WELCOME TO THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

 

 

 

WHEN DOES CHRIST RETURN?  PART ONE

 

  The Timing Issue:

       Much of the Christian world believes Christ Jesus is going to return at some point in our future to establish His Kingdom here on planet earth. Many evangelical Christians believe this Kingdom will have its seat of government in Jerusalem from where Christ will rule over the nations of the world. Some Christian groups believe the return of Christ is imminent and fully expect Jesus to return very soon. What is often overlooked is that Christians of every generation since the establishment of Christianity in the first century AD have looked for Christ to return in their lifetime. Why is this?  Do the Scriptures support this ever present expectation of Christ's return?  

       As far back as the 150's AD, a convert to Christianity named Montanus taught that the return of Christ was imminent and that the "New Jerusalem" was about to descend from heaven to earth and settle on a plain between the two villages of Pepuza and Tymion in Phrygia (modern day Turkey). Montanus developed a significant following and many Christians went to this location in anticipation of the event he prophesied.   

       In recent years, many books have been written about the imminent return of Christ and in some cases, dates were established for such return. In 1956, Herbert W Armstrong, head of the World Wide Church of God, published a booklet entitled "1975 in Prophecy." While this publication didn't set a date for the return of Jesus, the author did write that "human life will be erased from the earth in 25 years unless God Almighty intervenes."  This booklet was read by tens of thousands of people.  

      Theologian Hal Lindsey published a book in 1970 entitled The Late Great Planet Earth wherein he claimed the return of Christ was about to occur. By the end of the 1990’s some 28 million copies of this book were sold. Lindsey published subsequent volumes entitled There's a New World Coming (1973) and, The 1980's Countdown to Armageddon (1980). Multiple millions read these books as well.

      Back in 1988, prophecy pundit Edgar C. Whisenant published a book entitled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. In this book he predicted that Jesus would return between September 11th and September 13th 1988.  4.5 million copies of this book were sold.      

       Between 1995 and 2007, sixteen volumes of a series entitled “Left Behind” were published by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.  This series narrates what happens to those who remain on earth after a soon to occur return of Christ results in the rapture of Christians while everyone else on earth is left behind. By 2016, some eighty million copies of this series had been sold.  Needless to say, none of the predictions contained in the above mentioned books have come to pass.  

       The most egregious example in recent times of a failed prediction of the return of Christ was that of William Miller in the eighteen hundreds. Miller predicted that Jesus would return on March 21, 1844. Thousands of people (known as Millerites) became convinced that Miller was correct. Some in his movement did some recalculations and came up with the dates of September 22,1844 and October 22, 1844.  When all three dates passed and Jesus didn’t return, this whole matter became known to history as the “Great Disappointment.” Needless to say, many lives were devastated by this "Great Disappointment."      

       A more recent "Great Disappointment" involves a preacher by the name of Harold Camping. For many years he hosted a radio program called “Family Radio." Camping predicted that “judgement day” would occur around September 6th 1994.  When that didn’t happen, he moved the date to September 29th and then to October 2nd 1994.  In 2005, Camping predicted Christ would return on May 21st 2011 at which time there would be a rapture of the “saved” with those remaining on earth experiencing great tribulation. Millions of dollars were spent by “Family Radio” and others in promoting Camping’s prediction and thousands became convinced Camping had it right.  After May 21st passed without incident, Camping claimed that a "spiritual" judgment had occurred on that date, and that a physical rapture would occur on October 21, 2011 along with the destruction of the world. Obviously, none of Camping's predictions came true and he died on December 13th 2013.    

       Viewing a future to us return of Christ continues to dominate eschatological theology within the Christian community. Eschatology is the study of last things. The leading version of this theology is Dispensational Premillennialism. This theology was inaugurated by British pastor J.N. Darby in 1830 and popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible initially published in 1909. This view sees the history of man set in seven God ordained dispensations of time. These dispensations are listed as Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, Promise, Law, Grace, with the final dispensation being a thousand-year millennial reign of Christ. Various Scriptures are cited to support this view.

       The period of innocence begins with Adam and Eve and runs to the time of their being removed from the Garden of Eden.  The period of conscience runs from the removal from Eden to the time of the flood.  Human government is in operation from the flood to the time of Abraham.  Promise runs from Abraham to Moses, law from Moses to Jesus and grace from Jesus to the establishment of the kingdom at the return of Christ.        

