Continuing our series on four-fold prophecy, we now turn out attention to the Epistles, or letters, in the New Testament.
When Christ ascended into heaven, he assigned a work to the apostles that would pave the way for his return. They were instructed to assemble and wait in Jerusalem until they received power from the Holy Spirit. And then, beginning at Jerusalem, they were to expand and enlarge gospel evangelism until it encompassed the whole world (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:4-8). The end of the age would follow upon the completion of their mission:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24:14).
Jesus stated two things in Matthew 24:14 that would be done in “that generation.”
First, the gospel of the kingdom would be preached “into all the world for a witness.” Paul, in two places, indicated that this was, in fact, completed (Romans 10:18; Colossians 1:6, 23).
Second, the end of the world or age would come in that generation. Peter wrote around A.D. 60 that the end was at hand (1 Peter 4:7), and John, who wrote around the same time, affirmed that they were living in the “last hour” (1 John 2:18).
Preaching Christ to the known world resulted in churches being established in cities and nations everywhere. These churches came under apostolic care and guidance; many received gifts of the Spirit and exhortation and encouragement in the form of letters and visits from the apostles. Since their perfection or complete redemption rested on the return of the Lord, it is not surprising to find the “coming of Christ” a topic of discussion in practically every New Testament Epistle. The New Testament saints were taught to watch and wait for the Lord to come. It would be surprising to find them waiting for a coming that was different from that of the Old Testament and the Gospels.
Coming in Their Lifetime
It is undeniable that the New Testament saints looked for the coming of Christ in their lifetime. This is usually lightly brushed aside as a misconception of the saints, owing to over-enthusiasm or insufficient instruction from the apostles and prophets.
However, a closer examination of scripture texts on the second coming will show that their anticipation is not tied to over-exuberance or a dearth of insight. They looked for the second coming at that time because they were taught that the time was near. If they were mistaken or deceived, the apostles and prophets were false teachers. All through the ages, scholars and interpreters have been cognizant of this inescapable fact, and not a few times have they hesitantly concluded that the apostolic writers were in error on this point. But this seems unlikely; it amounts to a denial of Scripture’s inspiration at a key point.
The apostles and prophets did not speak or write from their own insight alone. They were promised – and given – the Holy Spirit as a reliable guide into all truth. What they taught was inspired of God, reliable and trustworthy as truth, standing above human theory or speculation. If they taught the saints to look for the coming of Christ in their lifetime (and they did), we can rest assured that it was a truthful seeking, coming to pass exactly as God said it would.
God cannot – and does not – lie. The New Testament writers may not have had a clear or proper concept of every facet of Christianity, but one thing is certain – inspiration never allowed them to mischaracterize such a key component to the hope and fulfillment of the Gospel. To deny this, charging error to apostolic writing in such a key matter, is to deny the authenticity of the Bible’s core witness.
If inspiration taught that Christ was coming in “that generation,” and we say he hasn’t come yet (nearly 2,000 years later), someone is wrong. To blame the apostles or the other New Testament writers is contrary to the promise and purpose of the Holy Spirit, undermining faith in the reliability of the Bible. It seems more likely that the error rests in our own interpretation, does it not?
The Time at Hand
The second coming of Christ was a part of the message of James, addressed to Jewish followers of Jesus who were suffering from oppression and cruelty. In chapter five of his epistle, James presents the twofold effect of the Lord’s coming: to the wicked, unbelieving religious establishment, described as “the rich” (James 5:1-6), it is a coming of doom, but to the patient, waiting believer, it is a coming of deliverance. The same event would bring weeping and howling to the oppressors, but joy and happiness to the righteous. The reason for the Lord’s delay is given in James 5:7:
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it, until it receives the early and latter rain.
God was waiting for Israel’s repentance and turning to Christ before he brought the Old Covenant age to a close. The gospel had to be preached to the entire known world, then the end would come (Matthew 24:14). This is the period of time referred to by Peter as the longsuffering of God (2 Peter 3:9, 15). It is the calling and sealing of the remnant (Romans 9:27-28; Revelation 7:1-4, see also Hebrews 6:1-12).
