Part Two – The Timing of the Second Coming
This part of the book will address the timeframe of Jesus’ Second Coming. We will survey the entire New Testament. We will begin with what the Gospels say, then cover what the book of Acts says, and last cover what all the epistles say. We do this by dividing this part of the book into three separate chapters according to the three genres we find in the New Testament: the four “biographies” (that is, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the one “history” (that is, the Acts of the Apostles), and the 22 “letters” (that is, the epistles of the apostles). By the time we’re finished, you’ll wonder how anyone ever got the idea that the Second Coming might be delayed or otherwise not occur by the end of the New Testament age – that is, the 1st Century A.D.
Chapter Two – What the Gospels Say
The Times of Jesus the Messiah
To talk about what the Gospels say is to talk about what Jesus said, for the Gospels are the record of His ministry and teaching. And He is the first source we should consult, because no one on earth knew more about the subject than He did.
The place to start our discussion is to recognize that Jesus lived His earthly life in a unique historical age. The time in which Jesus of Nazareth lived has been called a messianic age even by those who do not believe He was the Messiah. This age can roughly defined as 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Both Jewish and Christian historical sources confirm that the expectation of Messiah’s appearance was widespread. Messiah’s coming was associated with the last days and judgment which Israel’s prophets had foretold so you can imagine the questions and concerns that were running through people’s minds.
A whole class of literature arose during this time called “apocalyptic,” defined as writing which is characterized by “symbolic imagery and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling power of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.” Of course, we recognize the New Testament book of Revelation as matching this sort of description. So, although the book of Revelation may seem strangely different and out-of-place to us, people of that age – especially Jews – would not be thrown off, as if they had never seen this type of writing before. In fact, the book of Revelation is sometimes called the Apocalypse (from the same word as apocalyptic). “Revelation” is from a Latin word and “Apocalypse” is from a Greek word, both meaning the same thing: uncovering or unveiling; that is, to reveal, or give a revelation.
To go along with the anticipation of Messiah, the consequential speculation about when and how he might appear, and the associated flourishing of writings which vividly and picturesquely described the end of the current world order and the establishing of a new age, we also find that there were many individuals ready and eager to accept the title of Messiah. In other words, there were many false Messiahs (that is, false Christs). Such an atmosphere fosters pretenders, and there was always a group, whether large or small, ready to follow these leaders both in their rise – and in their inevitable demise.
This keen awareness and uncertainty about Messiah, the last days, the end of the world, and all else that went with it, is clearly reflected in the pages of the four gospels. For if you read the Bible sequentially from Genesis you notice something radically different in the air when you get to Matthew. What were hints and promises in the Old Testament become full-blown expectations in the New Testament. The prophets had spoken of a great one to come “in many portions and in many ways,” but not until the New Testament do you see at every turn people asking, “Where is he? Have you seen him?”
This interest was not limited to Israel proper, for since the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. and Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Jews had become spread all over the world. Wherever they went, they built synagogues in which Moses and all the Prophets were regularly read. Many God-fearing Gentiles would join them. So it is not surprising that, as the second chapter of Matthew tells us, as far away as from the East some (that is, magi) would come asking, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” And King Herod could then ask the priests and scribes “where the Christ was to be born.” Herod’s mass murder of all the male infants in and around Bethlehem reveals just how much the coming of Messiah bore on people’s minds in that age. For this horrid act would not have occurred unless Herod and his subjects were thoroughly persuaded that Messiah was not only the promise of God, but also a promise everyone believed was on the verge of being fulfilled. This was a sustained and not a fleeting expectation, for this incident with Herod occurred thirty years before Jesus even began His public ministry.
No wonder then that when, a few decades later, John the Baptist appeared preaching repentance and using apocalyptic-style language like “flee from the wrath to come,” and “every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire,” there were people more than eager to listen. Luke 3 tells us that “people were in an expectant state and even wondering whether John himself might be the Messiah.” Even the religious authorities in Jerusalem sent a deputation to the Jordan River to ask him if he was the Messiah (John 1).
Of course, all through Jesus’ public ministry, speculation abounded as to whether He was the Christ. Here’s a sampling:
“When the Christ comes, He will not perform more signs than those which this man has, will He?” John 7:31 NASB
“We have found the Messiah” John 1:41 NASB
“…if anyone confessed Him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.” John 9:22 NASB
When we remember how reluctant Jesus was about making Himself known as the Messiah before His resurrection, we see once again the nature of these times. That is, the interest and fervor over the Messiah was not something Jesus created, but rather was something already present in the people of His day. This is important because as we look at Jesus’ description of the timing of His second coming, we will see that He is not so much bringing to the disciples’ minds whole new concepts (such as the last days, the age to come) as He is answering questions they already had.
Jesus did not want to make His identity as Messiah an issue until after His resurrection. The resurrection was the primary missing puzzle piece that would cause everything God said through the prophets to make sense. So, until people realized that, they would remain uncertain about how the “last days scenario” would play out. Without the missing piece of the resurrection, most people foresaw Messiah taking the throne of Israel and leading battles against the nations, and ultimately, as a result of His victories, bringing righteousness, peace, and joy to Israel and the world.
Resurrection from death is one of the things, aside from His unique and exclusive claim to the title of Messiah, that so distinguished Jesus from the other possible Messiahs. For them, death was always the end of their messianic careers. For Jesus, it was only the beginning.
The resurrection was not just the missing piece to the puzzle, it was the missing piece that changed the fit of all the other pieces. It’s like having 4,999 pieces of a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle put together. You finally find the one missing piece behind the sofa. But in so doing, you see beautiful colors on the other side of the puzzle piece and you realize you have been working with the plain cardboard side of the pieces and have been putting the whole thing together upside down! This was not just true for the high and mighty religious leaders who condemned Jesus, but even the humble disciples expected Jesus to reign as an earthly king and did not know about His resurrection from the dead until it happened – even though He privately told them at least three different times that it would occur!
Such were the times in which Jesus found Himself. Understanding those times is not essential to establishing the timeline for the Second Coming, but it can help us understand why Jesus and the apostles often spoke as they did. That is, they did not always fully explain every term they used because they and their hearers had common understandings. Just as today, when there’s some new government scandal, we can say, “Looks like another Watergate” without going into details about President Nixon, the burglars, and the fact that there really was no water and no gate involved. Two thousand years from now archeologists might have to look to a history book to try to figure out what our figure of speech meant to us. And so, just because “Armageddon,” “abomination of desolation,” and “end of the age” sometimes throw us for a loop does not necessarily mean the eyes of the disciples glazed over when they heard these and similar terms. It seems far more likely that Jesus and His apostles were communicating in a language their audiences understood.
Having the context of the times in which He spoke firmly in our minds, let us now see what Jesus Himself said about the timing of His second coming.
“When Are You Coming?”
