A Biblical Rebuttal of John MacArthur’s Statement that the Lord’s Return is “Imminent”

Dr. MacArthur’s “Question 3”: The importance of the “imminent” return.

As stated in my Introduction, I apply a grading system to the validity of texts to which Dr. MacArthur appeals:

Rating
Description
L
legitimate
M
misused or irrelevant
O
out-of-context

 

[Dr. MacArthur's quotes appear highlighted like this.]

Dr. MacArthur apparently considers this his primary point, devoting a full 55% of the total article to it.

Why is it so important to believe that Christ could come at any moment? Because 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. [emphasis mine]

The apostle Paul took this very line of argument near the end of his epistle to the Romans. He reminded the believers at Rome of their duty to love their neighbors as themselves, saying love is the one principle that fulfills all God’s moral commands (Romans 13:8–10). Then stressing the urgency of living in obedience to this Great Commandment, he wrote,

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 (Romans 13:11–14).

Ref
Rating
Discussion
1 Joh 3.2-3
M

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

Rom 13.8-10
M

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

 

Notice that there is no temporal reference in 1 Joh 3, only the statement of the truth that “everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself”. This applies to all believers of all ages regardless of the date of the Lord Christ’s return; it was true as much for Abel as it is for that last person who will be saved!

 

Dr. MacArthur’s use of Rom 13.8-10 was merely the "setup" for his appeal to the immediately following verse.

Wake up! “Awake out of sleep,” he pleads (Romans 13:11)—and he underscores both the urgency of this command and the imminency of Christ’s return, with four phrases: “now it is high time”; “our salvation is nearer” (Romans 13:11); “The night is far spent”; and “the day is at hand” (Romans 13:12). Time is short; opportunity is fleeting. 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. [emphasis mine]

Consider this: The apostle Paul was stressing the urgency of this commandment in his day, two thousand years ago. He believed the coming of Christ was near—and getting nearer by the moment. How much more urgent are these things for our time? “Now our salvation is nearer” (Romans 13:11)—two thousand years nearer, to be precise. Now is certainly not the time to let down our guard or fall asleep. Although some might be tempted to think the long delay means Christ’s coming is no longer an urgent matter, a moment’s thought will reveal that if we believe Christ was speaking the truth when He promised to come again quickly, we must believe that the time is drawing nearer by the moment—and the urgency is not lessened by the delay, but heightened. [emphasis mine]

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Discussion
Rom 13.11-1
M

Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.

 

It is vital to note that the text clearly says “for now salvation is nearer”, not “for now salvation could occur at any moment”.

[Regarding the meaning of “salvation” in Rom 13.11, later in the article Dr. MacArthur uses the phrase “the consummation of our salvation”. And, once again, in the pair of highlights above, Dr. MacArthur mentions “delay”. Again, I devote an entire chapter to this stupendous error.]

You see, the Apostle’s reasoning is not based on the “imminence” of the Lord Christ’s return but upon the fact that each passing day brings us one day closer to the Day

Recognizing the passage of time and declaring that something could occur “at any moment” are two very different concepts—concepts which elude Dr. MacArthur in his article.

 

He then continues with a slight detour:

When Paul writes, “And do this, knowing the time” (Romans 13:11), he employs a Greek word for “time” (kairos), that speaks of an age or an era, not the time (chronos) told by a clock. “Knowing the time” therefore speaks of understanding this age, being discerning, like “the sons of Issachar who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Christ rebuked the Pharisees for lacking this same kind of 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 [kairos]” (Matthew 16:1–3). [emphasis mine]

Let’s look at the text again with the original Greek:

Rom 13.11
Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.
Καὶ τοῦτο εἰδότες τὸν καιρόν, ὅτι ὥρα ἤδη ὑμᾶς ἐξ ὕπνου1 ἐγερθῆναι, νῦν γὰρ ἐγγύτερον ἡμῶν ἡ σωτηρία ἢ ὅτε ἐπιστεύσαμεν.

Now, I agree with Dr. MacArthur regarding Rom 13.11 that the meaning of καιρός is “age”, but he didn’t tell us the whole story. καιρός [G2540] means “age” in about half of its approximately 90 uses in the NT. Here are a few examples where καιρός clearly does not mean “age” but rather the simple concept of time, particularly a specific time (as from a clock):

Mat 11.25
At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.