       This view embraces a rapture of Christians followed by a seven or three and one-half year (depending on who you talk to) tribulation followed by the return of Christ to a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem from where He will reign with the resurrected saints for 1000 years.    

       It is instructive that a recent poll done by an organization called “Lifeway Research,” found that around 80% of those that identify as “evangelical Christians” believe that with the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, the return of Christ is near. Many evangelicals believe a temple will be built in Jerusalem which will facilitate a fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) and bring about the return of Christ. 

The Return of Christ in Scripture:    

       We know from the Scriptures that Christ Jesus came some 2000 years ago as the promised Messiah to Israel. The name Jesus means "savior" and the word Christ is equivalent to the word Messiah and means "the anointed one."  During His ministry, Jesus taught His disciples he was going to come in the power and glory of His Father to establish a Kingdom and to facilitate judgement and resurrection from the dead. He clearly indicated this coming would occur in the generation He was addressing at the time. After His ascension to His Father in heaven, an angel told His disciples He would return. After Jesus' departure, the leadership of the developing Christian community taught that the return of Jesus was imminent.  It was an event near at hand. First century Christians fully expected to experience the return of Jesus in their lifetime.

       There are a number of present-day theologians, historians, Christian pastors and lay Christians who believe the events describes in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), and the Revelation, along with predictions of end time events spoken of by Jesus and others in the NT narrative, were fulfilled in the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in the first century AD. Those who take this position are often referred to as preterists.  The term preterist simply means past fulfillment as opposed to future fulfillment of eschatological events. Sometimes preterism is referred to as realized or covenant eschatology.  As already pointed out, eschatology is the study of last things.

       A careful reading of the New Testament (NT) Scriptures clearly shows the writers of these documents believed and taught that Jesus was about to return.  Most Christians believe the writers of the NT Scriptures were led by the Holy Spirit as to what they taught and wrote.  If indeed these writers were led by the Holy Spirit, it should be apparent that when they wrote of an imminent to them return of Christ, such return was indeed imminent. If the return of Jesus was not about to occur as these men clearly believed and taught, then they were teaching false doctrine and their credibility as witnesses to the truth becomes highly problematical.

       Many Christians and their leadership fail to recognize the significance of the imminency statements found in the NT.  Often Christians simply apply such imminency statements to the present or immediate future and never consider that these statements would have been seen by first century Christians as pertaining to their time. Since it is believed by most Christians that Christ has not yet returned, it is simply assumed the NT writers could not have been teaching an imminent to them return of Christ. As will be demonstrated, such thinking is to grossly ignore audience relevance and the context wherein imminency statements are found.  

       There are two basic approaches to Bible study which are best explained by the two Greek words exegesis and eisegesis.  Exegesis is where great care is taken to consider the beliefs, practices and general circumstances extant during the period of time being written about (context) and how those living at the time would have understood what was being said or written (audience relevance).  Eisegesis is the process of interpreting sayings and writings according to one's own presuppositions, agendas, or biases. This is commonly referred to as "reading into the text."  Unfortunately, it is eisegesis that is often used in studying the return of Christ and all related events.        

        Some Christians clearly recognize that the NT imminency statements reflect the belief by first century Christians that Jesus was going to return in their lifetime.  However, since it is believed Jesus didn't return in the first century, such first century belief is seen as misguided and a gross misunderstanding on the part of first century Christians and their leadership as to the timing of Christ's return.  What goes unrecognized by those who draw this conclusion is the devastating ramifications such conclusion has for the reliability of the NT authors.     

       I recently heard one theologian point out that Apostle Paul clearly taught Christ would return in his (Paul's) generation.  This theologian then went on to say "Paul was off by 2000 years."  Was Paul mistaken as to the timing of the return of Christ?  If Paul was off by 2000 years as to the timing of the return of Christ, how can we be sure he wasn't off on other of his teachings?  How can we be certain of the validity of anything Paul wrote?  How can we be sure Paul had a correct understanding of salvation and life after death?  It is generally believed Paul was led by the Holy Spirit as to what he taught and wrote. Was the Holy Spirit leading Paul to teach false doctrine relative to the timing of Christ's return?  Were Apostle's Peter, James and John and Jesus Himself also off by 2000 years in believing and teaching that the return of Jesus was imminent to them?  If so, why should we have confidence in their other teachings? 