Several days before his crucifixion Jesus was in Jerusalem, teaching daily in the temple. On one of those days, as He and His disciples were departing, they pointed out to Him the beauty of the temple and the surrounding buildings. And indeed Jewish sources confirm that it was a place of glory. Jesus tells His disciples that despite the beauty and glory, it would be completely destroyed. And sadly, the same Jewish sources will confirm this also. In fact, practically any encyclopedia will tell you that this great temple of Israel in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Now if anyone tells you that a Jewish rabbi walking through the temple around 33 A.D. on the eve of His own death told his followers that this temple would be destroyed in their lifetime, and indeed less than 40 years later that very thing happened, then you would probably want to know what else that Jewish rabbi said! (Would that we were all more zealous to know everything He says!)
Naturally, the ears of the disciples perked up at this pronouncement, for the temple had long been not only the unparalleled focal point for the nation (imagine lumping the White House, the Washington Monument, the Capitol, Mt. Rushmore, and Plymouth Rock all together), but also a sign as to how well the nation was doing in God’s sight. When Solomon built it, things were great. As the nation’s righteousness declined, so did the fortunes of the temple until King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed it in 586 B.C. It was rebuilt in the days of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah as some of the Jews returned from captivity. It endured more ups and downs over the years that followed. So, given the context of the times, when Jesus said, “temple destroyed” their minds (now believing He was the Messiah) translated “last days.” For the prophets had said that “the day of the Lord” would be a time of destruction as well as a time of glory. So Jesus’ disciples asked Him,
“Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Matthew 24:3 NASB
Do you see that, apart from the context of the times, that these questions would not make sense? For all He explicitly mentions is the temple’s destruction. In any other age, the likely question might be “Why will such a nice building be destroyed?” or “Why are you predicting such a dour future for our nation?” As pious Jews, they knew that Jesus must be speaking of the last days.
The primary text we are using for our discussion here is Matthew chapters 24 and 25. Mark and Luke also record this episode (in Mark 13 and Luke 21) and we will use their accounts to supplement and help us understand Matthew’s. The reason we are using this occasion is that it is the one time Jesus was asked point-blank by His disciples about the timing of His second coming. He gives an almost two-chapter answer. Could there be a better place for us to start?
We will see that Jesus directly answers the disciples’ questions, giving them a timetable by which they can know the approximate time of His second coming. If he didn’t want them to know, or thought their line of questioning inappropriate, He could have rebuked them, or at least sent their thinking a different direction (as the gospels reveal that he did on a number of other occasions). Instead, we see Him giving a thoughtful and extended answer, as He always did whenever a question was appropriate. Since these men were going to bear witness to Him all around the world and suffer greatly in the process, most of them dying violently by persecution, Jesus thought it entirely proper that they should know the answer to their question. After all, it was a key part of their message to say that Messiah was coming (that is, His Second Coming) and that people didn’t have forever to get ready. And we will see that the disciples not only communicated repeatedly that Jesus was coming again but also passed on the same timeframe He was giving them on this very day. (As you read through Matthew 24-25, you may recognize various individual verses which have been ripped from their context by zealous but erring preachers bent on proclaiming a delayed Second Coming, contradicting each other in many respects. You can, however, see for yourself how these verses actually fit together in one cohesive narrative which clearly points to a Second Coming in that generation.)
In answering His disciples, Jesus first tells them not to be misled or deceived by false Messiahs – for there would be plenty of them. Then He tells His disciples that wars, rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes will come. He tells them that this does not denote the end, but only the beginning of pains they will see (birth pangs that bring in a new age). Then they themselves will be persecuted and even killed. It will be so bad that betrayal will occur among the ranks of Christ’s followers. And during this time, many false prophets will arise. But the disciples should keep on going until the gospel is preached throughout the whole world, for, since that was the goal, only then would the end come. What end? The end of the age they asked Him about.
Jesus has completed the whole timetable without mentioning the temple so now He comes back to it in verse 15. He says that when they see the “abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (Matthew 24:15 NASB) they should flee Judea (the region in which Jerusalem was located). In giving his version, Luke says “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near.” (Luke 21:20 NASB) and then goes on likewise telling them to flee Judea. Since our main concern in this chapter is timing, we will not bog ourselves down with determining exactly what Daniel meant by “abomination of desolation.” Whether the disciples saw what was “in the holy place” or “the armies” lining up outside, the instruction was the same: flee Judea!
The reason for fleeing Judea was that a great tribulation would be about to ensue. There would be no deliverance from it except to escape to some other location. Normally, under such circumstances the people would flee to Jerusalem, seeking safety within her walls. Jesus wanted to make absolutely clear that such a strategy would be fatal in this case – for this destruction of Jerusalem was inevitable – even to the foundation of the temple.
Therefore, the fall of the temple was not the end, but was the beginning of the end. There would be tribulation before then, but it would be small compared to the tribulation after then. This tribulation would be so bad that God would have to cut it short with the coming of Messiah in glory.
At this point in Matthew’s narrative (we are about halfway through Matthew 24), the disciples realize when Jesus would come: it would be some time after the temple was destroyed, but not too long after. He went on to confirm to them that their generation would not pass away until all these things took place. Here are His words:
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Matthew 24:34 NASB
It would be hard to construct a sentence which communicated more clearly and emphatically that all the things that Jesus was talking about would occur in that generation. We know that Jesus spoke these words around 33 A.D. and that the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. Since Jesus promised to come sometime not too long after the tribulation that was ignited with the destruction of the temple, we see how the promise that His generation would experience all these events was to be fulfilled. The simplicity and consistency of his remarks on this timeline make us marvel at how we have so misunderstood them! There was only one century in which He told His followers to look for His return – the one that He and they lived in!
The Key Sign
The key sign of the temple being destroyed was now understood. It was Jesus’ mention of this fateful event that prompted the disciples’ questions in the first place. Note also what came before His bringing it up.
Matthew 23 (of course, the Bible wasn’t written in chapter and verse – those markers were added later) is Jesus’ stark warning to his fellow religious leaders in Israel. “Woe to you,” He repeatedly declares…and then explains. He finishes by saying,
“Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” Matthew 23:38 NASB
As He leaves them, He tells His disciples that the house that was being left desolate to the Pharisees was going to be completely torn down. Not only do we now see the flow of thought connecting Matthew 23 with 24 and 25, but also get a hint about what Daniel’s expression “abomination of desolation” meant. Jesus had taught, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,” (Matthew 16:25 NASB). The Pharisees could not let go of the temple God had given, even though its time had elapsed. Its period of usefulness had expired. Rejecting the greater glory of Jesus, they clung to the temple. But having tried to save their life (the temple) , they were only to lose it in utter devastation. “But whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.,” (Matthew 16:25 NASB). Jesus had gone on to say. And so those humble Jews who followed Jesus, though they lost the temple and the land, had inherited the presence of God and the whole earth as well (Matthew 28:20 and Matthew 5:5).