Mar 1.15
and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Luk 4.13
When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.

Joh 7.6
So Jesus said to them, “My time is not yet here, but your time is always opportune.

Act 7.20
It was at this time that Moses was born; and he was lovely in the sight of God, and he was nurtured three months in his father’s home.

Act 17.26
and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,

2 Cor 8.14
at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality;

1 The 2.17
But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short while—in person, not in spirit—were all the more eager with great desire to see your face.

1 Pet 5.6
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time,

[cf., Mat 12.1; 14.1; 24.45; 26.18; Mar 11.13; Luk 1.20; 8.13; 13.1; Joh 7.8; Act 12.1; 13.11; 14.17; 19.23; Rom 9.9; Gal 4.10; 6.10; Eph 5.16; 6.18; Col 4.5; 2 Tim 4.3,6; Tts 1.3; Heb 11.11,25]

 

Remember: Dr. MacArthur attempted to prove that the Lord’s return is so important because:

Why is it so important to believe that Christ could come at any moment? Because the hope of Christ’s imminent coming has a powerful sanctifying and purifying effect on us. [emphasis mine]

He continues in this section by citing a large number of texts, some of which enjoin to obedience and faithfulness. The problem is that Dr. MacArthur also cites a number of texts which have no bearing, absolutely no relevance, to his point!

Too many Christians in our time have settled into a state of insensate lethargy and inactivity—an unresponsiveness to the things of God. They are like Jonah, fast asleep in the hold of the ship while raging storms threaten to sweep us away (Jonah 1:5–6). They are like the foolish virgins, who “while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (Matthew 25:5). It is high time to awake from that slumber.

When Paul says “our salvation is nearer than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11)—he is speaking, of course, about the consummation of our salvation.

This final aspect of salvation is what Paul referred to a few chapters earlier, 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.

So Paul’s penetrating appeal here in Romans 13 assumes that Christ’s return is imminent. If another eschatalogical [sic] age (kairos)—especially the Tribulation—were going to occur prior to Christ’s return for the church, Paul would have surely pointed to the onset of that era and 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” (Romans 13:12). The kairos of persecution, hardship, and darkness was “far spent” (prokopt_ in the Greek text—meaning “advancing quickly,” or “being driven out”). Daylight—the final consummation of our salvation when Christ returns to take us to glory—is imminent. [emphasis mine]

Again, Dr. MacArthur can’t seem to discriminate between the fact that each passing day brings the return of the Lord nearer from the entirely different concept of “imminent”.

Dr. MacArthur: the fact of the passage of nearly two thousand years from the writing of the NT Scripture clearly means that the Lord’s return could not then and can’t now be regarded as “imminent”. The citation of the many texts below don’t change that simple truth—especially when most of them don’t even touch on the subject!

Dr. MacArthur cites the following for support. Please note how none of them actually support his assertion:

Ref
Rating
Discussion
1 Chr 12.32
M

Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do, their chiefs were two hundred; and all their kinsmen were at their command.

Mat 16.1-3
M

The Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Jesus, they asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. But He replied to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’

Jon 1.5-6
M

Then the sailors became afraid and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep. So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.”

Mat 25.5
M

Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep.

Eph 5.14-16
M

For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.

Mar 13.35-37
M

Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”

Rom 13.11
M

Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near.

Rom 8.30
M

and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

Phi 3.20-21
M

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.

Col 3.4
M

When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

Heb 9.28
M

I so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.

Rom 8.23
M

And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

Rom 13.12-14
M

The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.

1 The 5.1-9

M

Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Joh 9.22
M

His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed Him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.

Joh 12.42
M

Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue;

Joh 16.2
M

They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.

Eph 5.11
M

Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them;

Eph 4.22
M

that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit,

Col 3.8-9
M

But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices,

Joh 11.43-44
M

When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Heb 12.1
M

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

Jam 1.21
M

Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.

1 Pet 2.1
M

Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander,

Eph 6.11-13
M

Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

Mar 13.35-37
M

Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”

Rom 8.29
M

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;

Phi 2.5
M

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

1 Pet 2.21
M

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps,

Gal 4.19
M

My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you—

2 Cor 3.18
M

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

Gal 3.27
M

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Isa 61.11
M

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners;

Jam 5.9
M

Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.

