The Apostles Predicted a First-Century Return of Christ
Revised: 2012 Jun 10
Jesus predicted a first-century return several times (Matt. 10:23; 16:27-28; 24:33-34; Luke 21:22, 28, 31; Rev. 1:3; 22:10, ESV throughout unless otherwise noted). However, most theologians, presupposing a future advent, feel compelled to interpret the text in ways that deny its natural meaning. Who is right? On what basis should we decide whether to accept the literal meaning of Christ’s words or the interpretations of theologians? The answer is simple. We need to search the New Testament to determine how Christ’s apostles understood his predictions. Paul described the apostles as “holy” and the “foundation” of the Church (Eph. 3:10; 2:19b-20). So, their interpretation must be deemed the only valid one. Given their special status in the eyes of God, who would dare contradict them? Actually, almost everyone does.
The apostles’ understanding
All the New Testament authors, including the apostles, declared they were living in the “last days” — that “evil age” (Gal. 1:4) — and would soon be rescued from the wrath about to come upon their persecutors (the Romans and Jews). They all believed and were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write in Scripture that Christ’s predictions would be fulfilled during their lifetime:
1Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (Heb. 1:1-2)
…he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Heb. 9:26b)
He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times… (1 Pet. 1:20)
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Cor. 10:11)
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. (Jas. 5:1); You have laid up treasure in the last days. (v. 3b)
First-century Christians expected the returning Christ to provide relief from persecution and deliverance from the wrath about to come upon their world (the Roman Civil War and disastrous Jewish Revolt):
10Because 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. 11I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. (Rev. 3:10-11, NASB)
…wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess. 1:10, NASB)
3…the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age… (Gal. 1:3b-4, NASB)
The Greek for “rescue” in Gal. 1:4 is ἐξαιρέω (exaireo), translated “tear it out” in Matt. 5:29.
The rescue would take place on the day of Christ’s return:
6…God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed… (2 Thess. 1:6-10)
First-century Christians could “see the Day drawing near”:
24And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24-25)
This could hardly refer to an event to take place 2,000 years into the future.
The apostles knew the end was near:
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (1 John 2:18)
11…it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. (Rom. 13:11-12, NASB)
Do not seek a wife. (1 Cor. 7:27b); 29This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (vv. 29-31)
The end of all things is near… (1 Pet. 4:7, NASB)
Jesus said some of his contemporaries would still be alive at his coming (Matt. 16:28). We find Paul preaching the same thing:
15For 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. 16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:15-17)
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed (1 Cor. 15:51b)
Regarding the signs leading up to his return, Jesus said, “…when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door” (Matt. 24:33, NASB). Later in the first century, James wrote, “8…the coming of the Lord is near. 9…the Judge is standing right at the door” (Jas. 5:8b, 9b, NASB).
The apostles Paul, Peter, James, and John all wrote that the day of His return is near. (See, for example, Romans 13:12; 1 Peter 4:7; James 5:7-9; 1 John 2:18.)
—John MacArthur, Because the Time Is Near (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 22.
It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime…they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so.
—C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1973), 98.
Clearly, the apostles did predict a first-century return of Christ seeing no need to interpret Christ’s predictions to mean anything other than their literal meaning.
Objection: Granted, the apostles thought Jesus would return within their lifetime, but evidently, they were mistaken. After all, they were only human.
Answer: The apostles knew Christ’s return would occur within their lifetime: “we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18); and their teaching cannot be wrong. Their inspired predictions, recorded in Scripture, came from the Father and Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit:
…the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. (John 14:24b)
…all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15b)
…the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)
Whatever the apostles said about “the things that are to come” must be the truth.
The Father taught Jesus, Jesus taught his apostles, and the apostles recorded his teachings in Scripture. Simple sequential logic dictates those who claim the apostles were wrong may as well call God and Jesus Christ incompetent, and Scripture an uninspired work of fiction.
Again and again we discover the apostles’ gospel cannot be wrong:
…our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thess. 1:5)
8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal. 1:8-9, NIV); For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (v. 12)
Therefore, the return of Christ and all related events must have occurred in the first century. Those taking any other position dare to presume they understand the timing of these events better than the divinely inspired apostles of Jesus Christ and fail to consider the following:
- The apostles were preaching exactly what they had been taught by Jesus;
- They were promised divine revelation regarding “the things that are to come”;
- They recorded Christ’s predictions and their revelations in divinely inspired Holy Scripture.
Any suggestion the apostles were mistaken implies one or more of the following:
- The Holy Spirit failed to tell the apostles “the things that are to come,” or;
- The apostles misunderstood the Holy Spirit’s inspiration;
- The New Testament contains serious errors;
- Jesus was misleading the apostles, or;
- Jesus was mistaken too, in which case, God the Father was mistaken because he was telling Jesus what to say (John 3:34; 12:49; 14:10, 24; 17:8).
If the apostles were mistaken, Jewish people have no option but to reject their gospel. Under the Old Covenant, anyone making false predictions in the name of God was to be executed:
20…the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— 22when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. (Deut. 18:20-22)
Why would Jesus warn against false prophets (Matt. 24:11), and then, choose apostles who turned out to be false prophets themselves?