God’s signs are not just signs of timing but of meaning as well. Fortune-telling, horoscopes, and the like have in common with the Bible the element of predicting the future. But anyone who had read from both types of literature notices the vastly different way they approach the subject. One aspect of this difference is that a Bible sign is not something you check off your list unemotionally, but rather is full of meaning, emotion, and your own experience. The destruction of the temple is something to be pondered and understood – something that is meant to communicate to us even today. Just as there is more to understand about Jesus’ healing a blind man than that God loves people and has the power to cure blindness. For example, what does it illustrate about spiritual blindness?
The temple was convenient as the key sign because it is a fixed, historically ascertainable event. That is, Jesus picked something that would be easy for subsequent generations to verify. But it was not merely convenient; it was immeasurably significant. And since its destruction has lasted even until our day, perhaps we should be pondering its significance even in our day.
Before going on, let’s remember that though the temple may have been the most notable sign, it was not the only one, nor was it the immediate sign of His coming. Jesus goes on to show this later in the chapter when He tells a parable of a fig tree. His point will be that a fig tree’s tender branches and new leaves tell you that summer is near. Summer is something you can’t see; rather, you experience it. It is a change in conditions, the results of which you see. When you look out your window, you can’t “see” summer or winter. You see a street, trees, and so on. Just so, Jesus was giving signs that led up to the Second Coming – signs they would be able to see. But the Second Coming was like summer – something you couldn’t see. It was a change in spiritual conditions (as summer would mark a change in meteorological conditions). This will become more clear when we discuss the spiritual nature of the Second Coming. For now, let’s return to the signs that would lead up to when “He was near.”
Other Signs To Be Fulfilled, Too
The temple was the key sign, but there were others as well. Jesus goes on to tell His disciples that no one could know the exact day or hour of His coming, which makes sense given the kind of timetable He gave them. The temple’s destruction was a sign, but the proliferation of false Christs and false prophets was also a sign. Jesus’ coming could not occur before the first sign. It would definitely occur sometime after the temple was destroyed and while the false brethren were in prominence.
These unfolding events were all backdrop to the essential mission of the apostles. Jesus made clear in His discourse that the conclusion of the timeline would be driven by the fulfillment of their mission.
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:14 NASB
Acts and other New Testament books give evidence that the gospel was considered spread around the world even in that age. Paul could write to the Romans,
“…your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” Romans 1:8 NASB
And to the Colossians Paul writes,
“… the gospel which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing…” Colossians 1:5-6 NASB
Such an effective job was being done by the apostles of Jesus, that even unbelievers were aware of its worldwide influence, for when Paul finally arrived in Rome (the “Big Apple” of its day), he was asked about the movement of which he was a part:
“…this sect…is known to us that it is spoken against everywhere.” Acts 28:22 NASB
And it is no wonder, God Himself having paved the way for them, for even on the day of Pentecost when Peter first spoke about the resurrected Messiah there were Jews from all over the world present for the feast in Jerusalem to hear him (Acts 2). Of course, God would have to remain the final judge of when all the nations had heard enough and judgment should begin. He’s the only one who could be completely fair and impartial about it.
Someone may argue at this point that I am not dealing with everything that is written in Matthew 24 and 25 – that is, with all of Jesus’ answer to the disciples question. That’s right. I am only dealing with timing, or when these things would happen. In the next part of the book, we will deal with what would happen, the nature of the Second Coming. If we can’t accept the when, about which the Scriptures are straightforward, clear, and emphatic, how will we ever accept the what?
Let’s review: As to when these things would happen (the question of timing the disciples first asked),Jesus could not have been clearer. As they preached the gospel throughout the world there would be wars, famines, and earthquakes. As the movement of disciples grew, they would be subject to persecution and even betrayed within the ranks (Judas, in a matter of days, would foreshadow this dynamic). The destruction of the temple would mark the beginning of the most intense period of their tribulation. And if anyone should doubt that these dark times would qualify as “great tribulation” let him read the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who gives gory details of the horrors that came on Jerusalem itself. After that, the false leaders would appear everywhere in the Christian movement, tearing up what the apostles had worked so hard for…and then Messiah would come. We have confirmation in the New Testament that these false teachers did actually gain prominence (Jude, 1 John 2:18; 4:1). Though no one could know the day or hour, they could be sure that (excepting those who died as martyrs first by His choice) if they endured to the end, they would see it. No soldiers going into lifelong battle could have asked for clearer marching orders.
Now some have said that Jesus’ coming was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D. You have seen that this is not so, for Jesus said the temple’s destruction was only the sign of worsening tribulation before his coming, and therefore was preliminary to, and not a climax of, His coming. People who say this, however, are at least on the right track, honestly acknowledging that the destruction of the temple is a key piece of the timetable. Jesus said the subsequent tribulation would be so bad it would have to be cut short. By “cut short” do you think He meant a period of time longer than 1,940 years? This is just how many years have elapsed since 70 A.D. If that were the case, not even Methuselah (who attained to the age of 969) had he been an apostle, could have endured to the end!
The disciples rightly recognized the destruction of the temple as the sign of the end for Israel. Jesus explained to them exactly where it fit into the timetable of events. How can we today ignore so obvious a fact as its destruction? Hardly a week goes by that you don’t see a picture of the Muslim structure that dominates its former site and the shred of a wall (called “the wailing wall”) that humbly sits beneath it. All history testifies that Jesus’ prophecy about the temple was fulfilled. How can today’s “prophecy experts” ignore such realities and say that Jesus’ prophecies are meant instead for our age or beyond?
History will also tell us that there were wars, famines, and earthquakes that occurred, just as Jesus had said. We should probably not, however, regard these words as prophecy per se for these things have always occurred throughout human history with some periods of time being more intense with them than others. Jesus’ point, therefore, was that He didn’t want His disciples distracted from their mission when wars, famines, and earthquakes arose with greater intensity – the disciples must keep on going with His message of love. Just before His ascension into heaven, Jesus told them,
“It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority…” Acts 1:7 NASB
In other words, the disciples should not be concerned with which nation was rising against which nation, which would include not being concerned about which nation would be the one to destroy Israel. Paul said the same thing to the believers in Thessalonica:
Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 1 Thessalonians 5:1 NASB
Such curiosity would serve no useful purpose for God, and only distract the disciples from their mission of preaching the good news about Jesus. Note how many of those who preach a “future, physical” Second Coming do this very thing Jesus and Paul said not to do. For example, such “prophecy experts” will say “Iran is going to come against Israel in fulfillment of prophecy.” A quarter of a century ago, they uttered the same sentence except that it was the Soviet Union instead of Iran. God does not use His people to be geopolitical prognosticators and commentators. Rather, He uses His people to proclaim His name and demonstrate His righteous character.
