Jul 17, 2008

Did The Early Christians Of The First Century Believe That The Return Of Christ Was Imminent?

One of the objections you will run into when you start sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with people goes something like this:

"Well, the early Christians believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes, and since He didn't, then Christianity must not be true".

Now, those of us who know the Word of God know this is totally false.

In fact, the Bible is VERY clear that Jesus would not return right away.

Below is an article that contains a very good study of this topic. I would encourage you to visit the website posted below and read the full article:


(excerpt from the original article at http://www.aboundingjoy.com/Bible%20studies/imminency.htm )

The Early Church Knew that the Lord’s Return was NOT Imminent

There is significant Biblical evidence that the early church had good reasons not to expect His imminent return. Of course, they had the same words of Jesus that we have! So anything He said that we might think refer to His imminent return could not have meant His imminent return to them! Since we know that Jesus meant what He said to them as well as to us, perhaps we should come to the same conclusion that they did!

Here are some examples.

Peter Knew that He Would Die before Jesus Returned

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me. (John 21:18-19)

Knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me. (2 Peter 1:14)

Imagine that we had the opportunity to talk with the Apostle Peter after Jesus had died, arisen from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Remember, Peter had been very close to Jesus. He was obviously very familiar with what Jesus said in chapters 24 and 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. But, in spite of those words of Jesus, if you had asked Peter, “Peter, do you think Jesus might return today?” Peter would have replied, “No. Not today. Because He showed me by what kind of death I should glorify him, when I am old. He will not return in my lifetime.” (Then, I suspect, Peter would have given us the explanation of the passages that may seem to teach imminency that you will read in this paper!)

Paul Knew that He Would Go to Rome before Jesus Returned

And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles. (Acts 22:21)

And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome. (Acts 23:11)

If we had asked Paul before he went to Rome if he thought Jesus would return today, Paul would have said, “No. Not today. He has showed me that I must first go to Rome to bear witness of Him.”

The Early Church Knew that They Must Take the Gospel to the World before Jesus Returned

But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8)

If you had asked a Christian shortly after Jesus ascended into heaven if he or she was familiar with what Jesus had said that is recorded for us in Matthew chapters 24 and 25, they would almost certainly have said, “Of course!” If you had followed that up by saying, “Then you believe that Jesus could return today, right?” They would have said, “No. Not today. He told us that we must take the gospel to the uttermost part of the earth first!”

Jesus Taught His Disciples Not to Expect His Imminent Return

And as they heard these things, he added and spake a parable, because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear. He said therefore, A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come. But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us. And it came to pass, that when he was returned, having received the kingdom, then he commanded these servants to be called unto him, to whom he had given the money, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. (Luke 19:11-15)

While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept... After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. (Matthew 25:5, 19)

These disciples believed (and hoped) that Jesus was soon going to set up His kingdom on the earth. In Luke 19, Jesus corrects them. He compares Himself to a nobleman that went into a “far country” and gave instructions to “occupy” until he returned. He proceeds to remind them that they will have responsibilities to fulfill in terms of stewardship before He returns. In fact, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Luke tells us that the very reason Jesus taught this parable was because some people “thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.”

And even in Matthew 25 Jesus compares His coming to that of a bridegroom who “tarries” and who returns “after a long time.” He did not intend for them (or us) to expect an imminent return, but instead to plan on an extended time of serving Him on earth before His return.

Christians in Thessalonica Erred in Assuming the Return of Christ was Imminent

Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5)

Some of the Thessalonian Christians had evidently become focused on the possibility that they were already far into the tribulation and that Jesus could return soon. It is reasonable for a suffering church to think that perhaps they are going through the last great tribulation. And certainly the Thessalonians were a suffering church (1 Thessalonians 2:14; 3:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-6). But Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, knew that they were being premature. He wanted them to learn to “stand fast” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and to be “established in good words and works” (2 Thessalonians 2:17). He knew that they had work to do before the Lord returned. So he reminded them that there were some things that would occur before the Lord returned (viz., the revelation of the Antichrist and the great apostasy).

If the return of Christ were considered to be imminent, Paul would surely have reminded them that they and he would be raptured before the events described in these verses occurred.

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