On a number of occasions, Jesus was asked about, or offered information about, the timing of his return and on every occasion he seemed to imply that it would be within the lifetime of his disciples.
Tackling this seeming conundrum has produced acres of print, and my blog post really needs to be a book.
But I would suggest for anyone who wants to do more research, they look into the web pages at the bottom of the post, and also this book, available from Amazon and elsewhere:
“When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia” by Christopher M. Hays 2017
However, I will try briefly to sum up the problem and the arguments.
Beliefs of the Early Church
In the New Testament we find repeated evidence that people believed Jesus would come back soon, even during their own lifetime. Examples would be 1 Peter 4:7; Matthew 24:34; 26:64; 1 Corinthians 10:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17; and 1 Corinthians 15:51
- John writes: “Children, it is the last hour… we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18)
- James writes: “the coming of the Lord is at hand — the Judge is standing at the door.” (James 5:8,9)
- John writing of his encounter with Jesus in Revelation writes: “And he said to me, Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Behold, I am coming quickly, … He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” (Revl 22:6,7,10,12,20)
On What Did They Base Their Beliefs?
It did seem, to the disciples and those who wrote the New Testament, that Jesus had described his return as happening in their lifetime.
In Mark 9:1 and its parallels (Matt. 16:28; Luke 9:27), Jesus promises that “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
Matthew 24:33-34, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”
In Matthew 10:23, Jesus told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes”.
His Ascension Promise
As Jesus prepared to return to His Father, he promised the grieving disciples: “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)
However, if we read on in the same chapter, John 14, we see that Jesus was referring – at least initially – to the indwelling Holy Spirit (read verses 7-24)
Coming Linked to the Attack on Jerusalem
In Mark 13:30, Jesus declares that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
“These things” in verses 29–30 refers to the events described in verses 5–23, many of which could be understood to have been at least provisionally fulfilled in the years between Jesus’ death and the destruction of the temple in AD 70 — one generation.
Many today, of course, believe “these things” also refers to far-distant apocalyptic events that have not yet occurred but that is not how the early Church or the disciples understood it.
Preterists solve this by saying Jesus fulfilled all his promises by returning spiritually in the first century. To my mind that is obviously wrong.
- This article for instance says that Matthew 24 was fulfilled in AD70.
- See also: https://www.gotquestions.org/AD-70.html
Others believe the “coming” refers to the resurrection, or to Pentecost, or to his invisible coming in judgment against Israel with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
If your belief is Preterist, partial-preterist or futurist, you still need to ask the question, why did Jesus appear to promise to his disciples that they, in their generation, would be gathered to the Lord:
“Then (at the time spoken of) will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matt 24:30-31)
The events he described did happen, in part if not fully, and because of this prophecy the Christians were forewarned and fled Jerusalem before it was destroyed. Yet they were NOT caught up at that time, which must have puzzled and disappointed them.
How do we explain this seeming inconsistency?
1. Jesus did not Know?
The Lord did inform his followers that NOBODY knows the time of his return, not even the angels in Heaven, ONLY the Father.
Matthew 24:36, “Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
Perhaps Jesus while on earth did not know the exact timing, and assumed the prophecies of the Old Testament about the destruction of Jerusalem were also the end of time. For instance Joel 2:32 which seems to speak of that event, taking place in AD70.
2. Prophecy is Not Exact as to Timing
We tend to think that the OT prophets stated exactly what God said would happen, and then it did happen. But it’s not as simple as that.
For example Jeremiah makes it very clear that some predictive prophecy is not meant to come pass at all. God changed His mind according to Jeremiah 18:5-10. Even if God causes his prophet to pronounce judgement or doom, He can change his mind if people repent.
Secondly, many OT prophecies had a certain relevance to the people listening at that time, and to the events of their day, BUT there still remains a fulfillment for MANY years or centuries in the future.
We see that with the many prophecies relating to the Son of Man in the Old Testament, not fulfilled until hundreds of years later.
Likewise, something dear to the heart of every Israelite in the days after the destruction of the temple and the exile from their land, the prophecies promised a return, a rebuilding and also the establishment of the eternal kingdom (Isaiah 60:19-20). Some of this happened, but not the millennial kingdom as described, which will not happen until after the Second Coming.
So you see, prophecies are not always designed to be fulfilled at once, nor completely. Sometimes they are only partially fulfilled and we have to wait centuries for the remainder to occur. That doesn’t mean they are inaccurate or misleading!