History also tells us that, just as Jesus predicted, the apostles were hated and persecuted on account of His name. Most of the twelve died a martyr’s death. If you look up an account of the twelve, you will see that they left very little information about themselves. They devoted their all to making known their Master. Whoever succeeded at so difficult a mission, or at a greater personal price, as they did? What we don’t know about Jesus is our fault, not theirs.
The Master’s Timetable
Once again we state the obvious: Jesus said that not too long after the temple was destroyed, while tribulation was prevalent and false teachers abounding, He would come. He made no mention that He might come in some succeeding generation but went out of His way to assure them it would be in that generation. Jesus raises the hope that, if they would endure, they themselves would see it. Which do you think had more risk of failing: their endurance or His promise? Of course, their endurance. Since, however, they did endure (save Judas, and the ones He chose to give their lives in martyrdom including Peter and Paul), how much more did He come! We will really get mixed up if we start thinking we are the sure thing and God is the maybe. If He said (and He did) “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” (and His coming was the most essential of all the “things”) then we may rest assured that by the time that generation passed away all these things had taken place. And not only had they all occurred, but in the exact sequence He outlined. How can we say we believe Him and see it any other way?
As you read through the rest of the New Testament, you can see that the apostles follow their Master’s timetable exactly in what they say to people. For example, in his second letter to Timothy, when Paul is telling him of the last days, he says “difficult times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1 NASB). Now when a guy who’s encountered the level of tribulation that Paul has (Have there been many other guys who’ve encountered that much tribulation?) tells you that difficult times are coming, you really have to call it “great tribulation.” And isn’t that just what Jesus called it?
In this same passage, Paul speaks of the false teachers in these difficult times as being like “Jannes and Jambres” who “opposed Moses” (2 Timothy 3:8 NASB). This would bring to Timothy’s mind the magicians of Pharaoh who reproduced some of the signs and wonders of Moses and Aaron – a definite allusion to Jesus’ prophecy that the many false Christs and false prophets at the end would even in some cases perform great signs and wonders, seeming to imply Divine authority was with them.
This is only one example of how the apostles always speak and write according to the timetable Jesus gives. Though they may use different words and phrases, they always stick to the same ideas and timing.
We will not only see that the apostles teach the same timetable, but that they, because they are writing through the period from the Lord’s resurrection to His return, can confirm to us that certain portions of the Lord’s prophecy were fulfilled before their eyes. For example, they tell of the various forms of personal tribulation they endured (mostly in an indirect way, for they were wanting to call attention to the Lord and not to themselves) and even of the false teachers near the end. Therefore, we will see that the apostles not only accepted and taught the Master’s timetable, but also verify for us portions of its fulfillment.
The Consequences of Rejecting Jesus’ Timetable
If someone does not accept the timetable for the Second Coming Jesus gave, then elaborate schemes of dates and events have to be established and verses have to be quoted out of context and given new meaning they never originally held. For example, some have taken the verse “of that day or hour no one knows” out of context and presented it as if Jesus was saying no one could have any idea when the Second Coming would occur, when all He meant was that the exact day or moment could not be pinpointed. To say that no one could know when, is to contradict the clear and comprehensive answer Jesus gave His disciples in Matthew 24-25.
If you understand what the Second Coming was about, you realize that a pinpoint date was not necessary. I cannot give you a pinpoint date for when He came (though, of course, there is one) and I am not the least bit interested in determining it. The important thing is to know the sun has risen, not to be able to quote the exact moment it broke the horizon (though, of course, there was such a precise moment).
“Prophecy experts” also do mental gymnastics with the word “generation” saying that it means something other than its plain sense. For instance, they say it means “race” and therefore Jesus was saying the Jewish race would not pass away until all these things took place, which would render all that he said prior to this as utter nonsense. For if it could occur anytime the Jewish race was in existence, why did He give them all these signs to watch for? Why didn’t He just say, “You can’t really know when – it could be over 2,000 years from now”? But everything in His answer indicates that the events under consideration would take no longer than a lifetime. There is no “and to your seed after you” language like the Bible uses when God’s promises extend beyond a generation. In this context, to say the word “generation” means “race” would also make the statement itself say almost the exact opposite of itself. Think about it. “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” would then become to their ears, “This generation may very well pass away before all these things take place.” Ridiculous.
Other teachers, recognizing these absurdities, seize on the word “this” for reinterpretation. They say that there is a generation in which all these things would come to pass but Jesus was not promising it would be that of His listeners. Therefore, each generation should look for the signs because it might be the one generation in which Jesus would come. Apart from the violence this does to the obvious sense of Jesus’ words, the approach falls flat on its face because the disciples’ generation was the only one which did see all the signs fulfilled, for theirs is the only generation in which the temple to which Jesus pointed was destroyed. No other generation can see that sign fulfilled. The temple was standing as He spoke. It fell just as He said it would. All historians, religious and secular, confirm it happened in 70 A.D. How then can anyone stand up today and say, “We may very well be the generation of which Jesus spoke”?
I certainly mean no disrespect to those who believe along these lines. I simply say that there is no reason to take Jesus’ straightforward answer to His disciples’ straightforward questions in some non-straightforward way.
Other Things Jesus Said About the Timing
Having accepted and understood the master timetable Jesus gave, we now look elsewhere in the gospels to see any other references Jesus might have made to the timing of His Second Coming. It is reassuring, but not surprising, that what we find fits and harmonizes with what He said in Matthew 24-25 (Mark 13, Luke 21).
Matthew 16 records the meeting between Jesus and His disciples when He asks them about His identity. After Peter rightly identifies Him as the Messiah, Jesus tells them about the crucifixion and resurrection to come. He also tells them about the Second Coming. He uses the expression “The Son of Man will come” which is the same way He repeatedly spoke of His Second Coming in Matthew 24-25 (that is, Matthew 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44; 25:31). Here is what Jesus said in Matthew 16 and the other two gospels that record the incident:
“For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Matthew 16:27-28 NASB
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” And Jesus was saying to them, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” Mark 8:38-9:1 NASB
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:26-27 NASB
You can see that Jesus promises to come while some of the disciples were still living. In Mark’s version He even uses the words “this…generation” adding the adjectives “adulterous and sinful” that characterized it as a whole. As we know, some of the disciples present (most of them, in fact) died for the mission in the course of the mission. The sinfulness that characterized the age would manifest itself against these disciples in the same murderous persecution that crucified Jesus. We would not be surprised therefore if Jesus had to choke back some emotion when He came to the words “some standing here shall not taste death” knowing therefore that some of those present indeed would taste it on His behalf.
We see this distinction referred to particularly in John 21 where Peter hears Jesus foretell of his death as a martyr. Peter’s fellow fisherman and apostle John is standing nearby, so Peter asks if their fates would be similar, whereupon Jesus answers,
“If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” John 21:22 NASB
It was clearer still that some of them would be chosen to taste death and some to endure to the end, and that Jesus Himself would be overseeing who was assigned to which category. Either way, it would be an honor.