1 Pet 4.7
M

The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.

Heb 10.24-25
M

and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

2 Pet 3.11
M

Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness,

Phi 3.20
M

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ;

2 Pet 3.14
M

Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless,

 

What a disgusting mishmash, a distortion and misuse of some wonderful texts!

Are these references part of some ridiculous joke to determine whether anyone would actually check the references and notice that they have no bearing on the topic!?!? Have you ever seen a more disconnected, disjoint presentation of Scripture?

The texts:

• enjoin to obedience and carefulness;
• are simple statements of historical facts;
• are reminders that the Lord Christ will indeed return;
• remind the true believer of what awaits him/her at the consummation;
• are statements that the Lord’s return is nearer;
• are statements that the Lord’s return will be sudden;
• remind the true believer of the daily battle with sin and evil;
• remind the true believer that his/her destiny is heaven.

They’re wonderful texts that clearly teach that the Christian is one who is to faithfully and continually labor to be pure, responsible and growing in maturity in all aspects of godly behavior.

But, not one establishes unambiguously and directly the “truth” that “that Christ’s return is imminent”!

[I highlighted portions of a few of the texts above that show temporal references but not "imminence".]

Consider a simple, contrived illustration:

Mom and Dad think that they've taught their only child, a 19 year old man, mature and responsible behavior and think that they've observed that behavior in him. They therefore are comfortable with leaving him to care for the house, alone, when they have the opportunity to take a 2-week vacation together.

When Mom and Dad return, they find everything in order, just as they left it and expected to find it.

What they don't know is that their “faithful” son, during their absence, threw several wild parties, but because he is “shrewd”, he carefully, completely and methodically cleaned up every last hint of the parties before their return.

“Faithful” son appeared pure and guiltless when they returned, having cared for the house as they expected; in reality he was a hypocrite. He had the advantage of knowing when they would return and ensured the house was as expected to avoid the discovery of his true lack of character.

The son's motivation to clean up the house was to avoid being exposed, not because he was of good character.

Dr. MacArthur cites the many verses above that teach that Christians are to have exemplary behavior; the LORD expects this of all believers of all ages.

But when he cites those verses to teach that the exemplary behavior derives from the “fact” that the Judge may return at any moment, he degrades the obedience to simply not being caught in a lie when the Judge returns.

He should have made the point that the pure and faithful behavior proceeds from the right source: a true love for God and His word at all times.

Do you see the difference in motivation? Do you see how Dr. MacArthur’s unholy and unwise emphasis on “imminence” is misdirected and encourages "good" behavior merely to “not get caught” rather than to develop a thorough, genuine, faithful and mature obedience to the LORD at all times?

Let me continue in this line of reasoning for just another moment...

Compare two radically different conditions, each of which is based on the hypothetical (and patently false!) premise that the Bible teaches the exact moment the Lord Christ will return:

  1. The return of Christ will be in exactly 3 minutes.
  2. The return of Christ will be in 10000 years.

Is there any Biblical evidence that your behavior as a Christian should be more/better/purer/holier/etc. in case #1 in contrast to case #2? Absolutely not! Yet this is precisely the reasoning that Dr. MacArthur applies!

 

There is a not-so-subtle irony here that Dr. MacArthur tacitly ignores (or perhaps has not realized?): we don't know the time of the Lord's return, so how could anyone say it could occur “at any moment”? Do you see the (chrono)logical contradiction here?

Mar 13.35-37
Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”

Luk 12.39-40
But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have allowed his house to be broken into. You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.

These texts highlight just how useless and wrong Dr. MacArthur’s reasoning really is.

But, for the sake of an illustration, let's assume the Lord will return in the next 15 minutes.

[That could certainly satisfy his definition of “at any moment"!]

So, when He comes within that time frame, your expected, natural and logical reaction would be

“Lord! I knew that you would come in the next 15 minutes, and here You are!”

It is wrong-headed to claim, contrary to the Bible, that the Lord could return “at any moment” when the Lord Himself said “the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.” Dr. MacArthur’s mantra of “at any moment”  is a statement of temporal expectation in clear contradiction of the Lord’s words.

Who are you going to believe? The Lord Christ or Dr. MacArthur?

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