WHEN DOES CHRIST RETURN? PART FOURTEEN
WHAT ABOUT THE CREEDS?
To conclude that the return of Christ, along with the judgment, resurrection and establishment of the Kingdom occurred during the Great War of A.D. 66 to 73 may appear unconventional. Even in the face of biblical time statements, a first-century “fulfillment of all things” may be hard to accept. Some will no doubt look to the Christian creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries that all speak of a future return of Christ. Others may consider the writings of the apostolic fathers of the second century. These men, by and large, looked to a future return of Christ. What is interesting, however, is that these men anticipated its occurring in their lifetime.
Why would Christian leaders of the second century be looking for a coming of Christ in their lifetime if indeed He had come during the latter half of the first century? Did they not understand the significance of the A.D. 70 events? What would have led second-century Christians not to understand the significance of A.D. 70?
In reading the material of the late first century and second-century writers, it becomes apparent they had a mixture of ideas about prophetic fulfillment. They saw that the physical temple had been destroyed but they did not consider the full ramifications of this event. Just like the Jews during the time of Christ, some were looking for a physical Kingdom and a physical presence of Christ. Since in their view this had not happened in conjunction with the temple’s destruction, they were anticipating something more to happen right around the corner. It is clear they felt the destruction of the temple set in motion the whole chain of events we understand as the return of Christ, resurrection, judgment and Kingdom. It also appears they were looking for a physical manifestation of these events.
Since the temple had been destroyed, they expected these accompanying events to soon take place. When these events didn’t take place as they thought they should, they simply kept elasticizing the fulfillment of these events farther and farther into the future. By the time the creeds were written, it had become a firmly entrenched doctrine that the return of Christ was future and that entrenched doctrine continues to this very day.
It must be remembered that there was no canonized New Testament Scripture in the second century. There were numerous Christian documents circulating among the churches. Many perspectives were being shared and considered. The return of Christ was not the only issue. There were those who still thought that aspects of the Old Covenant should be adhered to. Others raised questions about the nature of Christ. Was He God or was He a lessor Being than God. Works and grace were also at issue. The list goes on and on. Many of these issues got resolved by the time of the creeds. Others did not. The works and grace issue didn’t get resolved until the Reformation. In some areas of Christianity, this issue still hasn’t been resolved. I submit that the matter of the timing of the return of Christ, and all related events, also failed to get resolved at the time the creeds were written.
What we do know is that there was a diversity of perspectives about prophetic fulfillment after the destruction of A.D. 70. Tertullian, writing in the second century, sees Daniel 9 as being fulfilled in the life of Christ and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The Church historian Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, writes of the Jews suffering great calamities in direct fulfillment of Christ’s teachings in the Olivet Discourse. Origen mentions non-fleshly perspectives as to resurrection in writing about the apostolic fathers. Irenaeus also makes reference to some early Christians who denied the resurrection of the biological body. A document called the Odes of Solomon, from the late first century, considers the resurrection of the dead as a past event.
There have been a number of Christian writers throughout Church history who have examined the time frame for the return of Christ. In 1878, a major work was published by James Stuart Russell, entitled, The Parousia: A careful look at the New Testament doctrine of our Lord’s Second Coming. Dr. Russell was a Christian pastor for 26 years in England. In his over 500-page book, he documents in great detail the first-century “fulfillment of all things” that Christ said would occur. One of today’s leading theologians, N.T. Wright, in 1996, published a book entitled, Jesus and The Victory Of God. While embracing a futurist framework, Dr. Wright clearly shows Jesus’ teachings were focused on the demise of Herod’s temple.
For further perspective on the early Church fathers and the teaching of the Creeds relative to the return of Christ, I highly recommend Misplaced Hope, by Samuel M. Frost. Frost provides a well-reasoned and documented investigation of early Church thinking relative to the issues we have been discussing in this series.
As is true in a court of law, the truth of something must be based on a preponderance of evidence. Once such preponderance of evidence has established the truth of something, any objections must be considered in relationship to what has already been established. Objections to established evidence should always be evaluated according to what has already been established and not the other way around. For example, in medical research, if fifty clinical studies show that A leads to B, and one or two studies appear to show that A does not lead to B, you don’t conclude that A no longer leads to B. You further evaluate the two studies in light of the fifty studies to determine why the two studies appear to show something different. You carefully examine the dynamics involved.