Also, going back to the Matthew 16 passage (also recorded in Mark 8-9 and Luke 9), we see that the questions the disciples asked at the beginning of Matthew 24-25 (Mark 13, Luke 21) – that is,
“Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Matthew 24:3 NASB
– were connected. Not only had the disciples been asking these questions in the context of the messianic age in which they lived, and in the knowledge of Jesus’ identity as Israel’s Messiah, but also in the specific knowledge (He had given them) that He would be coming before they all died. In fact, they had already known He would come in their lifetime by something He told them even earlier in the gospel of Matthew:
…truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes. Matthew 10:23 NASB
So, having already been informed that His coming would occur while they were still in the process of their lifelong mission, though they now also knew that some of them would die in that process, the questions which prompted the detailed answer of Matthew 24-25 were born of a general knowledge seeking a more particular knowledge. That is, the disciples knew they would see His coming before their generation passed away but were probably interested in a more precise schedule. When Jesus mentioned the destruction of the temple, emblem of the nation of Israel, it seemed the appropriate time to ask.
Note also from the Matthew 16, Mark 8-9, and Luke 9 passages that “coming,” “coming in His kingdom,” “coming in the glory of His Father,” and “kingdom of God coming” are all synonymous terms. “Coming One” was even one of the titles for Messiah. In Matthew 11, John the Baptist asked Jesus, “Are You the Coming One?” Jesus was to “come” in His kingdom. England’s kings have a coronation; America’s presidents have an inauguration; Israel’s Messiah “comes” in his kingdom.
This understanding ties together things that generations of erroneous Bible teaching have torn apart. Jesus – and even John the Baptist before Him – had been preaching all along that the kingdom of God was “at hand” (e.g. Matthew 3:2 and 4:17). Things had been governed by the Law and the Prophets but would, going forward, be governed by the kingdom of God (to which the Law and the Prophets testified). That is why, at the beginning of Matthew 24, the disciples asked about the end of the age, because that end was connected with the coming of the kingdom of God. The consummation of the then current age (including the destruction of Israel, both physical and spiritual, as God’s instrument of revelation) would mark the beginning of the new age. Therefore, in the Bible, whether the questions were about the end of the age or about the coming of the kingdom, it was always the same set of answers – because the end of the one age meant the beginning of the other.
This is why, as Jesus was approaching Jerusalem and His greatest confrontation with the authorities, some thought the kingdom of God was about to appear. Luke 19 tells that Jesus told a parable to correct that impression. Based on their messianic expectations, people were still visualizing any war involving Messiah as resulting in devastation of all opposition. The crucifixion, resurrection, and call to repentance would change this perception for those who believed Jesus. So in the parable (very similar to one in Matthew 24-25) Jesus points out that there will be a lapse of time in which their use of His grace would be evaluated. This lapse of time we now know to be the time between the resurrection (to occur within days of this interaction) and His coming in the kingdom (to occur much later in their lifetimes). We may rightly consider this the church age – the time in which the epistles of the New Testament were written, the time between Christ’s resurrection and His grand coming.
Our understanding that the coming of the kingdom is connected with the coming of the Lord and not the resurrection (or even Pentecost) is affirmed by something we notice in the parallel accounts of Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21. In all three gospel accounts, Jesus tells a parable of the fig tree, saying that just as its tender branches putting forth leaves is the sign that summer is near, even so the completion of all the preliminary signs He has mentioned is indication that He is near. These signs (temple destroyed, rise of false teachers, etc.), of course, would not have time to have occurred by the resurrection or the day of Pentecost.
By the way, where Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts say “He is near,” Luke’s account says “the kingdom of God is near,” indicating that the coming of the kingdom and the coming of the King are one and the same event. It might seem unnecessary to make so obvious a point except that some divide the two saying that Jesus indeed came in His kingdom in the 1st Century A.D. as we have said, but that He is also yet to come in the flesh in the Second Coming. However, you cannot divide the Lord’s coming into two any more than Solomon could divide that baby into two. Well, maybe he could have divided it but he would have ended up with zero babies and not two. The same dilemma occurs here for that would make the parallel accounts giving different and conflicting answers to the same question. Scripture cannot contradict itself! Therefore, the coming of the Son of Man was the coming in His kingdom, a single glorious event. He was telling them it would be fulfilled not in a few days (lest they confuse it with the resurrection) but would come before their generation passed away.
Speaking of the generation passing away, we recall how Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God belonging to the children (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18). This is a principle, forever true. But it also had particular meaning for those little faces Jesus of Nazareth encountered, because when their generation came of age and the old one was passing away, the kingdom would be coming. They would receive it just as the children of the disobedient Israelites under Moses were the generation that would inherit the promised land of which their fathers have proved unworthy. Looking ahead, the children of the children Jesus saw would have to grow up somewhere other than Judea (for He knew enemies would overrun it), but the kingdom of God could protect them wherever they went. In other words, that little generation He spoke to would be the first Jewish one for whom physical descent from Abraham and attachment to the land of Canaan was not to be prized. Something greater had come…and His name was Immanuel.
For this reason Jesus had said in John 4, “an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem shall you worship the Father,” The Law of Moses and the reign of David made Jerusalem the only proper place for Jewish worship, but with the coming of the kingdom of God and the reign of Messiah, Jerusalem would be fulfilled in people’s hearts. Being a Jew would not be a matter of the flesh, but rather a matter of the spirit (Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 6:16). The earthly temple of earthly Jerusalem was necessary for the fulfilling of the Law of Moses (animal sacrifices, etc.) but not for the kingdom of God. That’s why its destruction was a sign that the kingdom was close.
Summary of Jesus’ Statements
There is more than one approach we could take here in summarizing the data. The case is embarrassingly clear. We could pull together statements of Jesus from all four gospels but let’s just list five unequivocal statements about timing from the single gospel of Matthew:
“…for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.” Matthew 10:23 NASB
“Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Matthew 16:28 NASB
“But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” Matthew 24:13 NASB
“Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” Matthew 24:22 NASB
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Matthew 24:34 NASB
Was not His message to them about the timing of His coming more than clear? Is there any way to deny that He led His disciples to expect His return before their generation passed away? Can’t you almost hear the disciples from heaven crying out to us, “Why don’t you believe what He said?” Jesus left no room for doubt that the Second Coming would be in the lifetime of His contemporaries. He went out of His way to make His meaning clear on this point. He was not one for equivocating.
Now if we insist that Jesus has not yet come, we have a problem. A big one. He would be, not the Messiah of Israel, but a false prophet. For Israel’s prophets, by decree of God (Deuteronomy 18:22), had to be exactly right about events and their timing (see Jeremiah 28 and how a prophet named Hananiah who prophesied falsely about timing lost his life as a result). Jesus, however, is no false prophet. He’s the truest of the true! Compared to Him, there’s not an honest man among us. The elaborate schemes of interpretation that have been devised to explain why He has tarried are not necessary. He has not tarried! He has kept His word!