3. The Inclusion of the Gentiles
As we know from the scriptures, the original plan of redemption was to Israel. Jesus said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel and initially refused to help the woman of Canaan. (Matthew 15:21-24).
However, after the Ascension, salvation was extended to include the Gentiles. Thus, the time it would take to fulfil the prophecy of the gospel reaching the world would take much longer. If the ‘world’ was the Jewish world, it could have been accomplished during the first century. That would not be so if the Gentile nations were included.
When Jesus spoke of his coming before the disciples had time to visit all the “cities of Israel” (Matt. 10:23) and that the gospel would be preached “to all the world” (Mark 13:10) it spoke only of the gospel reaching Jewish people. Salvation subsequently being offered to all the world would obviously delay His coming, for centuries!
4. One Day is a a Thousand Years
The early Church struggled with the fact that Jesus had not returned. Peter explained it this way – 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
And he says: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).
It was taking MUCH longer than expected to take the gospel to the world. As the years passed, also, the Church became less effective, more corrupt, and the gospel work was delayed for centuries while men played at being Priests and Popes and the central truths of the gospel gradually faded away and were almost lost.
5. Certain Events Must First Occur
As I said above, prophecies have their own timing, and certain events must still come about before the Lord’s coming. The delay is down to many different things – man’s disobedience, the world’s condition, God’s patience – but this does not mean God’s promises will fail.
There has to come a great falling away from true faith, a devastating world-wide delusion from Satan, and – amongst other things – a forty-two month global rulership of a man described as a great “beast” in Revelation 13:5-7
There will also be signs that are impossible to miss: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD.” (Joel 2:31)
Compare this with what Jesus said: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 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.” (Matt. 24:29-30)
How then can people say this all happened in AD70?
6. Jesus DID Return?
After the resurrection but before Jesus left the disciples, “they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.” (Acts 1:6-8)
They had missed the point of the Crucifixion and Resurrection: to be able to offer redemption to the world, to all who would come and believe. This had to be accomplished by Jesus ascending to Heaven and then sending them the Holy Spirit. This fact was lost on them.
But Jesus said: “It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment”. (John 16:5-11)
Thus, the promise not to leave them as orphans, to come to them (John 14:18) was at least partially fulfilled in the sending of the Holy Spirit of God, as the Comforter and Helper.
So that is yet another way we could understand his promise of his coming.
7. The Kingdom HAS come
I have no problem accepting that the kingdom of Heaven, promised by John the Baptist and then by Jesus and the apostles, DID come about with the defeat of Satan by the Cross, and the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as KING – albeit at this present time reigning only from the Heavens as the Lord and King of those who enter his kingdom by faith.
The early disciples believed the “kingdom” would be that of Israel and it would be an earthly victory over Israel’s enemies. That of course did not happen, but Jesus never promised that his kingdom would be more than a spiritual one (until his second coming.)
Was Jesus referring therefore to his heavenly reign in Mark 9:1? And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God having come with power.”
It could be, but I admit there are a lot of unanswered questions.
It goes without saying that Jesus did not, and could not lie. It’s also plain to me that AD70 was not the end of time, nor did Jesus return in any physical form at that point in history.
The only explanation that holds water therefore is that either Jesus did not know at that time the exact timing of his return, or that he was making a prophecy intended to be open-ended.
In particular, the big secret of redemption was the inclusion of the Gentiles. That meant that the coming would not be merely the restoration of Israel but a spiritual redemption of the entire world. The disciples had no idea this would be an issue and it explains perhaps why Jesus had to be ambiguous in what he said to them.
It is true that the early Church believed they would see the Lord return in their lifetime, but like us, they took the words literally and saw everything from an earthly point of view, instead of a heavenly one.
There is a possibility, also, that the original intention was for Jesus to save the “lost sheep of Israel” and take them when Jerusalem was destroyed, but that the Father’s intention reached far beyond that.
So, in the words of Jesus, it’s not for US to know the times and the seasons, only the Father knows that. We simply have to trust and believe, and hold on to the promise of his return whether in our lifetime or not.
- Did Jesus Intend To Return In The First Century by Ministry Magazine
- Did Jesus Say He Would Return In The 1St Century Ad by Reformed Theological Seminary
- Did Jesus Say He’d Return Within His Disciples Lifetime? by The Gospel Coalition
- On Why Jesus Hasn’t Come Back Yet And The Answer May Shock You by ‘thebibleforfnormalpeople’
- “Matthew 24 Was Not Fulfilled In 70Ad” Reddit Debate
Thank you Tricia, you gave us a very
clear outline of the subject.