This same methodology must be applied to theological issues. I feel there is a preponderance of Scriptural and historical evidence relative to the “fulfillment of all things” with the fall of Jerusalem in the first century. If there are Scriptural or historical objections to this evidence, such objections should be evaluated in light of what has already been determined.
Some people often pinpoint a single verse which on the surface may appear to teach a future fulfillment. Ignoring the overwhelming evidence of first-century time statements, they claim their verse is “proof” that a past fulfillment paradigm is false. I will present several examples of how Scripture is used this way and then evaluate these Scriptures in relation to the evidence that has already been established. In so doing, I hope to model a proper approach to dealing with isolated verses that on the surface appear to speak against a first century fulfillment. Let’s begin by looking at Matthew 10 and 11.
The Judgment of Ancient Cities:
Matthew 10:14-15: If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
Matthew 11:20-24: Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.’
Those who see a final judgment at a yet future return of Christ will point to these Scriptures as proof for such a future return and judgment. It is argued that since the people of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah had been dead for thousands of years, they could only be judged in the A.D. 70 event if they were resurrected at that time. Where, it is asked, is the evidence for this happening? It’s then concluded that there is no evidence so this must still be a future event. The objector will, with one wave of the hand, dismiss all the evidence presented for the past fulfillment paradigm.
Let’s look at the entire context of these Scriptures, which include Matthew 10 and 11. In Matthew 10, Jesus specifically says that the disciples would not finish going through the cities of Israel before He would come. A careful reading of Matthew 10 will show that the kind of persecution described as being experienced by the disciples occurred after Christ’s ascension as the book of Acts clearly shows. So the coming that Christ is referring to in Matthew 10 is a coming subsequent to His ascension and yet before the twelve would finish going through the cities of Israel.
Christ shows His coming is to take place before the disciples finish the commission he gave them. This shows the first-century time frame of that event. Christ is speaking of the judgment of the people of these ancient cities in the same context as his return. This return was to take place before the disciples could finish the job he gave them to do. Scripture shows that the judgment is associated with Christ’s return. His return, judgment and resurrection are all events that happen in close association with each other.
This judgment was not only upon the Jews living at the time of the destruction but it was the day of judgment for all who had lived and died to that point. Chapter 12 of Daniel shows it is at the time the power of the holy people is broken that the resurrection takes place. Both Scriptural and secular history show the power of the holy people was broken as a consequence of the temple being destroyed. A careful study of the many passages of Daniel that tie into the Olivet Discourse provides abundant evidence for a first-century fulfillment of end-time events. This includes the resurrection of the dead. Daniel speaks of the righteous and the unrighteous being resurrected with some being given everlasting life and others facing everlasting contempt.
The objector will dismiss the resurrection as a non-occurrence in the first century because it doesn’t fit his paradigm of physical bodies coming out of the ground. All the plain Scriptures that point to a first-century fulfillment will be ignored. Rather than try and synchronize Christ’s statements about the judgment of these ancient cities with the many clear statements about a first-century fulfillment, these clear statements are ignored in favor of an established paradigm of future fulfillment.
The Scripture does not define resurrection as physical bodies coming out of the ground. Resurrection involves spiritual transformation. It involves the natural body being replaced with a spiritual body. It speaks of the natural body being the body of sin and death and the spiritual body being the body of life and righteousness. Biological bodies are not the issue. Scripture shows that upon physical death the spirit goes back to God who gave it. Scripture doesn’t reveal the details of what that means or how that relates to the afterlife.
Scripture shows that at the judgment some were given everlasting life and others faced everlasting contempt. The dynamics of everlasting life and everlasting contempt are not clearly defined. What is clearly defined is the time frame when these events are to take place. There are multiple dozens of time frame statements that point to a first-century fulfillment. These statements all say that A leads to B. With the few passages that suggest that A does not lead to B, we need to carefully examine them in light of the proven A/B relationships. Either we honor the Scriptural time frame or we create our own time frame. I prefer to honor the time frame that Scripture teaches even if all the dynamics of that time frame are not completely enumerated.
Every Eye Shall See Him:
Let’s now look at an entirely different objection about the first-century return of Christ. This objection is one of the most popular and often the first to be offered. It is found in the first chapter of Revelation.
Revelation 1:7: Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.