Since Jesus has been so clear about the timing of His Second Coming – that it would occur in that generation – we would expect His apostles to be in agreement with Him and with each other. Indeed they are, as we shall see in section by section of the rest of the New Testament.
End of Chapter Two
Chapter Three – What The Acts of the Apostles says
What Acts Says About the Timing
There is much less history in the New Testament than there is in the Old Testament. Other than the Gospels telling us about the life of Jesus, all we have is the book of Acts, which tells us about the work of the apostles that Jesus gave them to do. Therefore, this chapter will be a very short one. Nonetheless, it will be consistent with, and therefore confirm, all that we found about the timing of the Second Coming in the Gospels, and all that we will find about it in the Epistles that follow.
In Acts 2:17, Peter announces that Joel’s prophecy of “the last days” is being fulfilled. Peter preaches to the crowd that it’s time to repent before the coming of “the great and glorious day of the Lord.” If Peter and His contemporaries were in the last days, don’t you and I have to be in something else?
In Acts 13, Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk saying on behalf of God,
“’Behold, you scoffers, and marvel, and perish;
For I am accomplishing a work in your days,
A work which you will never believe, though someone should describe it to you.'” Acts 13:41 NASB
Notice that it doesn’t say God is beginning a work in their days that will take almost 2,000 years or more to accomplish. Rather, he says, it is being accomplished in their days. In this, Paul is absolutely consistent with Jesus about timing.
In Acts 20:29-30 NASB, late in Paul’s ministry, as he was speaking his parting words to the leaders of the church in Ephesus, he warns them of the coming rise of false leaders, whom he called “savage wolves…not sparing the flock.” He knew that as the time of Jesus’ return was approaching, the rise of falsehood among teachers and leaders was the inevitable and final phase.
There is a sense of urgency that permeates the book of Acts from one end to the other. The apostles were not lethargic. They had a mission to reach all their fellows Jews before the great judgment against ancient Israel commenced. Along the way, they would learn that Gentile could also taken into this “ark of salvation” that was being built for the deliverance of God’s true people from the great flood of judgment that was about to be released on the whole world.
The apostles were not focused on buildings or institutions – the very things that have occupied so many Christian leaders since that age, down to this very day. Rather, the apostles were zealous to reach every person they could – building up in that person the knowledge necessary to grasp and cling to the salvation God was offering. Contrast the pace of Acts with the pace of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. Moses could afford to be slow and deliberate; there was even a forty-year delay when the people rebelled. The apostles had no such option. They had to get their message out, and they knew just how long they had – their lifetimes…and no more.
End of Chapter Three
Chapter Four – What the Epistles Say
What Paul Says About Timing (Romans through Philemon)
In Romans, written relatively late in his ministry, Paul says,
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. The night is almost gone, and the day is near… Romans 13:11-12 NASB
In 1 Corinthians 2:6 NASB Paul says “the rulers of this age…are passing away” and in 4:5 to wait “until the Lord comes.” This is strange language if the timing was elastic enough to include the 21st Century and beyond as possible dates. In 10:11 Paul refers to he and his contemporaries as the generation “upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” How then can we say that the ends of the ages are yet future? In 15:51 he says “we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” “Sleep” in this context, of course, is a euphemism for death. Therefore, he is simply paraphrasing Jesus: “We will not all sleep” = “some shall not taste death” = “this generation will not pass away until…” If Jesus did not come, then they did all sleep and Paul’s words would have been a lie, a false prophecy. It makes far more sense for us to believe that Paul was right about the timing of Christ’s Second Coming than to believe he was wrong, doesn’t it?
In Philippians 1:6 Paul tells the believers of that city that God will perfect the work He began in them “until the day of Christ Jesus.” If the day of Christ Jesus has not yet come then Paul’s words to this flock are empty. If the day of Christ Jesus has not yet come then the perfecting or maturing process was interrupted, for we have no reports of any Philippians still walking the earth today being perfected according to Paul’s promises. On the contrary, Paul seemed to believe that his assurance was meant for that generation.
1 Thessalonians repeatedly mentions the coming of the Lord – a big mistake if its approach was not something he wanted them to seriously consider. Paul also resolves a concern that had developed about the Thessalonians who “tasted death” before Christ’s coming. Paul assured the living Thessalonians that they who were “alive and remain until the coming of the Lord” wouldn’t precede those who had “fallen asleep.” Paul then urges the living to a life of alertness so they won’t miss the day. Apparently, some of them got overly alert because he had to write 2 Thessalonians very soon thereafter, correcting their impression that the day of the Lord had already come (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). Paul takes pains to remind them of what he taught them while present: that false Christs and false prophets, even with signs and wonders, must arise before the end. Paul uses the terms “man of lawlessness,” “son of destruction,” signs and false wonders,” and “the deception of wickedness,” but the conformity to Jesus’ Matthew 24-25 timetable is unmistakable.
By the way, if, as those who believe in a “future, physical” coming of Jesus say, Jesus’ coming is something that could not be missed, why in the world did Paul answer the Thessalonians the way he did? The fact that the Thessalonians thought the day of the Lord had already come, and that Paul explained that it had not yet happened in terms of the signs Jesus gave, indicates that none of them considered the day of the Lord to be something physical and visible. For if they were looking for Jesus to appear physically from the skies, then they never would have thought the day of the Lord had come! And if Paul was looking for Jesus to appear physically from the skies he would have corrected them by saying that since that hadn’t happened, the day of the Lord couldn’t have come. But we will say more along this line when we get to the next part of the book about the nature of the coming. Here we are still focused on timing.
Paul again makes reference to “deceitful spirits” and “doctrines of demons” as being signs of the later times in 1 Timothy 4:1. By the time he pens 2 Timothy, Paul realizes that he will be one of the ones who will “taste death” before the Lord’s coming. History tells us he was beheaded in Rome. 2 Timothy reads like a last will and testament of all that was precious to Paul. He warns extensively of the false teachers with their signs and wonders who would abound in the last days, reminding Timothy that godly living and adherence to the Scriptures would keep him safe until the kingdom came. Earlier in the letter Paul made reference to two men who were saying the resurrection (another way people referred to the Second Coming, since these events had been linked by the prophets) had already taken place. Paul condemns the two teachers because their teaching was not in line with the time outline Jesus had given. In Matthew 24 Jesus had said of the time just before His coming “at that time many will fall away” (Matthew 24:10) and “most people’s love will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). In 2 Thessalonians, Paul said “the apostasy” must come before His coming. And here in 2 Timothy 3:1, Paul says “in the last days difficult times will come” and describes the ways in which people will be “holding to a form of godliness although they have denied its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). All these phrases speak of the same penultimate phase of the Lord’s timetable for His coming. There is no inconsistency because Paul believed and taught what Jesus had taught. Indeed we are seeing unfailing consistency in how the apostles understood, taught, and lived according to the timetable Jesus laid down.