       Some point to the failure of Jesus' disciples to understand the purpose of His first coming as indicative of their failure to understand the timing of his second coming. As NT Scripture shows, the disciples of Jesus did not expect Him to be killed (Matthew 16:21-22). After His resurrection it appears they were expecting that the Kingdom of Israel was about to be restored. Jesus had to put a damper on that expectation (Acts 1:6-8). Understanding the sacrificial nature of Christ's first coming and the spiritual dynamics of the Kingdom appears to have developed over time. Therefore, some believe the disciple's expectations of an imminent return of Christ simply reflect a faulty understanding of Jesus' teaching about the timing of His return.  This faulty understanding is believed to be proven by the assumed non-return of Jesus in the life time of the first century Christians.  

       The problem with this approach is that Jesus, Himself, plainly taught He would return within the lifetime of some of those hearing Him teach.  As will be seen as we proceed with this discussion, Jesus made some very straightforward statements during His ministry that speak to His return occurring in the generation extant at the time He walked on this earth. His immediate disciples and also His later disciples, such as Apostle Paul, appear to simply be reiterating what Jesus plainly taught regarding the timing of His return. If the return of Jesus didn't occur in the time frame seen by the NT writers, it is not a matter of only the disciples of Jesus being wrong, it's a matter of Jesus Himself being wrong.  The ramifications of this for the Christian faith should be apparent.

       A number of scholars have recognized the cognitive dissonance that is created in believing the Scriptures are the inspired word of God while at the same time concluding that the disciples of Jesus who wrote these Scriptures were wrong in believing and teaching that Jesus would return in their generation. Cognitive dissonance occurs when one believes opposing premises to both be true.  Some scholars, such as renowned British philosopher and mathematician Bertram Russell and prominent German theologian and humanitarian  Albert Schweitzer, recognized this problem many years ago and ridiculed the Christian belief system because of it. They clearly saw that the NT writers showed that both Jesus and His disciples believed and taught a first century return of Christ. Since Russell and Schweitzer couldn't identify such an event as occurring, they concluded the disciples of Jesus and Jesus Himself were false teachers.

       I remember back in my college days reading Bertram Russell’s book entitled “Why I Am Not a Christian." One reason he gave for rejecting Christianity was his identification of NT writers showing that both Jesus and His disciples believed and taught the return of Christ was imminent to first century Christians. Since he didn’t see this occurring, he rejected Christianity as a false religious system.   

       All this should instruct us that the integrity of the Christian theological system is at risk if this issue can't be satisfactorily resolved.  The ramifications of believing in a future return when the Scriptures clearly teach a first century return are enormous. Is there a way to resolve this issue and maintain confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record?   In this series of essays, we will offer a solution to this dilemma that is both historically and Scripturally sound.  In this series, Scriptural quotes are taken from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise indicated.

Expected imminency:

       Many Christians look at the NT imminency statements connected with the return of Christ and conclude such statements pertain to the here and now.  Christians hear their ministers give sermons on the "soon to occur return of Christ."  They sing hymns that proclaim the "soon to occur return of Christ."  They offer up countless prayers asking that Christ return soon and end their prayers with the phrase "in the name of our soon coming king Jesus Christ, Amen."  This has been going on for nearly 2000 years and counting.  The imminency statements found in NT Scripture are simply elasticized to cover multiple generations of time.           

       Yet if we read the imminency statements in their first century context and give heed to audience relevance (how did those hearing these statements in the first century understand them), it becomes evident that first century Christians were taught and came to understand and believe that Jesus' return was imminent to them and not something that was going to occur thousands of years into the future.  The expected imminency of Christ’s return is clearly shown by multiple dozens of time frame statements found throughout the New Testament narrative.  In a letter to the Jewish Christians, the writer makes the following clear and concise statement:

       Hebrews 10:36-37:  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.

      The Greek here is very emphatic. Bullinger, in the Companion Bible, shows the Greek phrase mikron hoson hoson to mean: "in a very, very little while."   This statement was made some 2000 years ago to Jewish Christians who are being told to persevere so they will receive what was promised at a near to occur return of Christ.  The return of Christ is viewed as an event that will take place in a very little while and without delay.  The writer had already told these first century Christians not to abandon meeting together "as you see the day approaching"  (Hebrews 10:26). By context, "the day approaching" is seen as the return of Jesus the Christ.  These Christians are being told that Jesus was going to return during their lifetime.        


