The early church seemed to be characterised by extreme passions and signs and wonders were being performed. Why did it work for them and seemingly not for us now? What subsequently went wrong in the Gentile Churches? So much had to do with their expectation of an imminent return of Jesus.
In the “What went wrong in Acts” article I looked at the church in Jerusalem. I saw where they gradually lost the plot, but I noted that from the start, the apostles and believers shared an abject humility, having been there when Jesus died but failed him in every way. They also had a history where they had seen God chastise the nation for various wrong doings. How much more so now that they killed His son? So when Peter said to save yourself from this wicked and perverse generation by believing in Jesus, they were ripe for harvest.
The Gentile churches did not have this history, yet they started off with considerable zeal. I believe that one of the factors was that, rightly or wrongly, they expected that Jesus would return imminently. I also believe that God’s Timetable is being released now to re-kindle that same imminence for one final world-wide revival and harvest before the tribulation.
I’m going to spend some time examining why the early Church read this imminence into scripture. There are so many references I’m sure that I will miss some of them, but you will see the point. Two thousand years of waiting has caused us to find different ways to read these same scriptures and explain away the plain expectation that Jesus was coming soon. In the brief article “Ever expecting” I first described how God’s intention was that we live in an ever present expectation of His return. I wrote that article about 8 years ago. Now-a-days I sometimes sense that talking about His return too specifically is almost treated as a heresy because some people think that, if God did not reveal it in Jesus’ day, then He is not allowed to reveal it today; to the generation that will see His return. Those issues are discussed further here, and in the articles under “Confirmed Prophecy”.
At first it seemed that all we needed to do was re-kindle that imminence and the signs and wonders would start. Surely, that is all that the modern church is lacking! But Paul’s warnings to the Galatians and Jesus’ message to the seven Churches in Asia (Revelation 2 and 3), concerned me. This was so early on that I expected imminent expectations of Jesus to still be active. These rebukes sounded out something that parts of the early church were losing—their innocence before the Lord. My article on “Innocence” is essential follow-up to this article on imminence.
During this discussion of scripture I am not concerned what you or anyone today might deem the correct understanding. I have already mentioned the “ever present” expectation of His return. Some teachers describe the “every increasing fullness” of end-times prophesy to hint at the closeness but without having to deal with the plain expectation the he will return “soon”. I want to focus on how the early Church would have understood Jesus’ return.
The early church only had a few letters and oral presentations to go on and I suspect very limited copies of the Septuagint. Today, we have the entire Old and New Testament writings at our disposal. We also have the supposed wisdom or advantage of hindsight, so we can see what God ‘really’ meant.
For example, “this generation will not pass away until…” in
On a personal note, this dual use of words is something
I find very frustrating. The same thing happens in some prophesies in the Old
Testament where the Israelites could not have really understood the prophecy
until after it was fulfilled by Jesus. I was recently talking to a friend about
all the beautiful but disguised references to Jesus in Genesis, and not
disputing my observations, he simply asked why God did not make it clear right
from the start. I echoed his sentiment, but my experience is that God reveals
these things to those who seek Him. They are precious and when revealed, it
gives glory to Him. (
Many scriptures refer to Jesus return; the day of judgement; the day of the Lord; in a way that implies it will come as a surprise, certainly to unbelievers but even to believers who are encouraged to persevere and be ever watchful and prepared:
The trick about all these parables is that there is nothing to warn the reader that it won’t happen for a couple of thousand years. So, if you are a first generation church member then you had every reasonable expectation that it will be or could be in your life time.
I want to draw your attention specifically to
Finally, please don’t get confused when I talk about imminence or suggest God’s Timetable. There are clear and important warnings not to be misled if someone suggests that Jesus has already returned. That is a heresy. Scripture is absolutely clear that everyone will know without being told when He does return. The timetable I present points to the imminent future. Also, to be absolutely clear, I am not asking anyone to follow me or to do anything I say except listen for what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church.
Matthew chapters 24 to 25 is one of the strongest sequence of references by Jesus to
the end of the Age and His return.
The only place that I have found where Jesus makes it
clear that his disciples will NOT see his return is in
And He said to the disciples, “The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.”
OK, a clear reference to not seeing it but the subsequent context was not to go off chasing reports that He has come because when he does return it “will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other”. So the context is not stressing that you won’t see it, but not to be deceived by false reports because when it does happen everyone will see it.
It’s funny because I have had several people quote that, “no one knows the day or the hour”, to prove that God could never reveal it, to me or anyone. Would they quote the above “you will not see it”, to suggest that neither I nor anyone will see His return? Obviously not, but that is the way we read scripture at times.
Probably the best way to understand this statement by Jesus is to recall that Jesus did make it clear that some of his disciples would be martyred. So, those disciples who were martyred would not see His return, but His return could still be within the life span of those then alive.