What Hebrews Says About the Timing
This letter begins, “God…in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” In Hebrews 9:26, these last days are referred to as “the consummation of the ages.” Throughout the letter, reference is made to the approaching “end,” “the day” that is coming. The immediacy of the hope is spelled out in chapter 10 where Habakkuk’s prophecy of that time is quoted:
For yet in a very little while,
He who is coming will come,
and will not delay. Hebrews 10:37 NASB
Whatever other impressions the original recipients of this letter may have received, they knew that its author was persuaded that the Lord was on the verge of coming.
How can we expect people to take seriously this letter’s claim of the superiority of Jesus if we do not take seriously its claim that it was written in the last days and that Jesus would come in “a very little while”?
What James Says About the Timing
Let’s just quote James:
Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! James 5:3 NASB
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. James 5:7 NASB
You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. James 5:8 NASB
Just like the writer of Hebrews, James is committing himself unequivocally to the position that the Lord’s coming is soon – not centuries away. Today, most people who say the Lord is coming soon at least hedge their bets. They leave themselves an out in case “the Lord chooses to tarry” as they say. But you are seeing that the apostles left themselves not one inch to maneuver. The coming of the Lord was at hand and that was that. Wouldn’t the apostles know more about the Lord’s coming than any of us?
What Peter Says About Timing (1 and 2 Peter)
As do the rest of the apostles, Peter considers he and his readers as living “in these last times” (1 Peter 1:20) and that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). He says that Jesus is “ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5) and that “it is time for judgment to begin” (1 Peter 4:17). He then coaches the church leaders to be ready for the appearing of the Chief Leader (1 Peter 5:4) giving no instruction whatsoever about how to pass on church government just in case Jesus should change His mind and decide to come in some subsequent generation. The church would need no human government because the Lord Himself was about to take charge of His flock.
2 Peter is for Peter what 2 Timothy was for Paul – a farewell letter. We know from John 21 that Peter was to die before the Lord’s coming. In the first part of 2 Peter he says the Lord has now made it clear to him that his fateful time had come. History tells us that Peter was crucified, head downward, in Rome. No wonder there was to be such a rise of false teachers near the end – so many of the good ones were dying! And what do Peter’s parting words concern? The same things Paul’s parting words concerned. The same thing that concerned all the true apostles – protecting the flock from the flood of false teachers and false messiahs that were arising on the eve of the Lord’s coming.
Any movement, especially as it encounters success and gathers momentum, will attract those whose motives are not as pure as its founder and earliest followers. The movement Jesus started was no different in this regard. Peter explains that false teachers will introduce their false teaching, some going so far as denying the Lord Himself. Peter says such false teachers will be immoral and sensual and will mislead many who are not seeking purity of life. Peter concludes his letter by exhorting his readers to keep looking for the day of the Lord, including new heavens and a new earth (we’ll get to this in the next part of the book on the nature of the Second Coming). Peter says that his fellow disciples should be “looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). This was no time to set people up for a false hope; no time to encourage people to pin their hopes completely on a coming event that might be delayed for centuries. Obviously, it never occurred to Peter that the Lord might not come in the time frame He gave. And why should it? Peter knew in the most personal and unforgettable way that the Lord would not make a mistake in His prophesying, even when you thought He might (“…before a rooster crows, you shall deny Me…”). Therefore, Peter told people to pin their hopes completely on assurance of the Lord coming when He promised (1 Peter 1:13). To maintain that the Lord did not come in that time frame is to accuse Peter of false teaching.
What John Said About the Timing (1 and 2 and 3 John)
Most Bible scholars and historians agree that the apostle John lived long and wrote late in life. Both Peter and Paul are deemed to have died in the 60’s A.D. and therefore before the destruction of the temple (70 A.D.) and the onset of the great tribulation. John, who also penned the book of Revelation, is probably writing his letters during that great tribulation. Of course, this is not a complete surprise given what the Lord said to Peter in John 21 about John when the three of them were together (that Peter would die before the Lord came but that John might make it to the end). It also fits with what John says in 1 John:
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. 1 John 2:18 NASB
The last sign to appear before “the Son of Man comes on the clouds” (Matthew 24, 26; Mark 13, 14) has now been manifested – that is, the rise of lawlessness and the proliferation of false teachers. John uses the term antichrist(s). Other terms we have heard are “false Christs,” “false prophets,” “false teachers,” “man of lawlessness,” and “son of destruction.” There are other synonyms as well.
How strong an influence these false leaders came to have is seen when this great, and now aged, apostle said, “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say” (3 John 9). Thus we have a leader dominating a church and refusing the words of a true apostle. This you’ll note is a clear sign from the Lord’s timetable that His coming is near. (I should ask you parenthetically if you have noticed that prophecy experts and churches today who look for the coming of the Lord in the future, that is not within the Lord’s timetable, also “do not accept what” the apostles say?)
In 1 John 4:3, John calls antichrist a false spirit. This fits with what Paul said about “deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). Just as the Holy Spirit had gotten into the true apostles, this was the time when the devil’s spirit got into the false apostles. Just as Jesus was betrayed at the Last Supper when Satan entered the erring Judas Iscariot, even so His larger body was being betrayed all over the world as Satan’s evil spirits were entering into erring teachers. But just as the Lord’s resurrection saved that day, so the Lord’s return would save this one. (It is not hard to conclude that the Lord placed an ultimate traitor within His chosen twelve to foreshadow and prepare His followers for the betrayals they themselves would face.)
If the apostles saw themselves living in the end times before the Second Coming of Christ (and you have seen that they did), then John saw himself writing in the end of the end times. This point of view will be amplified when we get to the book of Revelation in a few moments.
What Jude Says About the Timing
The whole point of Jude’s one-chapter letter is to bear witness that the false teachers they had been hearing about for years were now fully present. In essence, Jude says that all Peter prophesied in 2 Peter has come to pass. In other words, the false teachers Peter speaks of in future tense, Jude speaks of in present tense. Though Jude doesn’t mention Peter by name, he does use language which no one who had read both letters would fail to notice. Furthermore,Jude directly quotes “the apostles” using a phrase straight out of 2 Peter 3 indicating that Peter was not the only apostle who predicted what Jude was seeing. Of course, all the apostles received their information from Jesus so we should never be surprised when we find them saying the same thing! Jude urges his readers to remain faithful through this final, most difficult period before the Lord’s return. (Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 24:21 – “For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will.”)
Need I say it? Jude does not say to his readers that the Lord could come in any generation. There is only one generation and church that had that honor.