It is argued that every eye will see Christ at His return. It is also argued that there is no record of every eye seeing Christ return in A.D. 70. Therefore, the return of Christ is future. What is ignored is the rest of the Scripture, which establishes the time when this would occur. John recorded that Christ would come in clouds. He said that those who pierced Christ would see Him and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of Him. When did Christ say this would happen? Let’s return to the Olivet Discourse.
Matthew 24:30-34: At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
It should be clear from the words of Christ that coming on the clouds, and the nations of the earth mourning, take place in the generation Christ is addressing. This is covered in detail earlier in this series of essays. Christ was literally pierced by a Roman soldier and scourged by a contingent of soldiers. If you prefer a more figurative interpretation of this, Christ was spiritually pierced by all those who rejected Him. Regardless of how you view it, all those who pierced Christ lived in that generation that was to experience the events that Christ prophesied in the Olivet Discourse. In the Olivet Discourse, Christ identifies the time frame of Revelation 1:7. Coming in the clouds and nations mourning, are tied to every eye seeing Him.
The objector may still object by asking where the evidence is for every eye seeing Christ. The evidence is the identified time frame. Christ shows the time frame when this would happen. If we are willing to believe Christ, we must believe it happened. How it happened is another question. As discussed earlier, a great deal of prophetic writing uses apocalyptic language. The language of Christ coming in clouds is used in Scripture to demonstrate God’s intervention in the affairs of men. Every eye seeing Him may simply refer to a visual recognition of Christ coming in judgment upon Jerusalem through the vehicle of the Roman military. The important point is that Scripture identifies it as happening in the first century and not something future to us. A review of Matthew 26:62-64, also supports this first-century view.
Matthew 26:62-64: Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.
Here again we see Christ identifying the time of His coming. Jesus is using the apocalyptic language of coming in the clouds. This is the same kind of language used in the Old Testament to signify God's intervention in the affairs of men. Jesus revels He will be at the right hand of God. The implication is that He will be acting as God's agent when He comes in power and glory. Christ tells those around him they will see this in their future. The Olivet Discourse and many other Scriptures place that future in the first century. It is interesting that the Greek word translated “future” in the above passage is aptl, which denotes a near occurrence. As discussed earlier, this word relates to time closely connected with the present. (See Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon.)
The two objections that I have identified and discussed are common objections to the position expressed in these essays. When these objections are evaluated within the context of established evidence, they fail to stand as a hindrance to the overall validity of a past fulfillment position. It is vitally important that all perceived objections to the position expressed here be examined within the larger context of the New Testament narrative and secular history. I encourage the reader of this book to take this approach in examining perceived objections.
IMPLICATIONS OF CHRIST’S RETURN:
You may be asking, If the return of Christ did occur in the first century, along with the judgment, resurrection, and establishment of the Kingdom, how does that affect me in the here and now? How does this affect my faith?
The first-century return of Christ and all associated events, establish the context for our Christianity. We can be confident that upon our repentance and acceptance of the sacrifice of Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God. We can be confident that we have passed from death unto life and have eternal life abiding within us. Because eternal life abides within us, we can be confident that upon physical death we will continue to live in the spiritual realm for all eternity.
We can be confident that the spiritual Kingdom is a present reality and that the Kingdom is truly in us as Christ said. This Kingdom is defined by the New Covenant. The New Covenant is a covenant of life. It is also a covenant of love where the law of God is established in our hearts. Paul said in Romans 14:17 that the Kingdom is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Our purpose for living is to grow the Kingdom in ourselves and help others do the same. Growing the Kingdom involves sharing the Gospel message with others and living the law of love in all that we think, say and do.
Knowing that Christ has returned, and we have been resurrected into eternal life, should give us great confidence in the future. Knowing that the world is not facing imminent danger of extinction, we can pro-actively become involved in helping others achieve Kingdom living. Our focus is not on waiting for something to happen but on helping make something happen.
Understanding that Christ has returned becomes a determinative in how we relate to God. We no longer see God as catastrophically intervening in the affairs of men. We instead see God expanding His Kingdom through the activity of Christian involvement. Our prayer to God is no longer asking that Christ return but that He facilitates his will through us as born again followers of a returned Christ who is fully present with us.
We can make a difference in the world if we practice Kingdom living. Kingdom living is conducting ourselves according to the law of love. If we fulfill our physical journey in this fashion, we will represent the Kingdom well and be pleasing to God. Some may ask: What is the law of love and how does it differ from the Old Covenant law?
