In my last post in this series, we uncovered several important pieces of the puzzle. For one, the apostles did not realize the size of their task, and therefore did not realize what the word “soon” should be compared to. For another, they missed the point of the parables which pointed to their understandable, but mistaken short-term expectations causing the misunderstanding.

Any parent recognizes this problem. Children have little idea of the size of the tasks they’re contemplating, and their expectations often lead to unnecessary disappointments. This time, we’ll look at how our pioneers repeated this pattern, and how we can therefore recognize the necessity, and the truth, in the word “soon.”

Recently, Christianity Today recognized Seventh-day Adventists as the fifth-largest faith community in the world. The Adventist church has had an active and growing mission movement for so long that we tend to forget that it began with a “little flock” of very few, all located in North America. Indeed at the very beginning, they were all located in New England.

The first official missionary of the Seventh-day Adventist church was J. N. Andrews, and he was not sent until 1874,  30 years after the Great Disappointment, in 1844. It took the infant body some time to grasp the notion of evangelizing the entire world. In fact, their first idea of how to do this seems rather strange, and certainly ethnocentric today.

At first, they decided they would reach the world by reaching hyphenated Americans. That is to say, they would reach German-Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and so on. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who teaches church history at the seminary, and he replied, “That was the only way they could rationalize their resources and the task at hand.”

Exactly. At first, they could not comprehend the notion of reaching the entire world, which then had a population approximately 1/5 the size of what it is today. But they still felt the urgency of the soon coming of Jesus. So they set out to do the best they could, as they understood it, with resources at hand. Had they been told, “All of you will be dead, and your children, and your grandchildren — the population of the earth will become 7 billion people — and still, the task I have set before you will not be finished,” being merely human, they might simply have thrown up their hands in discouragement. Remember what happened to Daniel, when he found out how long it would be before the prophecy would come to pass. And he did not know that it would be yet another 170 years beyond his prophecy — and more — before the end would come.

Remember too, what Jesus said to the disciples on the night before the crucifixion: “I have more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” The disciples surely could not have borne the knowledge that it would be 2000 years, and still Jesus would not have returned. The pioneers surely could not have borne the knowledge that nearly another 200 years would pass, and still the Lord had not returned. So it was merciful for them to understand that he was coming soon. It kept hope alive in their hearts. And, relative to the task, it was true.

That brings us back to the realization that soon is a relative term, relative to the task at hand. As someone remarked after my blog “Albert Einstein and The Second Coming,” when Jesus said this gospel will be preached for a witness to every nation, the Greek word translated “nation,” is the word ethnos, from which we get our word ethnic. It is not talking about nation-states, but about people groups. And there are many, many people groups which we still have not reached. So the task is greater than we understood, possibly greater than we can understand.

This means it will take everything we can do, and yes, even aided by the Holy Spirit, to reach all these people groups before Christ comes. Relative to the enormous task He has given us, His coming will be soon. And it is urgent that we be diligent about it, because as time passes, the population of the earth grows, and the task of reaching all of those new people grows with it.

Imagine that the Master had given us a plot of land, and we were told that the land was perfect for growing apples. It was our job to plant the apple trees, and harvest the apples, and sell them to pay for the land. Apples take time. It takes years before apples trees begin to bear fruit. And all that time there would be many tasks to do; planting, pruning, grafting – many more. And even though we could sell the apples, there would be expenses which would be deducted from the profits of those sales.

We might not know it, but the Master would know, that it would take the profits from 40 years of apple harvests to pay for the land. He would tell us, “The payment will come due very soon.” He would be telling us the truth.

In terms of our lives, and the task of growing up 40 apple harvests profitably, we would have to start immediately and work diligently to complete it on time. A good many might not live that long, it might take the entire lifetime of others, but it would still be truly soon.

We cannot know how long it will take us to complete the task set before us. We cannot know how long before the Holy Spirit will begin the Latter Rain. Only by faith in God and his word can we know that it will be soon in relation to the task. But if we have faith in God, we realize that we must be diligent and have a sense of urgency in order to fulfill the task he has given us to do. And I have no doubt, that in retrospect, it will indeed be soon.

It was soon 2000 years ago, because the disciples had no notion of how large task they had been given, but it was imperative that they begin right away. Remember, at the crucifixion, there were only about 120 followers of Christ. Even after Pentecost, the number was but a few thousand. It would take 1000 years for Christianity to become the shared religion of Europe.

For our early pioneers, it was soon. They could not imagine reaching beyond hyphenated Americans, in a world with 1.4 billion people. And it is soon for us, not only with scores of people groups yet unreached, but with Christianity itself losing ground in areas where it had been dominant. Yes, we are told there are 18 million of us Adventists now, but the world has 7 billion people, many of whom have not heard gospel or the Three Angels Message. We are fewer than 3% of the world’s population. The size of the task demands that we cannot lose the sense of urgency.

There is also a personal dimension to all this, and I will take that up next time.

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.