The apostles were simply repeating what they had been taught by Jesus. So, if their predictions did not come to pass, we arrive at a most bizarre conclusion: Christ’s crucifixion and the martyrdoms of his apostles were actually justified.
Jeremiah reaffirmed the primary criterion by which a prophet must be validated:
Only when his predictions come true can we know that he is really from the Lord. (Jer. 28:9b, NLT)
Jeremiah was referring to Hananiah who was killed by God for making a time-restricted prediction that failed (Jer. 28:1-17).
Ezekiel too, condemned false prophets:
Thus says the Lord GOD, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! (Ezek. 13:3)
Zechariah strongly condemned false prophets:
…his own father and mother will tell him, ‘You must die, for you have prophesied lies in the name of the Lord.’ And as he prophesies, his own father and mother will stab him. (Zech. 13:3b, NLT)
God ensures predictions made by his prophets do not fail:
Samuel grew and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fail. (1 Sam. 3:19, NASB); Behold, there is a man of God in this city [Samuel], and he is a man who is held in honor; all that he says comes true. (ch. 9:6)
24This is what the Lord says…“I am the Lord… 25I expose the false prophets as liars…I cause the wise to give bad advice, thus proving them to be fools. 26But I carry out the predictions of my prophets!” (Isa. 44:24-26, NLT)
The “household of God” was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19b-20; see also Rev. 21:14). The popular delusion presents a Church built upon a foundation of classic false prophets. Those claiming the apostles were mistaken attack the very foundation of the Church, deny the work of the Holy Spirit, and according to Jesus and Paul, could be in danger of eternal condemnation (Mark 3:28-29; Gal. 1:8-9, 12). If Christ’s “holy apostles” (Eph. 3:5), the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture all failed so abysmally in the first century, why would any sane person trust these sources regarding a future fulfillment — or salvation?
There is only one acceptable conclusion: the apostles were right. Otherwise, they were false prophets to be counted among the “liars” and “fools” deserving execution. If they were wrong, we Christians are wasting our time studying their unreliable predictions in the supposed “inerrant” or “infallible” Word of God.
All Scripture referring to end-time events must relate to the persecution of Christians under Nero, Roman Civil War and Jewish Revolt against Rome (64-70 C.E) which culminated in the destruction of the Temple and the end of animal sacrifices. The promised return of Christ, Resurrection, Rapture and Judgment must have occurred during that period. The interpretation of every difficult prophetic passage must be consistent with this premise. Please read Timeline: The Great Tribulation.
Objection: The apostles did not teach that Christ’s return was definitely going to occur within their lifetime; they simply taught that it was imminent, meaning it could happen at any time, but not necessarily soon. The return of Christ is always imminent; it has been continually imminent since the first century. Dr. Tim LaHaye, author of the Left Behind series, says, “the rapture is imminent” (Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times? [Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1999], 116), but also that the Lord could tarry another “thousand years” (Ibid., xi). Virtually all Bible commentators essentially concur with Dr. LaHaye’s use of imminent.
Answer: Yes, virtually all Bible commentators subtly distort the dictionary definition of imminent. An event cannot be “continually imminent.” The correct definition does not allow for this:
imminent: About to occur; impending (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.)
Something “about to occur” is an event that will take place very soon. There is no room for 2,000 years. Nothing in the definition suggests uncertainty, i.e., that the event could happen soon.
Example: If you were to wake up in the middle of the night to find your house on fire, it could be said you were in imminent danger. If you failed to get out, you would soon be dead. However, when there is no fire, which is normally the case, it is true that your house could catch fire at some point, but does that mean you are in perpetual imminent danger? Of course not. Do you lie in bed every night thinking you are in imminent danger? Not likely. Surely, no one would suggest people are in imminent danger simply because the building they occupy could catch fire someday. However, that is exactly how modern theologians twist the definition of imminent. They know the Bible predicts an imminent Second Coming. But, since they have presupposed it never occurred, they must invent a new meaning for imminent that the word simply doesn’t have. This sham would be unnecessary if they would give up their unbiblical futurist doctrine and begin to believe God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Christ’s “holy apostles” and the Bible regarding predictions of a first-century return of Christ. Outside the field of eschatology, we have never noticed anyone using imminent in the manner LaHaye and countless other commentators employ it.
Strangely, it appears these authors actually do understand the correct definition. They will often use imminent correctly in other places throughout their writings. It’s only when they come to the return of Christ and related eschatological events that they stealthily redefine the word to harmonize with their extended-delay presupposition. If they were honest, they would not use imminent. But what might they use instead? There is no word we know of that refers to something that “could happen at any time, but not necessarily soon.” So, they settle for imminent. The problem is imminent contains not the slightest hint of equivocation. It means something is most definitely about to occur very soon. It is true the apostles taught that Christ’s return was imminent; but using the correct definition, we must conclude his return was about to take place in the first century.
Objection: Your claim the return of Christ took place in the past is absurd! Obviously, it has not yet occurred.
Answer: No, what should be obvious is Christians have seriously misunderstood the nature of Christ’s return.
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