Jesus said his return was soon. So where is he? And why has the church had to wait for so long?
It’s the question from a listener named Ron. “Pastor John, I’m writing from Switzerland and have been greatly blessed by your ministry. I have a question with regards to the New Testament belief that Jesus would come very soon. As I was studying with our children the need to evaluate prophets by biblical criteria the following thought hit me: The Bible says in Deuteronomy 18 that a prophet whose predictions don’t come true is not sent by God and that he should not be feared. However, in the New Testament we find repeated evidence of people whom we would call inspired who evidently believed — and sometimes claimed — that Jesus would come back soon, even during the writer’s 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. How can we still consider them authoritative while discarding modern-day messengers whose prophecies don’t materialize? I am a bit uneasy that at some stage our kids will tell us that Paul was wrong about 1 Corinthians 15:51 and so he’s not to be taken seriously. Do you have any suggestions as to how to deal with this tension?”
Yes, I do. It’s a large issue and has several layers. Each one needs careful, patient attention.
It’s fairly easy to comb through the New Testament superficially and gather a lot of texts together that seem to indicate a false teaching about how quickly the second coming of Jesus would happen. But if you take each one, each text or each group of texts carefully, patiently, and study it out with the help of those who have perhaps given more thought to it, what I have found is that there are explanations of how to understand those texts that do not impute error or false prophecy to what Jesus or the apostles taught.
That’s my first suggestion. Don’t be superficial and simply gather a lot of texts together and impute to them something that they may not want to say. They may sound, on the face of it, incriminating about Jesus and his apostles, but individually, carefully, patiently studied out, you may find yourself regretting any conclusion like that.
Maybe the best thing I could do would be to just give five pointers to the kind of solutions you will find if you study these out.
First, sometimes the events that are expected soon are not the very coming of Jesus, but things leading up to the coming of Jesus. Here’s an example: Matthew 24:33, “So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Next verse, and this is the problem verse for a lot of people: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34).
Now, notice carefully the phrase, “all these things” that are going to take place within a generation, does not include the actual coming of the Lord, because in the previous verse it says, “When you see all these things,” the very phrase of verse 34 used in verse 33, “You know that he is near,” not already here. The fact that these things will happen within a generation, these preparations for his coming, does not mean that his coming would happen in a generation.
He Is Near
Second, of course it does say when they happen, “he is near, at the very gates,” which leads to my second pointer: when the New Testament speaks of the Lord being near or at the gates or at hand, it is not teaching a necessary time frame for the Lord’s appearance. Rather, it’s saying that Christ, the long-expected Messiah, has come, once for all, decisively, in his life and death and resurrection, fighting the major battle.
He has set in motion an end time process of gathering messianic people. He has fulfilled many end time prophecies. We are in the last days — we have been for two thousand years — and therefore Jesus is like a king in complete control, standing with his army outside the city, waiting to take it captive. Nothing can stand between him and that capture except his own choice.
That’s the way I think we should read something like 1 Peter 4:7, “The end of all things is at hand,” or James 5:8, “The coming of the Lord is at hand.” Or like Jesus says, he is at the gates (Matthew 24:33). That is, he has appeared. He has fought the decisive victory. He has shown himself sovereign and unstoppable in the resurrection. He has fulfilled vast amounts of Old Testament prophecy concerning the end time. He may step in whenever he pleases. That’s the way I think we should understand “near,” “at the gates,” “at hand.”
SOURCE: Desiring God