As well as speaking about His return, Jesus spoke about
the destruction of the temple and the way the Jews, “this generation”, would
reject him. Notably,
“But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”
This suggests that perhaps only the current generation
of Jews will reject the message. Hence Jesus could return in 25 to 40 years (a
In AD 70, exactly 40 years after His resurrection, Rome destroyed the temple in Jerusalem because the Jews revolted against Roman rule. So, these judgements were fulfilled within the lifetime of some of those to whom Jesus spoke. So, as a lawyer might suggest, it adds credence to the imminence of other things he described.
Interestingly, the fall of Jerusalem is also described
in Luke 21:20-24, but this is mixed up with end-times discussions. Look
carefully at this breakdown of
Up until verse 32, Jesus had meticulously laid down a
sequence of events. We did not know how long it would be before the temple was
torn down or how long the times of the Gentiles were, but they were declared.
Then verse 32 and 36 made it all seem to be likely within a single life time.
Now, in regard to the temple, it was 40 years—definitely within a lifetime. So,
in regard to the times of the Gentiles, what might the early Gentile Churches
have thought likely? If they missed it in the book of Luke then
Can I make one further comment about
The following is a long list of further references that influence when the reader might expect Jesus to return. Some are very, very clear that at least some of the present generation would see it, while others have a little extra explanation attached.
You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.
...This follows a description of people being put to death and the context of ‘saved’ is logically taken as ‘not dying’. Hence, living to see Jesus return.
“But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.
…If the disciples were not going to finish the fairly finite job of evangelising all the Israelite cities before Jesus returns, then it is a reasonable expectation that His return was to be within their life time.
Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
“Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come.”
…though you don’t know the time, the urgency of being alert implies within your lifetime.
Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away.
…If the phrase “time of temptation” is mistaken as the tribulation preceding the return of Jesus, then this speaks of imminence, but times of temptation come to all of us, so this is minor in its implications of imminence.
“Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.”
...selling up is a sort of bankrupting option that seems good if Jesus is soon to return but not for long term bringing up families etc. The previous verse is about seeking His kingdom. The kingdom comes when the king returns. So there is an association with Jesus return. (Yes, we know that the kingdom has already come but not as a physical kingdom.)
“Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit. Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks.”
...again, readiness suggests imminence. We are good little Christians and we know (now) that this is an attitude of the heart that God wants so we don’t fall away. But it was probably taken to imply imminent in the early days.
You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.
...being ready implies the expectation of imminence.
Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”
...Though the rumour that John would not die is corrected, clearly there was a rumour and hence an expectation of imminence.
Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.
Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.
...Pretty clear that in everyday things we are to avoid passing judgement until Jesus returns. So this makes it really easy to expect His return in our life. Now-a-days we might read this as “do not pass judgement—when Jesus returns he will then expose everything”. There is significant variance in the translations of this verse. In the NASB translation, the words “but wait” are in italics to show that they are not present but implied. NIV also has the ‘wait’ word. ESV does not. So, perhaps you could argue that the text is simply saying 'do not judge - leave it to Jesus when he returns'. But because all translations say do not judge ‘before the time’, there is a latent expectation that you will see that time.
But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none;
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
...”we who are alive” sounds like Paul expects to be alive when Jesus returns.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,
...Verses 1-6 are an exultation to Timothy by Paul who sees the end of his life. He now realises that he will not see Jesus return but his life is poured out as an offering. None the less his prophetic warning about a time when men will no longer accept sound doctrine sounds imminent. We certainly see the fulfilment today.
Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
...This revelation of Jesus Christ sounds like Jesus revealed as king when He returns. Some translations reflect this more clearly. Peter is urging his readers to be alert pending this event.
Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.
The end of all things is near...
looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God…
...Much of 2 Peter 3 is about being ready for the Day of
the Lord. Though it has the warning that the Lord is not slow but patient (verse
8-9), verse 12 and others convey an expectation by Peter (not promise) that the
readers will see it. Peter is writing this letter, knowing his life is nearly
over, a bit like Paul’s letter in 2 Timothy, and wanting to encourage his
readers. He is recognising that he (Peter) will not see Jesus return, as Jesus
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.
Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; …; for the time is near.
Behold, He is coming with the clouds…
...Present tense implies imminence
Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. I am coming quickly…
…“Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.”
...This was preceded by Revelation chapters
…Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.
...I am coming quickly...
The Greek word ‘tachei’ or ‘tachu’ is translated here as quickly in NASB but in many other versions it is translated as ‘soon’. My comment is that if you are coming quickly, then you will arrive soon. Various studies and concordances define the word as ‘quickly’, as in speedily and without delay. The same root word is used in Rev 1:1 and there NASB does translate it as ‘soon’.
I can’t imagine that anyone would want to contest that scripture clearly portrays an imminence to the expectation of Jesus’ return. The problem is that people have at various points in history got all fired up and nothing happened, even recent history. In 2012 there was this false expectation of the end of the world. Some people decided to sell their houses to get extra brownie-points with God. That is reverting to works and not to the grace of God through the Cross.
So we talk about an ever present expectation and stomp on anything more. All I can say is that if you expect to see Jesus return in your life, you are in very good company.
This article on imminence unfolded at the same time as my article on “Innocence” which I also recommend to you.