The Ten Commandments, weekly and annual Sabbaths, animal sacrifices and various other regulations were a codified body of law that made up the Old Covenant system. Many of the laws contained in this system were already extant before being codified at Mount Sinai. A number of these laws continue to be extant to this very day. As the apostle Paul pointed out, where there is no law, there is no sin. Yet sin was in evidence from Adam to Moses and sin continues to be evident to this very day. Paul points out that the codification of law under the Old Covenant system made sin even more apparent because it gave greater definition to law.
Christ came to abolish this particular system of law because it became a ministration of death resulting from people’s inability to keep it. Christ has abolished the Old Covenant system. Therefore the Ten Commandments, Sabbaths, animal sacrifices and all other regulations that made up that system no longer exist as a codified body of law. Christ abolished that system because man could not live up to its demands. Does this mean there no longer is law that we are required to live by? Since Christ abolished the Old Covenant system of law, does this mean that sin no longer exists? Are we free to do anything we want? Are we assured of eternal life regardless of our behavior as long as we accept the sacrifice of Christ?
Christ did not come to abolish law in general. New Testament Scripture records numerous examples of how we are to conduct ourselves toward God and man. Jesus taught a very high moral code of conduct that goes far beyond the letter of the law required under the Old Covenant system. For example, under the Old Covenant you could not commit adultery. Jesus taught that to lust after a woman is to commit adultery in one’s heart. The Old Covenant taught that you could not commit murder. Jesus taught that to hate your brother was akin to committing murder.
The major change that Christ facilitated in abolishing the Old Covenant and establishing the New is that we no longer are made righteous by keeping God’s law. Israel proved beyond any doubt that it is impossible for man to attain righteousness on his own. From the time of Adam to our present day, man has failed miserably to keep the law of God in any consistent manner. Since disobedience to the laws of the Old Covenant required death, Israel’s inability to keep the Old Covenant resulted in that covenant becoming a ministration of death for them.
Under the New Covenant the righteousness of Christ is applied to us so that before God we appear righteous even though we fail to actually be righteous in our behavior. This is how we pass from death unto life. Does this mean we don’t need to be concerned about our behavior? Does this mean that Christ will take care of everything regardless of how we conduct ourselves? Nothing could be further from the truth.
When we accept Christ as our Savior, we are essentially accepting Christ as Lord of our lives and agreeing to be responsive to His will. When we accept the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, we enter into a covenant relationship with Christ. We enter into the New Covenant. This places us in the Kingdom. Kingdom living involves loving our neighbor. Loving our neighbor involves treating our neighbor in the manner that Christ taught.
Jesus taught us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Jesus taught us to be kind, compassionate, gentle and willing to help even our enemies. Does this kind of behavior make us righteous before God? No it does not. We could never behave righteously enough to accomplish the level of righteousness that God requires for salvation. That is where the righteousness of Christ comes in. The perfect righteousness of Christ applied to us fulfills what God requires for salvation. By accepting the gift of salvation that Christ offers, we essentially are saying to Christ that we love Him and want to obey Him. Obedience to Christ involves living in a manner reflective of the teachings of Christ as found in the Scriptures.
Some Christians have looked at the New Testament Scriptures and because they find that Christ and the first century Church kept the seventh day Sabbath, annual holy days and other regulations of the Old Covenant system, it is believed that these laws are still to be kept today. What must be understood is that Jesus was still living under the Old Covenant system when He appeared in the first century A.D. Jesus was therefore bound to keep the Old Covenant law. The first-century Church was in the process of moving from the old system to the new system. The book of Hebrews says that the Old Covenant was in the process of passing away (Hebrews 8:13). The Jewish converts in particular were slow to give up the requirements of the Old Covenant. Many in the developing Christian Church kept old Covenant regulations right up to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem. The Old Covenant did not pass away until the return of Christ during the A.D. 66 to 73 war.
Outside of the expanded moral law that Christ and the apostles taught, there is no indication in the New Testament Scriptures that the numerous other regulations of the Old Covenant system would carry over to the New Covenant system. This would be especially true of Sabbaths, new moons, feast days, etc. that Paul shows to be a shadow of events involving Christ, including His return in the first century (see Galatians 4 and Colossians 2). These shadows have been fulfilled. In fact it is evident from several documents that are dated from the late first and early second century that the Christian Church began meeting for services on the first day of the week from early on instead of continuing to meet on the seventh day Sabbath. One such document is the Didache, a non-canonical work written by a Jewish Christian, which reflects upon the early life of the Church.