       Apostle Paul made several statements that show an eagerly awaited return of Christ Jesus within the generation that he was addressing at the time.  We see this in letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Philippians and Romans.

       1 Corinthians 1:7-8:  Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait (Greek:
ἀπεκδεχομένους [apekdechomenous]) for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

       Philippians 3:20-21:  But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly (Greek:
ἀπεκδεχόμεθα [apekdechometha]) await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

        Romans 8:23: Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly (Greek: ἀπεκδεχόμεθα [apekdechometha]) for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.        

        In Hebrews 9:28, the writer indicates Christians were eagerly awaiting the return of Christ in order to receive the salvation facilitated by the death of Christ.  This passage will be discussed in greater depth in a later chapter.

       Hebrews 9:28: so also, after Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many, to those who eagerly await (ἀπεκδεχομένοις [apekdechomenois]) him he will appear a second time, not to bear sin but to bring salvation  (New English Translation [NET]).        

       The Greek word apekdechomai, in its various tenses, is rendered "eagerly" by translators of the above cited passages. This word is shown in the Arndt/Gingrich Greek Lexicon to mean "await eagerly." This Lexicon gives examples of this usage in early Greek literature. Thayer's Greek Lexicon defines this Greek word as waiting patiently and assiduously. To wait assiduously means to be in a constant and persistent state of waiting.

       Paul speaks of Christians he was addressing at the time eagerly awaiting the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.  You don’t eagerly await (maintain a state of constant/persistent waiting) for something that isn’t going to happen for thousands of years into the future after you have long been dead.  Paul’s use of a Greek word that means to eagerly await shows us that there was expectation of a soon to occur return of Jesus. Paul provides further attestation of this in additional statements he made in his letters to these two churches. Context shows Paul is referencing the expected return of Christ.

       In Philippians 4:5, Paul writes that "the Lord is near." Is Paul saying Jesus is always near in some spiritual sense? The overall context of Paul's letter to the Philippians would dispel such a notion. As cited in Philippians 3 above, Paul speaks of eagerly awaiting Jesus' coming from heaven to facilitate bodily transformation. In 4:1 Paul refers to the Philippians as his "joy and crown." In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul uses similar language where the context is clearly an expectation of a soon to occur return of Christ.

       Philippians 4:1: Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!

       1 Thessalonians 2:19-20:  For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes?  Is it not you?  Indeed, you are our glory and joy.

       It should be very apparent that when Paul says to the Philippians that "the Lord is near," he is speaking of an about to occur return of Christ that will be experienced in the lifetime of those he was addressing at the time.

      In I Corinthians 7:29, Paul writes that "the time is short."   What time was it that was short?  In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul addresses the issue of whether or not to marry. He advises against marriage unless one really needs to do so in order to avoid sexual misconduct. He advises against marriage "because of the present crisis" (1 Corinthians 7:26).  He then goes on to say "the time is short" and "this world (Greek kosmos) in its present form is passing away" (verse 31).

       Paul advises the Corinthians to maintain the status quo and not seek to change their circumstances from when they came into the church.  Paul was clearly giving advice based on his belief that something of great import was about to take place. It is instructive that Paul gave this advice fully believing he was being led by the Spirit of God (verse 40).  Was the Spirit of God misleading Paul as to his expectation of the time being short and the world in its present state about to come to an end?  What was it about the world that was about to come to an end?

       In his letter to the Thessalonian Church, Paul sees the return of Jesus within the context of a judgement that was soon to come upon Israel.  He views these Christians as waiting for Jesus to return and rescue them from the coming wrath.

       1 Thessalonians 1:8-10: They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

       1 Thessalonians 2:19-20:  For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes?  Is it not you?  Indeed, you are our glory and joy.

       Paul speaks of waiting for Jesus to come and rescue the Thessalonians from the coming wrath. Paul’s statement about glorying in the Thessalonian brethren in the presence of the Lord Jesus when He comes is a statement of expectation that Jesus will come in the lifetime of those being addressed.  Paul continues to show the first century context of the issues he is addressing by telling the Thessalonians to not only have their spirit and soul but also their body kept blameless at the return of Christ.  If the return of Christ was to be thousands of years into the future, the instruction to keep their bodies blameless at His return would have made no sense. Their bodies would have long ago decayed.

