Were Jesus and His Apostles Mistaken About Jesus’ Soon Return?

behold i am coming soonIt’s hard to imagine Evangelicals saying that Jesus and his apostles were wrong about one of the most important doctrines of the church but that’s exactly what many believe about the return of Christ.

Peter, James, John, Paul, the writer of Hebrews, the angel who spoke to John in Revelation, and even Jesus all thought and the apostles wrote that Jesus would return in their lifetime – not two thousand years later.  Were they mistaken?  Jesus thought, and taught, that John the Apostle would still be alive when He returned.  Was He mistaken?

Let’s hear it in their words:

JESUS SAID HE WOULD RETURN IN THEIR LIFETIME:

“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.  I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” – Mt. 16:27,28

“Tell us, when will these things be (the destruction of the temple), and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age? . . . This generation will not pass away until all of these things take place.” – Mt. 24:3,34

“Behold, I am coming soon! (tachu – quickly, speedily (without delay)) Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.” – Rev. 22:7,12,20

“You (Chief Priests and Sanhedrin) shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” – Mt. 26:64

“If I want him (John) to remain until I come, what is that to you.  You follow me!” – Jn. 21:21-23 (According to church tradition, all the apostles except John died before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.)

“All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” – Mt. 10:22-23

JOHN WROTE THAT JESUS IS COMING SOON

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to make known to his servants the things which must shortly (en tachos – lit.: in speed, usages: quickly, shortly, soon, speedily) come to pass.” – Rev. 1:1

“Blessed is he that reads . . . hears . . . and keeps the things written (in this prophecy), for the time is at hand.” (eggus – near, of place or position). – Rev. 1:3

“The world is passing away . . . it is the last hour (eschatos )  . . . Even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour.” – 1 Jn. 2:17-18

THE ANGEL WHO SPOKE TO JOHN SHOWED HIM WHAT WOULD HAPPEN SOON

“The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.” (en tachos – quickly) – Rev. 22:6

PAUL EXORTED THEM TO GODLY LIVING BECAUSE THEIR TIME WAS SHORT

“The time is short (sustello – to draw together, hence, to wrap up), from now on it would be wise for those who have wives to be as if they had them not.” – 1 Cor. 7:29

“And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” – Rom. 13:11-12

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” – Rom. 16:20

“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” – 1 Cor. 10:11

THE WRITER OF HEBREWS ENCOURAGED PERSEVERANCE BECAUSE JESUS WOULD NOT DELAY HIS COMING

“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another– and all the more as you see the Day approaching. . . . You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.  For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay.”” – Heb. 10:25,36-37

JAMES WROTE THE SECOND COMING WAS IMMINENT

“The coming of the Lord is at hand . . . the Judge is standing right at the door” – 5:8,9

PETER WROTE THAT THEY WERE IN THE LAST DAYS AND IT WAS TIME FOR JUDGMENT TO BEGIN

“Christ was manifest in these last times.” (eschatos – extreme, last in time, place, or space) – 1 Pet. 1:20

“The end of all things is at hand.” (eggizo – to come or bring near, to join one thing to another, to approach) – 1 Pet. 4:7

“It is time for judgment to begin.” – 1 Pet. 4:17

Whew!

That’s twenty two statements in the New Testament encouraging the brethren to godly living because Jesus was about to return, in the lifetime of at least some of them. Only two authors in the whole New Testament don’t have anything to say about this. And you were thinking maybe only one or two verses said this, right?

When this question is raised it’s often said that since God is the actual author of the bible He was inspiring all of these people to write from His perspective, not from the perspective of men. They quote “a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day,” so when Jesus and his disciples said he would return “soon” we are to believe these six or seven individuals knew full well their audience would take “soon” to mean soon instead of a few thousand years later.  We are supposed to believe that Jesus told the disciples some of them would see His return but He really meant they would all be dead and buried at least 2000 years before He returned.  In other words, he purposefully deceived them just to get them to live godly lives, and the other biblical authors were in on perpetuated this myth.

This is what Futurist teachers like Jack Van Impe, Hal Lindsey, and Lamb and Lion Ministries would have you believe, that Jesus had to lie to the church to get them motivated to live for God.

Crazy, huh?