Christ taught repentance as the first step in becoming reconciled to God. Repentance simply means to change. Change involves our recognition that it is not by our works but through the sacrifice of Christ that we can appear righteous before God and therefore pass from death unto life. Change also involves our willingness to conduct ourselves according to the law of love. If we love Christ, we will try to be obedient to His teachings. Obedience to the law of Christ will facilitate the growth of God’s Kingdom within us and allow us to be a vehicle for helping others to become part of the Kingdom as well.
Our worldview should be optimistic rather than pessimistic. Though troubles abound at the physical level, we can facilitate small but steady change in human behavior by demonstrating the law of love toward others. The whole focus of Christ’s moral teaching revolves around the law of love. This law has as its foundation love toward God and love toward man. Christ told the teacher of the law he was not far from being in the Kingdom when he agreed with Christ that these two laws were the most important (Mark 12:28-34).
Knowing that Christ has returned is very exciting. The return of Christ means that death has been defeated. By being in Christ, we can’t die. Yes, we will die physically, but that amounts to nothing more than a transition to a different mode of being. Christ brought spiritual salvation with Him when He returned. Spiritual salvation is synonymous with eternal life. As Christians, we should be hopeful about the future, with a heart to engage problems others find hopeless.
The Scriptural and historical evidence says that Christ returned in the first century. Jesus continues to be fully present with us in spirit. Does this mean that He can’t appear in some visible way sometime in our future? No, it doesn’t. Christ is the glorified Son of God and If God wants Him to appear in some way and at some time in the future He obviously can facilitate such an appearance. The Scriptures, however, do not teach a return separate and beyond the return in the first century. There is no Scriptural reason to believe Christ will return in our future. The Scriptural evidence all points to a first-century return. Any future return would be outside of any Scriptural evidence for such an event to occur.
The language of the New Testament is very straightforward about the time of Christ’s return. Statements such as “this generation shall not pass,” “the time is short,” “the time is at hand,” “in just a very little while,” “the end of all things is near,” “must soon take place,” “I am coming soon,” etc., are all straightforward statements that contextually and in Greek syntax mean exactly what they convey.
If we can’t take these straightforward statements as meaning what they say, then the Scripture, as a vehicle for communicating God’s message to mankind, becomes subject to every interpretation imaginable and makes any attempt to arrive at the truth of a matter virtually impossible. Straightforward statements, as recited above, mean exactly what they say. Short does not mean long. Near does not mean far. Soon does not mean distant. When Christ said, “This generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34), He did not mean a generation thousands of years future from when this statement was made. Christ did not say “that generation” thus indicating some future generation. He said “this generation,” thus indicating the generation He was addressing at the time.
Use of words in their normal sense is the key here. Time statements in Scripture are using words in their normal sense. We therefore must understand them in their normal sense. Look up the hundreds of times “soon,” “near,” “short,” “at hand,” etc. are used in various contexts in the New Testament. These words mean what they say. Therefore, there is no reason to conclude that they mean something else in passages dealing with the return of Christ and all associated events.
Some, having recognized the strength of the position presented in this book, have tried to get around the force of the time statements by concluding that such statements are dual in nature. Those that take this position believe that Christ did return in some sense in A.D. 70, but will return in the future in a final fulfillment of prophetic end-time events. While this view may provide comfort in holding to a futuristic perspective regarding the return of Christ, there simply is no Scriptural support for this position. The Scriptures do not, in any way, show the time statements to have duality of meaning. It just isn’t there!
I believe that the Scriptural and historical evidence speaks for itself relative to the timing of Christ’s return. The multiple dozens of time statements in the New Testament narrative cannot be ignored. These time statements identify when Christ would return and when all events associated with that return would take place.
In addition to the time statements, a careful reading of the New Testament narrative shows a continuous and consistent focus on the return of Christ being an expected event to occur within the lifetime of those living in the first century. This focus is inescapable when reading the New Testament Scripture. The various letters written to the first-century churches by Paul and other Church leaders are especially focused on an about to occur return of Christ. If one is simply willing to accept the fact that these letters are dealing with concerns and expectations of first-century Christians and not twenty-first century Christians, it should be apparent that the return of Christ must be understood within a first-century context.