. And since there is no guarantee of more time, it is unconscionable to defer our obedience. Paul was stressing the urgency of this commandment in his day, 2,000 years ago. How much more urgent are these things for our time? Rather than despairing because He tarries, we ought to realize that the time is nearer now than it has ever been. Our hope should be growing stronger, not diminishing, as He delays his coming.
Christ rebuked the Pharisees for lacking discernment. “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:1-3).
The society in which we live caters to the flesh, offering many material comforts and earthly amusements. Spiritually many fall asleep and sometimes it seems as if the entire church today is in a state of spiritual drowsiness. Where is the sense of expectation that characterized the early church? Most Christians are far more concerned about the arrival of a new cell phone or a new vehicle than what they are with the arrival of the Millennial King! They have become unresponsive to the things of God. They are like the foolish virgins who “while the bridegroom was delayed . . . all slumbered and slept” (Matt. 25:5). It is high time to awake from that slumber.
Paul sent a similar wake-up call to the church at Ephesus: “‘Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’ See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:14-16). Never was such an alarm more needed than today. In the words of our Lord Himself, “Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping” (Mark 13:35-36).
When Paul says “our salvation is nearer than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11), he is speaking, of course, about the consummation of our salvation. He was not suggesting that the Romans were unregenerate or telling them their justification was a yet-future reality. He reminded them that what began at their regeneration was drawing closer by the moment. “Salvation” in this context refers to our glorification, the final goal of God’s saving work (Rom. 8:30). Throughout Scripture this is connected with the appearing of Christ. “We know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2). We “eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body” (Phil. 3:2021). “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). “He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Heb. 9:28). Notice that the writer of Hebrews employs the word salvation the same way Paul uses it in Romans 13:11.
In Romans 8:23: “We ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” That is the aspect of our salvation that is nearer than when we first believed, and it only awaits Christ’s coming.
If the Tribulation was going to occur prior to Christ’s return for the church, Paul would have surely urged the Romans to prepare for it. But far from warning them that a dark era of tribulation was in their future, what he told them was virtually the opposite: “The night is far spent, the day is at hand” (v. 12).
We have no idea how much sand remains in the hourglass of human history. But we ought to realize that a lot of sand has passed through the hourglass since the apostle Paul said the dawning of daylight was already at hand. How much more urgent is this wake-up call for the church today!
The nighttime of Satan’s dominion will soon give way to the dawn of Christ’s coming for His own. The apostle Paul used precisely the same imagery of darkness and dawn when he wrote to the Thessalonians:
“But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 THESS. 5:1-9)
God did not appoint us to wrath. The day of wrath that will come in the Tribulation is not what we are to be prepared for. The sudden appearing of Christ to take us to glory is our hope. Wake up. Be sober. Be alert. Your redemption draws nigh.
Throw Off! The approaching of dawn means it’s time for a change of garments. “Let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:12). Paul’s imagery evokes the picture of a soldier who has spent the night in a drunken orgy. Still clad in the garments of his sin, he has fallen into a drunken sleep. But dawn is approaching, and now it is time to wake up, throw off the clothes of night, and put on the armor of light.
Put On! There’s another aspect of being prepared for the Lord’s appearing. We’re not fully prepared for the dawn of the new day unless we have put on the appropriate attire: “put on the armor of light . . . put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:12, 14).
“Armor” suggests warfare, and that is fitting. Though the return of Christ is imminent, that is no warrant to forsake the battle. There is never any suggestion in Scripture that His people should sit on a hillside somewhere to await His coming.
In fact, between now and His coming we are locked in a battle “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Now is not the time to slacken our diligence; in fact, the opposite is true. We should engage the battle with new vigor, knowing that the time is short. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (v. 13).
The Christian who is not living a holy and obedient life with heavenly priorities is a Christian who does not grasp the significance of the Lord’s imminent return. If we genuinely are expecting our Lord to appear at any time, that blessed hope should move us to be faithful and to walk properly, lest our Lord return to find us walking improperly, disobeying or dishonoring Him.
The hope of Christ’s imminent return is therefore the hinge on which a proper understanding of sanctification turns.
Let’s review some of the key texts that speak of the imminence of Christ’s return, and notice specifically what kind of practical duties this doctrine places on us.
Steadfastness: “Be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (Jas. 5:8).
Kindness: “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!” (Jas. 5:9).
Prayer: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers” (1 Pet. 4:7).
Faithfulness in assembling together and encouraging one another : “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).
Holy conduct and godliness: “Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness” (2 Pet. 3:11).
Purity and Christlikeness: “When He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).
Those cover several broad categories, embracing every aspect of our sanctification. The hope of Christ’s imminent return is a catalyst and an incentive for all these things—every fruit of the Spirit, every Christian virtue, everything that pertains to holiness and Christlikeness, everything that belongs to life and godliness.
That’s why it’s so important to cultivate a watchful expectancy for the imminent coming of Christ. The point is not to make us obsessed with earthly events. In fact, if your interest in the return of Christ becomes a consuming fixation with what is happening in this world, you have utterly missed the point. The knowledge that Christ’s return is imminent should turn our hearts toward heaven, “from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
“Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless.” (2 Pet. 3:14)
(Key Source: John MacArthur – The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return And The End of The Age)