Not only is the Holy Spirit able to motivate from within but I also think, and I may be going out on a limb to say this – Jesus has more integrity than that.

Some may counter that the Holy Spirit “wrote” from his perspective where 2000 years is a blink of an eye, but the humans who actually wrote it down wrote from their perspective, thinking soon meant soon, as in their lifetime, and so the encouragement to godly living. If that’s the case then Jesus was clueless about what he was saying and was spreading lies on behalf of the Holy Spirit, unknowingly. It’s one thing for him to say he didn’t know the day or the hour of his return, but it’s another thing for him to errantly believe he would return in his generation and teach this falsehood as if it were true.

The gist of 2 Peter 3 which has the verse about a day is like a thousand years, is that God would fulfill His promises on His timetable, within the time constraints already given by Jesus and His apostles. It was going to happen. Soon. Stay faithful.

This interpretation maintains the integrity of everyone involved, including the Holy Spirit.

The scoffers Peter mentioned didn’t believe it was going to happen at all. They didn’t have faith that God was able to do as He said He would do. They didn’t even believe God was involved in the world at all and that anyone needed to be accountable to God. They looked at the Christians and said, “Look you bunch of whiny sissies God isn’t involved with mankind, doesn’t give a rat’s behind that you are being persecuted by the Jews, isn’t going to do anything about it, and the proof is you’re all still here whining about it. Get over it already!”

“Uh, gosh, maybe we got the timing off and he won’t be back for a couple thousand years. That sucks. But hey, he will be back you scoffers. We guarantee it.”

“Haaaa! Jesus tricked you into thinking he would return soon! Suckers!”

Do you see how pathetic of a witness that would be?

When the brethren in Thessalonica (2 Thes. 2) thought Christ had already returned were they not obviously looking for it to happen in their lifetime?  Paul’s answer to them was not that they should not be looking for it in their lifetime since it was at least 2000 years off. His answer to them was more “signs” that must be fulfilled before Christ’s return so they could continue to keep watching and not be lulled into thinking it was either behind them or so far off in the future that it didn’t concern them.

This is why the church is confused on the return of Christ. Instead of taking the time keys given at face value, we think, “I don’t see that Jesus actually did return in their lifetime so it must have been for a later time. Their timing WAS off. Even Jesus had it wrong.”

Not likely. They knew exactly what they were saying and they were spot on (as everyone gives a big collective sigh of relief).

If the Apostles thought they were living in the “end times,” then instead of figuring they didn’t know what they were talking about maybe it would make more sense to think that we don’t know what we are talking about.

I know. Highly unlikely, but work with me.

You know the old saying about letting the bible interpret itself? It actually works here. The Jews didn’t just show up in history one day to hang around listening to this new sage and his followers. They actually had a history behind them that’s readily accessible even to us today. It’s called the Old Testament. When the master Teacher and his disciples taught them they made regular references to things they were all very familiar with. I’m thinking it would be good to see if this great body of literature had them conditioned to thinking a certain way.

First off, the Old Testament doesn’t talk about the end of the world. When the Jews were following Jesus and his disciples around they weren’t expecting the end of the world. They weren’t even thinking about it. It’s just not a part of Hebrew thinking.

So what might be ending that the New Testament writers were privy to, if it wasn’t the world ending?

It was the end of the Covenant. Specifically, the end of what we call the Old Covenant, the one that God made with Moses. It’s the covenant that the apostles taught was about to end and what was going to replace it was already in place – the New Covenant.

This is what Jesus’ followers expected to happen since they read about the New Covenant way back in Jeremiah 31:31. What tipped them off to the imminent end of the Old Covenant was what we can read at the beginning of Matthew 24 when Jesus walked them far enough away from the temple that they could see it all at once and then said, “This temple is going to be destroyed.” His followers asked him, “When will this happen and what’s going to be the sign of your coming and the end of the world?”

“Wait, Kirby, didn’t you say the bible doesn’t say anything about the end of the world? The rest of chapter 24 is all about that, right?”

Dang King James translation. It should be outlawed.