What Revelation Says About the Timing
It is most fitting that the book of Revelation be the last in the New Testament, for at this point we see that all steps leading to the Second Coming have been taken except the very coming itself. The branch of the fig tree has become tender, and put forth its leaves; the disciples now know that summer is near (Matthew 24:32). Revelation, this extended apocalyptic description of the coming of the Lord that is just about to occur, pierces the air like the trumpet of God announcing the King’s imminent entrance. No earthly king ever had a more glorious fanfare than the book of Revelation.
This trumpet was blown by the apostle John. We have already looked at what he said about the timing issue in his letters. Revelation deserves its own section in this focus on timing, although you will see that John’s thoughts about timing remain the same as what we saw in his letters. We have already seen his own testimony that he was alive and well in “the last hour” before the Lord’s return. We know also that Paul and Peter were called upon to bow out gracefully before the final curtain came down. John’s “alive and well” status was in spite of the great tribulation going on around him. He wrote the book of Revelation from the island of Patmos where he had been imprisoned. This book was a letter commissioned by Jesus, who had sent the contents through His angel to be written down by John. It was one letter to be circulated among seven particular cities of what we today call Asia Minor. (The island of Patmos was situated just off the coast of this region.)
Of all the passages in the Bible that deal with the Second Coming, Revelation is unquestionably the longest and most extensive. And it is, of course, the only book in the Bible for which the Second Coming in the central subject. Most people would agree that there are parts of the this book that are hard to understand. They also are likely to agree that the salutation and closing of the letter are among the easier parts to understand of a hard-to-understand book. Fortunately, it is these very parts that speak most directly about the timing of the Second Coming. In the beginning of this letter “to the churches” of what we today call Asia Minor, John says he is writing on behalf of Jesus Himself about
…the things which must soon take place… Revelation 1:1 NASB
John also says also that the recipients of this letter should heed the things written in it
…for the time is near. Revelation 1:3 NASB
At the close of the letter, after the full parade of awesome, shocking, and glorious images has passed, John writes again that they refer to
…things which must soon take place. Revelation 22:6 NASB
Then he quotes Jesus Himself as saying,
And behold, I am coming quickly. Revelation 22:7 NASB
John goes on to write,
Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Revelation 22:10 NASB
Then he quotes Jesus again as saying,
Behold, I am coming quickly… Revelation 22:12 NASB
The letter then closes with Jesus saying a third time,
Yes, I am coming quickly. Revelation 22:20 NASB
How can we ignore all this emphasis on the imminence of the timing? Especially after it is so consistent with all that has come before it in the New Testament? It is not only obvious that the time of the Lord’s coming was very near, but equally obvious that Jesus expected to be doubted on precisely that point. And so the point is hammered home incessantly until the alert-but-now-weary reader begs for relief, “Okay, okay – I get it!”
The passing of centuries, however, and our refusal to believe what Jesus and His apostles were so utterly clear about, has proven that there was not a single repetition of the idea that was not necessary. We can thus appreciate the confirmation. Like a loving parent, God is willing to repeat Himself for the umpteenth time because sometimes it’s only then that a child really begins to listen.
Conclusion About the Timing of the Second Coming
There is no getting around the fact that those who wrote the documents we call the New Testament considered themselves as living in the last days, to soon be climaxed by the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if you have read the New Testament very much you are probably aware that what has been said in this part of the book about timing is not all that could have been said in support of this point. There’s hardly a page of the New Testament that does not pulsate with the expectation of the coming of the Lord. Even when it is not explicitly stated, it is the driving force of urgency, the common understanding between the writer and recipient of every letter, and the underlying reason why, even though they had a lifetime to do their work, there was not a moment to spare.
It is also important to notice what the New Testament does not say. There are no contingency instructions for what people should do if the Lord didn’t come in that generation. No instructions about the exact method of church government and how it was to be passed from generation to generation. The apostles made no plans to be succeeded by anyone – except the Lord Himself. There is not a single instance where the apostles give themselves a way to save face by saying that though the Lord’s coming would probably come soon it could possibly be delayed for nineteen centuries or more. Note that if some group today were to take the type of strong position that the apostles took, leaving themselves no out, they would be regarded as irresponsible and shunned by evangelicals as being unscriptural.
By the way, we should also note and appreciate that Jesus and the apostles work out of a sense of general time periods and not specific calendar dates. This is much in keeping with the nature of God who, for example, when he gives us time to repent, does not assign a date and time when the period of grace expires but rather watches us from heaven and decides in His own impartial goodness when we’ve had enough time. As for the end-time prophetic interpretations of man, there is something in all these stiff and overly literal schemes of date-setting and year-counting that some people have produced to state when the “future, physical” Second Coming would be that sounds more like a fortune-teller than the God of justice whose primary interest is that people live right – not how to decode some secret number or date. The apostles were definitely not saying that Jesus would return by fixed day, month, and year. Rather, they just kept saying, “He is coming” and as the time drew closer they kept saying, “He is coming soon.”
Which leads us to note that nowhere in the New Testament does it say that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ has occurred. Therefore, it would be wrong for anyone to claim that it does say such a thing. What it does say – repeatedly and emphatically – is that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was to occur in that generation. Therefore, it is up to us who believe the New Testament, and who live after that generation, to say the Second Coming of Jesus Christ has occurred. That is, the New Testament does not explicitly say that the Second Coming is accomplished fact, but given what the New Testament does explicitly say about the Second Coming, we have to believe it is accomplished fact if we are to believe the New Testament.
Just as the Old Testament does not say that Jesus is the Messiah (because it was written before He was born), but is the very tool God gave to prove that He is the Messiah, even so the New Testament does not say that Jesus has come again (because it was written before He came again), but is the very tool God gave to prove that He has come again. If we do not believe the promises, then Jesus stills chides us, “O foolish and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25)
The Old Testament proves that Jesus is the Messiah in primarily one way: the promises about Messiah are seen fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament, however, proves that Jesus has come again in primarily two ways. First, since it says He is coming soon and its witnesses are unimpeachable, and since all the visible signs Jesus predicted are confirmed as having occurred, then we may assure ourselves that sometime in the 1st Century A.D. after the year 70 when Jerusalem’s temple was destroyed, that Jesus indeed came. By the multitude of consistent statements they made, it had to have occurred sometime in the latter part of the 1st Century A.D. Since that time period has long since passed we know that Jesus has already come again. Only if we are willing to say Jesus and His apostles were wrong about the timing, can we hold to the notion that the Second Coming is yet future. I hope you are as unwilling as I am to say that Jesus and the apostles were wrong about anything they taught.
The second way that the New Testament proves Jesus has already come again, as if we needed another one, is that its description of the Second Coming can be shown to have been fulfilled. It is to that task we now turn. Or to put it another way, having paid closer attention to when Jesus and His apostles said the Second Coming would occur, let us now pay closer attention to what they said would occur.
End of Chapter Four
End of Part Two