       1 Thessalonians 5:23:  May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

       In writing to Timothy, Paul shows his belief in the imminency of Christ's return by his use of the Greek word mellontos in speaking of an about to occur judgement at the return of Christ and establishment of His Kingdom. The Greek "mello," from which mellontos is derived, means something about to happen. This word is used frequently in the NT in describing the occurrence of the return of Jesus and related events. I discuss "mello" in some depth in Part Eight of this series.    

       2 Timothy 4:1: In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will (Greek mellontos which means "is about to") judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge.

       Apostle James exhorted his readers to be patient because the coming of Christ Jesus was near.  Such exhortation would have been meaningless to these first century Christians if Christ’s coming was to be thousands of years into the future and counting.

       James 5:7-8: Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near.

       James 5:9: Do not grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be judged. See, the judge stands before the gates! (NET)

          In a footnote to this passage, the translators of the NET Bible write the following: The term gates is used metaphorically here. The physical referent would be the entrances to the city, but the author uses the term to emphasize the imminence of the judge’s approach.

       Apostle John taught first century Christians that many antichrists had come and it was because of this they knew they were living in the last hour. Are we to believe John's last hour has been going on for 2000 years and counting?  John exhorts his readers to continue in Christ so they will be confident and have nothing to be ashamed of at Christ’s coming.  What relevance would such statement have for John's audience if Christ's coming was thousands of year's future to those John was addressing.   

      
1 John 2:18:  Dear children,
this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.

       It is instructive that the word "the" is not in the Greek.  John is simply saying that "antichrist is coming."  More on the issue of antichrist in Part 5 of this series.   

       1 John 2:28:  And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.      

       Like is true of Paul, James and John, Apostle Peter also writes from the perspective that the end was near and the return of Christ was at hand. When Peter says the end is near, there is no reason to believe the end that was near was going to extend thousands of years into the future.  Peter's contemporaries would not have concluded that the end Peter was speaking about would continue thousands of years beyond the life time of those Peter was addressing. 

       1 Peter 4:7: The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.

       1 Peter 5:4: And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.   

       The writer to the Hebrew Christians shows it was in the “last days” that Christ appeared. When did Christ appear? It was in the first century AD.  When Peter was asked what the speaking in tongues event on Pentecost in AD 31 signified, he explained that what the crowd was witnessing was the fulfillment of a prophecy by Joel regarding the pouring out of God's Spirit in the "last days."

       Hebrews 1:1-2:  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.

       Acts 2:17: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.

       In a letter Paul writes to Timothy, he speaks of there being terrible times in the "last days" (2 Timothy 3:1).  If you carefully read this letter from beginning to end, you will see  Paul is talking about events happening during his time and events about to happen during his time. The context is the first century.  In James 5:3, the writer speaks of evil behaviors occurring in the "last days" and instructs his readers to be patient because the coming of Christ was near. In a second letter from Peter, he speaks of there being scoffers in the "last days" (2 Peter 3:3). In Peter's first letter, he speaks of the end being near (1 Peter 4:7) which shows the "last days" Peter speaks of were congruent with the end being near.   

       These "last days" statements should leave no doubt that the "last days" was a time frame that was extant 2000 years ago. Is that time frame still extant today?  I recently heard a theologian say the "last days" have been going on for 2000 years.  Are we to really believe the "last days" spoken of in the passages cited above have been going on for 2000 years and counting?  Is it at all creditable or reasonable to view the "last days" spoken of by the NT writers as extending thousands of years into the future from the time they made these statements? Would the Christians to whom these letters were addressed have understood the "last days" to be thousands of years in length? 

       When these writers speak of the "last Days," we should be asking the question, "last days" of what?  What "last days" were being referred to?  How long were these “last days” to be, and what do they represent?  We should be looking at these "last days" statements in the context of their appearance in Scriptures and in the total context of New Testament teaching as to eschatology which is the study of last things.  This is the approach I will use throughout this discussion. 

The words "soon" and "near"

       When we use such words as "soon" and "near," in our day to day conversation, these words convey the meaning that something is going to occur in a short period of time.  Did those living in the first century understand these words to mean greatly extended periods of time?  The Revelation given to John begins and ends with statements that show the events discussed were soon to take place and the time was near.  These events included the return of Christ.  Remember, this prophecy was written nearly 2000 years ago and addressed to first century Christians.  Of what relevance would this message have been to these first century Christians if "soon" and "near" really meant far and distant?  Let's look at how "soon" and "near" are used in the Revelation. 