That phrase “end of the world” should have been translated “end of the age.” They weren’t asking about the end of the physical world, they were asking about the end of an age, the Old Covenant age. In their minds the destruction of the temple that Jesus just mentioned would be the nail in the coffin of that covenant because you can’t really follow the Law without a temple. For example, you can’t follow the Law of the Tithe if you don’t have a temple to take the tithe to because that’s what God instructed them to do with it. If you don’t have a temple you can’t really tithe. The temple was destroyed by the Romans about 40 years after Jesus said it was coming down and since that time (70 AD) the Jews have not been tithing.

Some Christians tithe to this day. Some New Covenant believers follow the Old Covenant while the Old Covenant believers (the Jews for the past 2000 years) haven’t been following the Old Covenant.

That’s ironic, isn’t it? I wonder why Christians are told to tithe today. Hmmm, maybe it has something to do with money? Oh, right, but let’s not get sidetracked.

Back to Matthew 24:3. Notice how three things are tied together in the minds of the disciples: the destruction of the temple, Jesus’ return, and the end of the Old Covenant age. This is why twenty-two statements about the return of Christ make it sound like it was going to happen in the lifetime of at least some of those people.

Because it was.

And it did.

In 70 AD.

If you’ve been saying, “This world is a mess. I sure hope the Lord returns soon,” it’s already too late. You missed it by about 2000 years. You aren’t the only one. The whole church by and large missed the Second Coming when it happened.

“How can that be?” you might ask. “That just seems sooooo unlikely. You’re telling me the whole church pretty much missed the Second Coming?”

At first blush that may seem unlikely but if you were with the crowd of 120 Christians just before the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, which was the whole church at the time, you would be thinking that the whole Old Covenant church missed the First Coming of their Messiah so why is it so unlikely most of the New Covenant church missed the Second Coming? The Messiah has a way of showing up in ways that the pundits don’t expect. I know, it’s annoying, but Jesus is Lord so we don’t have much to say about it. If their expectations are based on prophetic scriptures there’s a pretty good chance most of them will misread them.

That’s not to say everyone missed the Second Coming. Eusebius and other historians mention that Christians definitely saw the signs and left Jerusalem. Christians after that knew Christ returned to give them relief from persecution. For their part many Jews knew who was judging them and why. Josephus, a Jewish priest and historian and one of their generals who started the war with Rome in 66 AD, stated that he felt that the judgment fell upon the Jews directly because of their persecution of the Christians. Even the Roman General Titus recognized that God was the one who delivered the Jews into His hand, and that without God’s help he would never have been able to conquer the Jews.

If this is a new way of looking at the return of Christ you will no doubt have numerous questions and objections that need to be answered. Some of those questions will be right there in Matthew 24 such as verse 14 which says the Gospel must first go out to the whole world before Jesus returns. Fortunately Paul anticipated this and explained in Colossians 1:6 that the Gospel did go out into all the world. This is so because to them the Mediterranean world was the whole world. In fact, according to Matthew, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” That means if Paul is correct in Col. 1:6 (and we have no reason to doubt that he is) then the end had to come soon. This is why Paul said, “It is the Last Day.” They were in it. Paul also echoed this understanding of the spread of the Gospel in Rom. 10:18: “But I say, ‘Have they not heard?’ Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.”

If you have been anticipating the return of Christ then the approach given here will mean you will need a whole new way of interpreting the book of Revelation and a host of other scriptures. This will raise more questions than I can possibly answer in a blog article so I suggest taking a look at www.preterist.org. Please be assured, that for every What About you may have there is a scriptural answer.

One of those What Abouts may be, “What about my hope in Christ for a rapture?” As you begin to study this area of theology you will find yourself less likely to want to seek escape from this world and more likely to anticipate being a co-worker with Christ in his grand scheme to infiltrate the whole world with his life-changing love. That is a hope you can participate in every day, not just spend your life hoping for something to happen later. It’s a great privilege to be a part of that work.

One of the reasons eschatology, the study of the end times, is so confusing is because of the prolific use of symbols in the bible. I try to briefly make some sense of some of it by looking at a few symbols such as the Mark of the Beast, The Great Whore Babylon, and Lukewarm Lutherans in Revelation Wasn’t Written to Lukewarm Lutherans

We also tend to make a lot of assumptions when we read many scriptures which cause us to put the End Times off in our future rather than at the time of the writing of the scriptures. I challenge those assumptions in my article Wrong Assumptions About the End Times.

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