‘If I will that He Tarry till I Come’, John 21. 22
A. E. Long, Nutley
At the Lord's resurrection appearance to the seven disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, three times He asked Peter, "Lovest thou me?", and went on to predict the manner of Peter's death, "when thou shall be old, thou shall stretch forth thy hands and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God", John 21. 18, 19. By "signifying", the Lord with His hands may well have suited action to word, as may have been the case in speaking of the manner of His own death, 12. 32, 33. Long afterwards, Peter, having a premonition that his death was imminent, wrote, "the putting off of my tabernacle cometh swiftly, even as our Lord Jesus Christ signified unto me", 2 Pet. 1. 14 r.v. At the time of the Lord's pre- , diction of the manner of Peter's death, Peter, seeing John following, asked "Lord and what shall this man do?", literally, "Lord, but of this one what ?". It seems that Peter, having been told of the manner of his own death, wished to know how John would meet his end. Would he also die violently? The Lord did not satisfy Peter's curiosity about John, but said. "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me". In other words, the manner of John's decease was a matter between the Lord and John, and not one for Peter to concern himself about.
The Lord's saying concerning John was misunderstood by the disciples, who supposed that He meant that John would not die before the Lord came. John outlived all the other disciples, and in the event died in extreme old age towards the end of the first century. Whatever conclusion the disciples drew from the Lord's saying to Peter, John himself seems to have been under no misapprehension about it, since he wrote "Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, if I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee ?", John 21.23. In the event, the Lord did not return during John's lifetime, nor even after the passing of over nineteen hundred years ; His coming still remains a "hope" and is not yet a fait accompli.
It cannot be doubted that the early church regarded the second coming of Christ as imminent. The first Christian letter addressed to a local church, written by Paul to the church of the Thessalonians, spoke of their past, present and future, "ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven", 1 Thess. 1. 9, 10. The last of these exercises was their "patience of hope", v.3. Every chapter of this Epistle mentions the second coming of Christ. Because the Thessalonians expected the Lord to return during their lifetime, they were sorrowful because some of their number had died, without the Lord having come. Paul wrote to comfort them, that they should not be "ignorant" in the matter. Those who had died would be at no disadvantage at the Lord's coming, "the dead in Christ shall rise first" and those living at the time would not precede those who had passed on. Indeed, Paul included himself in "we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord", 1 Thess. 4. 15, 17, as also in "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed," 1 Cor. 15. 51, 52.
But Paul himself was to die and in his second letter to Timothy he revealed his awareness of its imminence, "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand", 4. 6. The Lord has still not returned, but this is not because He "delayeth his coming". God's time scale is not as man's. Scoffers may ask, "Where is the promise of his coming ?", but "the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness"; rather is it that in His reckoning "a thousand years (are) as one day", 2 Pet. 3. 4, 8, 9. The parable of the pounds (concerning "a certain nobleman (who) went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return", Luke 19. 12, and who at his return accounted with his servants in respect of the money entrusted to them to trade with during his absence) was given to counteract a supposition that His triumphant approach to Jerusalem presaged "that the kingdom of God should immediately appear", v.11. The parable concerned the Lord Himself and His accounting with His servants; it clearly taught that there would be a time-lag of undefined duration between His going "to receive for himself a kingdom" and His return.
Three times in the last chapter of the Revelation, the Lord Jesus asserts "I come quickly", 22. 7,12, 20. "Quickly" can have two meanings. It can mean "swift" or "soon". The early church wrongly understood "quickly" in the latter sense, and many Christians since have similarly regarded it. But may not the Lord have intended "quickly" to describe the manner rather than the time of His coming? It was revealed to Paul that it would occur in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye", 1 Cor. 15. 52; in Paul's day nothing would have been thought quicker. In other New Testament contexts, such as Matthew 5. 25; 28. 7; John 11. 29, "quickly" is used in the sense of "speed" and not of imminence.