Posted by: stpowen | February 23, 2012

The Forgotten Doctrine- Loving the Return of Christ (2)

Rev 22:20.  ‘He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I come quickly.”  Amen.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus!’

2 Thes 2:1-2.  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, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had already come.’

Perhaps it would be wise to deal with a major objection raised by Hyper-preterists to the impending return of the Lord Jesus Christ.  These people claim that the whole tenor of the N.T. is that our Lord would coming back very quickly.  Therefore, they say, unless the Bible is false at this point, He must have returned in AD 70, and since no one saw Him, He must have done so invisibly.  That He returned invisibly is clearly refuted by Acts 1:11 and several other verses as we saw in the previous article.  Therefore either the Bible is wrong on this issue or the verses speaking of a speedy return need to be interpreted more carefully.  Believing that the first option is unthinkable, I shall now explore the second.

The thought that the Lord is coming quickly is found especially in the Book of Revelation (1:1, 3: 2:25; 22:6-7; 10, 12, 20).  There are also other statements by Paul and the writer to the Hebrews which suggest that they thought that it was at least possible that Christ might come in their lifetimes (eg. Rom 13:11-12; 1 Cor 7:29, 31; 1 Thes 4:15; Heb 10:25).   I hope to show that it is the Lord’s intention that all Christians should believe that the return of  our Lord might happen in their lifetimes, so with this thought in mind, let’s look at two Old Testament passages that may shed light on this idea of ‘quickly’ in the plans of the Almighty.

Habakkuk 2:2-3.  ‘Then the LORD answered me and said, “Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it.  For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak, and it will not lie.  Though it tarries, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.”’

Here we learn that the prophecy given to Habakkuk will both tarry and not tarry.  What can it mean?  It surely means that God’s timescale is different to ours.  He has established His purposes and they will not be thwarted.   What may seem to us to be an interminably long time is just a blink of the eye to God (Psalm 90:4).  We can see this again in 1Samuel  15:29, where Saul is told that God has torn away the kingdom of Israel from him, yet in fact he continued to reign for another 20 or so years.

Haggai 2:6-7.  ‘For thus says the LORD of hosts:  “Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land; and I will shake all the nations, and they will come to the Desire of all Nations, and I will fill this house with glory,” says the LORD of hosts.’

The earliest that this prophecy could have been fulfilled is at the coming of the Lord Jesus, 500 years in the future when Haggai prophesied it; yet to God it is just ‘a little while.’  With these thoughts in mind, we can let the apostle Peter explain the whole matter to us.

2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9.  ‘…….Knowing this first:  that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming?  For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation”………..But beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.  The Lord is not slack concerning His promises as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.’

Those who deny the Return of Christ are called “Scoffers.”  The reasons for God’s apparent tardiness in the completion of His purposes are shown to be two-fold.  Firstly, God sits outside of time.  The thousand years spoken of here means all the years that are, just as the ‘Cattle on a thousand hills’ in Psalm 50 means all the cattle that there are.  To God, everything is in a boundless present.  Secondly, in His mercy God is waiting for the very last of His elect to come to faith before the end.  When will that be?  We cannot know.  It could be this very night, and it could be many years away.  Our business as Christians is not to speculate on such matters but to be ready for Him to come at any time. 

There are three other Bible passages which Hyper-preterists use when they try to show that our Lord returned secretly in AD 70.  It will be necessary to consider each of these texts individually, but two of them are specifically designed to counter Matt 24:14, which tells us,  ‘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.’  This helpful verse gives us some sort of time line for the Lord Jesus’ return;  the Gospel has first to be preached to all people groups.  Although great strides in this respect have been made in the last century or so, there are still many nations where the word of God is scarcely known.  The Lord, not we, will judge when the preaching has been accomplished, so we should not spend time wondering when that will be, but rather support Gospel missionary activities throughout the world, by which we can, in a sense, ‘[Hasten] the coming of the Day of God’ (2 Peter 3:12).