       Revelation 1:1:  The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.

       Revelation 1:3:  Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

       Revelation 22:6: 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."

       Revelation 22:7:  "Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book."

      Revelation 22:10: Then he told me, "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.

       Revelation 22:12:  "Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.

       Revelation 22:20: He who testifies to these says, "Yes, I am coming soon."

       It is significant to note that John is told not to seal up the words of this prophecy because the time is near.  This is in stark contrast to the prophet Daniel who was told to seal up the words of the prophecies given to him because they are seen as being fulfilled in the distant future.

       Daniel 8:26:  "The vision of the evenings and mornings that has been given you is true, but seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future."

       Daniel 12:9: Go your way, Daniel, because the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end.

       Later in this series we will deal with Daniel’s prophecies and see how they relate to the Revelation given to John. For a separate and comprehensive examination of the Revelation, go to Commentary on the Revelation

       We will now take a look at words such as soon and near and determine whether such words meant the same to people living in the first century as they do to us living in the twenty-first century

The meaning of the word soon:

       If I were to tell you that I was coming over to visit you soon, you would understand me to mean in a short time I would be coming to see you.  You would understand my use of the word soon to mean something that was going to occur in a short period of time.  Is this the way people 2000 years ago used and understood the word soon?  Let’s take a look.

       Luke 7:11: Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him.

       Acts 19:29:  Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul's traveling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theater.

       Acts 25:4-5:  Festus answered, "Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong."

       1 Corinthians 4:19:  But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have.

       Philippians 2:19:  I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you.

       2 Peter 1:13-14:  I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,  because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.

       It should be clear from the context of the foregoing Scriptures that when the writers used the word soon in their language, it was to communicate the idea that what they were writing about was going to take place in a short period of time.  When the word soon is used in reference to the return of Jesus, it doesn’t suddenly lose its normal meaning of something that is about to occur.

       The English word soon is translated from the basic Greek word takos.  In its various tenses (taku, takeos, takinos, takion, takus, takista), this word appears 39 times in the Greek Scriptures and by context can be seen to always refer to something that is soon to take place.  The word always means with speed, quickness, swiftness and haste.  Any Greek Lexicon will show this.  It is these Greek words that are used in the passages cited above, including all the Scriptures in Revelation that reference the return of Christ. 

       The Greek scholar, Kurt Aland, in his comments on Revelation 22:12, says, “In the original text, the Greek word used is tachu, and does not mean ‘soon,’ in the sense of ‘sometime,’ but rather ‘now,’ immediately.”  It would appear that when someone heard the Apostles speak the Greek word takos in its various tenses or its equivalent in Aramaic, they understood it to mean something about to occur in a short time.

       Where this word is used in reference to the coming of Christ, is there any linguistic reason to believe that it means something other than a soon to occur event in the first century?  Is it logical to stretch soon into a period of nearly 2000 years and counting? 

       Some have suggested that where this word is associated with the return of Christ, it is referring to the manner in which Christ will return and means when Christ comes, He will come quickly.  “Soon” is felt to be descriptive of the manner in which Jesus will return and not the time frame of His return.  Translators at times do translate takos as "quickly" in the New Testament narrative.  Does such usage change the meaning of the word to refer to the manner in which an event occurs as opposed to the timeframe of its occurrence?   Let’s look at two such passages in the NIV.

       Matthew 28:7-8: Then go quickly and tell his disciples: `He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you.

       Luke 14:21:  The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ 

       In both these passages we see that someone is being told to go and do something immediately.  Is the manner of doing different from the time frame?  By context it is clear that what is to be done is expected to be done in a short time frame.  There is nothing here to suggest that what is to be done can be done far into the future but that when it is done it must be done quickly.  There simply is no credence to the idea that this word can mean the manner in which something occurs irrespective of the time frame.  Whether you translate takos and its tenses as “soon” or as “quickly,” it means something that is about to occur. 

       There simply is no grammatical, linguistic or contextual reason to view this word as referring to the manner in which something is done irrespective of the time frame.   

        If I told you I was coming over to your house quickly, you would not conclude that the manner of my coming over would be different from the time frame of my coming over.  You would not conclude that when I came I would come quickly as opposed to slowly.  You would simply expect me to arrive in a short period of time.  

