I don’t like to be so captious, but with all due respect to an excellent scholar, I really can’t believe Ben Witherington means this. I’m in and out of his book Revelation and the End Times at the moment, trying to write a serious review of it for the Evangelical Quarterly. In his chapter on the parousia he is keen to show that there are “no errant predictions in the New Testament saying that Christ would return during the lifetime of those Christians who lived in the first century A.D.“ (27-28). He’s very selective in the texts that he considers, but what really surprises me is his argument that the adverbial phrase en tachei in Revelation 1:1 means not “soon” but “quickly”. The ESV, for example, reads: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” Witherington thinks it should be translated “what must happen in a hurry, or with dispatch, or quickly”.
The phrase occurs again at the end of Revelation, when the angel says to John, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must en tachei take place” (Rev. 20:6). We also have the assurance that the Lord Jesus is coming tachu (20:12, 20). Are we really to suppose that what is being said here is that the catalogue of apocalyptic events that we find in Revelation will all happen in a hurry? Or that Jesus, when he eventually comes, will come in great haste—even though it may be millennia after Revelation was written?
No exegetical evidence for the view is provided. The phrase certainly should at times be translated “quickly” or “speedily”. Peter in prison is struck on the side by an angel, who tells him to “Get up quickly” (Acts 12:7). “Soon” wouldn’t make sense here. But “quickly” still has the sense of “straightaway”. Don’t hang around. The situation is urgent. Similarly, Paul is told by Jesus in a vision to “get out of Jerusalem en tachei“—meaning “straightaway”, “as quickly as possible”, because his life is in danger (Acts 22:18). When Festus says that he intends to go to Caesarea en tachei, he does not mean simply that whenever he gets round to making the journey, he will travel at great speed. He means that he will go there “shortly” (ESV), in the near future. Paul writes to Timothy that he hopes to come to him en tachei (1 Tim. 3:14). He means “soon”, not “Oh, whenever… but you can be sure I’ll turn up short of breath.” The same connotation of urgency can be illustrated from the use of the phrase in the LXX.
The simple adverbial form tachu is found only once in the New Testament outside Revelation. Jesus teaches his disciples to “Come to terms tachu with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison” (Matt. 5:25). He means urgently. Don’t leave it too late.
So the book of Revelation is framed by the assertion that the events it describes will happen “soon”, as a matter of urgency—if not expressly within the lifetime of its readers, at least within a historically relevant timeframe.
And if the exegetical evidence is not enough, we need only to keep reading through to 1:3, where John writes that those who keep the words of this prophecy are blessed “for the time is near”. Oddly, this verse escaped Witherington’s notice.
Is it, therefore, an “errant prediction”? No, of course not. The apocalyptic events described in Revelation up to the inauguration of the thousand year period have reference to the early historical horizons of the church—the destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of Roman pagan imperialism. The symbolic “coming soon” of Jesus is part of that realistic scenario—a coming to judge and a coming to deliver his people from persecution.