The first verse misused by Hyper-preterists is Col 1:23.  ‘…..The gospel which you heard, which was preached [or proclaimed’] to every creature under heaven.’  Colossians was written around AD 60 or 61.  The suggestion is that ‘To every creature under heaven’ is a deliberate hyperbole on Paul’s part and merely refers to the Gospel having been preached in all the main population centres of the Roman world.  If this were so, then the conditions of Matt 24:14 would be met and Christ could have come in AD 70.   However, it is certain that the Gospel  had not been preached all around the Roman Empire by AD 61.  Paul infers in Romans 15:20-24 that the Gospel had not reached Spain by AD 56 or so, and we know that he personally had no opportunity to take it there in the next four or five years.  Moreover there is not so much as a hint in the Bible that the Gospel had come to Gaul (1) or to any part of Africa (2) by AD 70, let alone 61.  Let the reader look at a map of Western Europe and North Africa.  It’s huge!  The Gospel spread with remarkable speed, but there was no chance for it to have reached even the major cities of the Roman Empire, let alone ‘every creature under heaven’ by that time.

So what does Col 1:23 mean?  Well, when was the Gospel proclaimed?  You could say it was at the baptism of the Lord Jesus, when God’s voice was heard saying, “This is My beloved Son.  In Him I am well pleased” (Matt 3:16-17);  or it might say it was at the start of our Lord’s ministry, when He declared, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the Gospel”  (Mark 1:15).  In either case, to whom were the words directed?  To all men everywhere.  They were proclamations.   The Lord Jesus did not become God’s beloved Son when men heard about him.  Nor did the kingdom of God only draw near when people were informed that it had.  The Gospel had been proclaimed, and it was the duty of men and women to believe and obey it.  As Paul told the Athenians,  ‘God….. now commands all men everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30).  So in Col 1:23, Paul is saying that the Gospel had already been proclaimed to the whole human race.  Peace and reconciliation with God were available to everyone regardless of age, sex, situation or race.      

Matt 10:23.  ‘Assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’  In this verse, the Hyper-preterists claim that the Lord Jesus is saying to His Apostles, “Make a start with your evangelization of Judea and Galilee, but I shall come back to destroy Jerusalem so quickly that you won’t get very far in doing so before then.”  This interpretation doesn’t work either. The word translated ‘cities’ here is polis.  It has a very specific meaning of a large settlement surrounded by a wall.  Only the larger towns or cities had a wall.  There is a word, kome, which is used for smaller towns and villages that didn’t have a wall.  The two words are used together in Matt 9:35 and elsewhere, so if our Lord had wanted to include the smaller settlements, He could have done so.  Now get the map out again and look at Israel- it’s tiny!  The Lord Jesus walked its length and breadth regularly in His three-year ministry.  It would not have taken twelve Apostles more than a couple of years to get around the larger cities of Judea and Galilee.

So what does this verse mean?  There are two explanations which make good sense.  The simplest is that the Lord Jesus is telling the Apostles that there instructions are only temporary ones.  Before they had visited even the main cities of Judea, the risen Christ would come to them with new instructions; they would be sent, not merely into Israel, but to the whole world (Matt 28:16-20 etc.).

The second interpretation is a little more complicated but it is the one I favour.  In the New Testament, the term ‘Israel’ is seldom used as a geographical term- ‘Judea,’ ‘Galilee’ and ‘Samaria’ are used instead (see, for example, Matt 2:22; 3:1; Luke 4:44; Acts 1:8 etc.).  When ‘Israel’ is used, it usually refers to the people of God (eg. Matt 15:24; Luke 24:21; John 1:47).  So what the Lord Jesus is saying here is, “You and those disciples who come after you will not have gone through all the cities of the world where God’s elect are found before I come again in glory.”  This interpretation is in harmony with Matt 24:14.

The third verse offered by Hyper-preterists is Matt 24:34.  ‘Assuredly I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.’  The questions here that need to be asked here are, what is meant by ‘this generation,’ and what exactly are ‘All these things’?  In order to deal with this verse adequately, it will be necessary to look at Matt 24 as a whole.  This will be the subject of the next article.

Notes

(1)  By Gaul, I mean France and the Benelux countries. 

(2)  It is very possible that the Gospel reached Egypt qyuite early on since Apollos was a native of Alexandria (Acts 18:24), though that does not mean that he heard the Gospel there.  The Roman province of Africa stretched from modern-day Libya through to Morocco.  There is no evidence that the Gospel had reached there by AD 70.

 

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