But how soon was the Lord coming? Did James encourage these persecuted Christians just on the basis of the Lord’s eventual arrival, or on the basis that the Lord was coming soon? James 5:8 seems to indicate the latter:
You also be patient; establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
“At hand” is an expression of time, denoting the nearness of an event. John the Baptist used the same word to declare the nearness of the kingdom of God (Matthew 3:2). John used the same expression to show the nearness of those things predicted in Revelation (Revelation 1:3; 22:10).
In all three passages, time is an important factor. John the Baptist’s message concerning the kingdom of God had its impact from the fact that it was “at hand.” The excitement and interest of the people was stirred, not by the mere fact that the kingdom was coming, but in the realization that it was at hand, that the time had at last arrived. Likewise, James’ message involving the second coming of Christ found its strength in the nearness of the time.
The biblical exhortations found their strength in the fact that the time was “at hand.” If “at hand” signified nothing, and could just as easily mean 2,000+ years later, then John the Baptist, Christ, and James were deceivers. The same is true of John’s Revelation message. If “at hand” meant nothing with regard to the timeframe involved, how could that message be of any consolation to the struggling churches to whom it was addressed? When a time statement in a prophecy or text has to be ignored, passed over, or explained away, we probably are not standing on solid ground.
Some offer 2 Peter 3:8 as proof that time means nothing to God. But when Peter said that, “…with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” he was not proving that the Lord has no regard or consideration for time as such. The lesson is that the passing of time does not weaken the promises of God, or lessen the chance of their fulfillment. With respect to time, one day means one day with God, as seen in the Sabbath laws. God uses time in the advancement of his purposes; God has involved a time element in numerous prophecies. God does not involve time that has one meaning to humanity, but an altogether different meaning to himself. God knew what effect and understanding the expression “at hand” would have in human understanding, and used it accordingly. Otherwise one must charge the Lord with deliberate deception or failure to communicate.
From ‘Not at Hand’ to ‘At Hand’
We can get a better feel for the meaning of “at hand” by looking at other places it is used in the New Testament. In 2 Thessalonians 2:2 Paul said the coming of the Lord was not at hand, but James said the coming of the Lord was at hand (James 5:8) Paul said it was not, and James said it was. If “at hand” is an elastic term with no concrete reference to the time involved, it seems unlikely that the span of time between these two letters would account for the difference between “at hand” and “not at hand.” When Paul wrote the second Thessalonian letter, the time of Christ’s coming was not at hand. When James wrote his Epistle, the time was at hand. The Epistle of James is dated from eight to ten years later than the second Thessalonian letter, which furnishes us with some idea of the nearness of time by the expression “at hand.”
Paul’s statement that the day of Christ was not at hand is sometimes appealed to for proof that Christ was not coming in that generation. But this assumes more than the text will support. Paul’s object in this second epistle was to correct some false ideas the Thessalonians had about the second coming, namely that the day of the Lord was “at hand” (or present), and had already set in. Paul did not mean that Christ was not coming in that generation, for the language of the text favors no other view. It was not Paul’s object to deny what he had affirmed in his first letter (that Christ was coming in their lifetime, 1 Thessalonians 5:4), but to stem the tide of excitement and consternation owing to the mistaken belief that the day of the Lord was already upon them,
Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him, we ask you not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).
It was a coming marked for that generation, “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief” (1 Thessalonians 5:4).
The Epistles of James, Paul, and John confirm the pattern we’ve been observing – that biblical prophecy is symbolic language uncovering the spiritual meaning of temporal events, meaningful to their original hearers. Christ’s coming was imminent in their lifetimes, which means that it must be long-fulfilled by ours. What would happen if we began to walk in the empowerment of these promises kept?
Join us each week as we explore fulfilled covenant eschatology by blogging through The Spirit of Prophecy by Max King, where this post is drawn from. (And if you get impatient, you can always read the full book inspiring inspiring these posts here.) Please feel free to weigh in below.