A Meditation on Exodus 20:5-6
R.C. Sproul Jr. was asked if he thought the Second Coming of Christ would be happening any time soon. Obviously many passages of Scripture address this topic, but Sproul Jr. choose one that very few people would have ever considered. He looked at the question from the standpoint of God’s awesome promise to His people in Exodus 20:5-6. His reply not only answers the question about the relative nearness of Christ’s return, but, maybe even more importantly, it challenges us to read our Bibles more carefully and to rejoice in God’s magnanimous promises given to those who love Him and keep His commandments. Enjoy.
Do you think Jesus is coming back soon?
by Dr. R. C. Sproul Jr.
No. Not at all. I think it likely that we have tens of thousands of years to go before Jesus comes back. I know that every odd astronomical event, every middle eastern hot spot fires up the end times hysteria machine, but I’m not willing to get on that ride. I suspect even if we don’t buy into dispensational end times scenarios we still find it plausible that the world will come to an end soon enough. I suspect we are inclined in that direction because we live in an age of hopelessness in the broader culture. The specter of the first nuclear war, the doomsday environmental scenarios, the cultural decline of the west all contribute to a pessimism that makes plausible a soon end of history.
God’s Promise to Generations
God’s Word, on the other hand, does not. In Exodus 20, when God writes out the ten commandments for Moses He makes an odd promise we are likely to miss. First God promises that He will judge those who make graven images will receive His just wrath to the third and fourth generation. He in turn promises, however, those who keep this commandment to they He will bless them, showing mercy to thousands (20:5-6). If you’re like me when you read this promise you think that God does indeed show mercy to thousands, even millions if not billions of people across the globe and across time. Given Hebrew parallelism, however, we should conclude that “thousands” doesn’t refer to thousands of individuals, but thousands of generations. The comparison is between a judgment that would last for three of four generations and a blessing that would last for thousands of generations.
Now I am more than willing to admit that God may not be speaking in strict terms here.
That is, “thousands” here could be a broad term meant to communicate “a lot” or “many.” But it still has to mean at least a lot. It couldn’t, for instance, be fulfilled in only 90 generations. Which is how many generations have passed since God first made this promise, roughly 3500 years ago. “Thousands” is not a good way to represent 90. If a generation is forty years, and if we reduce “thousands” down to a thousand, and then round that down to 800, we’d still have 28,150 more years to go. It’s hard to imagine what the world will be like that far into the future. But then, our ancestors could not likely have imagined the world we live in today. That we can’t imagine it doesn’t make it not so.
I suspect a day is coming when our era of history will be bunched together with the Reformation, the Middle Ages, as all part of what will then be called “early church history.” I believe my descendants, studying church history in their home school will sincerely ask, “Hey Mom, can you remind me who lived first, Francis of Assisi or Francis Schaeffer? I always confuse those early church fathers.”
Living with Urgency
Does my conviction diminish my urgency? Am I in danger of whistling through the cemetery, burying my head in the few remaining grains of sand in history’s hourglass? Not at all. The blessing of being in the early church is knowing that our labors today will ripple out for millennia, that we are setting a trajectory. Could I be mistaken? Like everyone else I pray, “Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.” Should He come today I will but rejoice, and this little piece will burn up with all my other errors. Whenever He comes, my calling is to make visible the beauty of His reign, and to confess my need for His grace.
(From Highlands Ministries, Ask R.C.; May 2, 2014)