       Some, in their effort to avoid the obvious, have concluded that such terms as soon, short and near are relative terms and can mean one thing to one person and another thing to another person.  Is this a reasonable conclusion?  Look up every occurrence of the Greek words translated soon, short, and quickly.  You will find by context these words mean exactly what they mean in our communication today.  They simply mean something that is soon to take place.

       To say that “soon” can mean something to occur hundreds or thousands of years into the future is an oxymoron, a contradiction.  Therefore, when we see statements made to people living nearly 2000 years ago saying "Christ is coming soon," we have to believe that those who heard or read such statements understood them to mean Christ was going to return in a short period of time from when such statements were made.

       A careful review of the Scriptures speaking of Jesus coming soon (quickly in the King James Version) will show that the focus is on the time frame of His return and not on the manner of His return. The context is the determining factor as to how takos, in its various tenses, is to be understood.  In the Revelation, Jesu told John that He was coming soon.  Jesus did not say to John that when He returns, He would return in a quick manner. It would go without saying that when Jesus returned, His manner of return would be quickly.  He wouldn’t return slowly.  There is no reason to conclude that “soon” is addressing the manner of His return.  The manner of His return is addressed in the first chapter of Revelation where Jesus is seen coming with the clouds. Jesus coming in the clouds will be discussed later in this series.

       Furthermore, it should be noted that in Revelation 1:1-3, Jesus says that the revelation given to Him by God was for the purpose of showing His servants what must soon (takos) take place.  The readers of this Revelation are instructed to take it to heart because the time is near.  The context should be obvious.  Christ is speaking of events that were about to take place.  He is not speaking of the manner in which they will take place once they begin to take place.

       It must also be noted that the Revelation is addressed to seven churches existing in the province of Asia in the first-century.  It is these servants of God who are being addressed and asked to take heart.  It should be evident that the events spoken of pertained to those first century Christians and therefore “soon” and “near” are time frame statements and not statements dealing with the manner in which events would take place.

The meaning of the word near:

       The English word near is translated from the Greek word engus. This word, in its various tenses, generally means near or close and is so translated in many New Testament passages.  Here are a few examples of how engus is translated:

        Matthew 26:18: He replied, ‘Go into the city to a certain man and tell him,  The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house. 

        John 7:2-3: But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, Jesus' brothers said to him, ‘You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do.’ 

       Acts 9:38: Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, ‘Please come at once!’

       The context of the above Scriptural passages show how the Greek word engus was commonly used in the first-century. It should be apparent that this Greek word meant “near” to first century Christians in the same manner as it means near to us today. It simply means something close at hand.

       This being the case, it is instructive that both John the Baptist and Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was near. When John the Baptist appeared in the Judean desert and began his ministry, he proclaimed, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near” (Greek: engus) [Matthew 3:2]. After John was put in prison and Jesus began His ministry, what did Jesus proclaim? “The time has come, The Kingdom of God is near (Greek: engus). Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15).  These are rather straightforward statements as to the time of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. The time for its establishment is seen as being a near to occur event.  

       Both John and Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was near.  Christ said that the time had come.  Both John and Jesus admonished those they were addressing to repent in relation to the Kingdom being near.  If the Kingdom was only to be something to appear thousands of years into the future, the admonition to repent because the Kingdom was imminent would have made no sense at all. They were being asked to repent in relation to the Kingdom being near, near to them.

       In Matthew 10:5-7, Christ instructs His disciples to go to the lost sheep of Israel and preach this message: “The Kingdom of heaven is near.”  If you would have been living 2000 years ago as one of the lost sheep of Israel, and someone came to your town and began telling you about the Kingdom of heaven being near, you would not have concluded that this Kingdom was not really near but was thousands of years off into the future.

       As with the Greek word takos, the context will dictate how engus is to be understood.  In the epistle written by James, the Apostle is addressing the twelve tribes scattered among the nations (James 1:1).  In chapter five he speaks of the last days and exhorts his readers to be patient and stand firm "because the Lord’s coming is near" (James 5:7-9) He concludes this section of his letter by saying, “the judge is standing at the door."

       Some have suggested that James is saying that the coming of the Lord is certain or guaranteed as certainty is a meaning associated with certain tenses of the Greek engus.  The context of this letter does not support such a conclusion.  The context of this letter is obvious from the start.  James is addressing the twelve tribes of Israel.  He is not addressing tribes of Israel living thousands of years into the future.  He is addressing his contemporaries living in the first century.  He is telling first-century Israelites to be patient and stand firm because the coming of the Lord is near (Greek engus).  James said the judge was standing at the door. How would that be relevant to Israelites living beyond the first century?

Conclusion to Part One:

       When we read the letters that are found in the New Testament, we are in essence reading someone else’s mail.  The letters written by the Apostles were addressed to first century congregations of the Christian Church.  When Paul wrote to the Christians attending the Church at Corinth, and says to them “the time is short,” it would be reasonable to conclude Paul meant the time is short.  It would also be reasonable to believe that the Corinthian Church members understood Paul to mean the time is short.  The question is this.  What time that is short is Paul referring to?  This question will be answered as we proceed with our discussion.

       The last book of the Bible contains a revelation of future events. The question that we must ask is how future were these events to be?  The Apostle John was instructed to write about what was soon to take place and direct this information to seven churches that Church history shows physically existed at the time this message was given. The instruction given in association with this revelation is that those who read it should take it to heart because the time is near.

          Revelation 1:4: John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne.

         Revelation 1:10-11: On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.’

       Revelation 1:1-3: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

       The Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10) is often seen by present day Christians as referring to Sunday, the day many Christians meet for worship. Some present day seventh day sabbath keepers see "the Lord's Day" as Saturday.  Others see the reference to the "Lord's Day" as a reference to “The Day of the Lord,” a phrase applied in the OT to a time of divine judgement (Isaiah 13:9-10, Ezekiel 30:9-10, Malachi 4:5) and in the NT as a time of judgement associated with the return of Christ (Acts 2:16-21, 2nd Peter 3:10-13, 1st Thessalonians 5:1-4 and 2nd Thessalonians 2:1-7).        

       There has been much controversy as to the meaning of “Lord’s Day” in Revelation 1:10 which is the only place in the NT where this phrase appears. Some feel its grammatical construction doesn’t allow it to be seen as equal to the phrase “the Day of the Lord.” Others believe that because it is said in the context of a coming judgement associated with the return of Christ, it is congruent with Biblical references to “the Day of the Lord.” Some feel it rather strange that John would cite a particular day on which the revelation was given to him.  Therefore, it is felt that because of the overall context wherein this phrase is found, “the Day of the Lord” is the intended meaning, a conclusion that will become more obvious as you read through this material and a conclusion that pertains to 1st century events and not to events future to us.    

       It should be evident from the context that John was sending the message of the revelation to his contemporaries who made up the congregations of seven different Christian Churches that existed at the time he wrote. It should also be evident from the narrative that the purpose of the revelation was to show the servants of Jesus Christ what was soon to take place and that the time was near for these things to take place.  John is not addressing people living in the 2nd, 3rd or 4th centuries. He is not addressing those of us living in the 21st century.  John is addressing those living in the first century and instructing them about what would soon take place.

       In Revelation 2 and 3 Jesus is addressing seven churches that physically existed in the first century. In speaking to the church at Thyatira, he instructs them to “hold on to what you have until I come” (Revelation 1:25). To the church at Philadelphia Jesus says, “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (Revelation 3:11).  These statements are being made to the people of churches that existed 2000 years ago.

       Jesus tells the church at Thyatira to hold fast until he comes.  Are there members of the church at Thyatira still living today holding fast to what they have while waiting for Christ to come?  When Jesus tells members of the church at Philadelphia He is coming soon, are there still members of that church living today waiting for His coming to occur?  Is it at all reasonable to conclude that “soon” means an elasticized period of time covering 2000 years and counting?  

       What possible relevance could statements such as “until I come” and “I am coming soon” have to the people being addressed if the coming of Christ was not to occur until thousands of years subsequent to the death of those being addressed?  The folly of concluding that Christ’ coming would be thousands of years removed from when these statements were made should be apparent.

       The revelation given to John is filled with a great deal of apocalyptic symbolism.  That is why this message is often referred to as the Apocalypse.  Apocalyptic language uses symbols to represent the real thing.  This method of writing is found throughout the prophetic Scriptures.  We find Jesus using this method of speaking in what is commonly referred to as the Olivet Discourse as found recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21.  It is here in this discourse that we will discover what time is being referred to in the above quoted passages.  In Part Two of this series, we will examine the Olivet Discourse as recorded in the 24th chapter of Matthew.
 

PART TWO