Did the Apostles Expect the Any-Moment Coming of Christ?

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Millions of Bible students around the world would immediately answer, “Yes, of course they did” to this question, and would no doubt add that believers today have the same expectation. This view, the “any-moment” coming of Christ, is a key doctrine in the interpretative system known as Dispensationalism and is linked with a corresponding belief in the so-called “pre-tribulation rapture” of the church, alleged to occur before the Great Tribulation and the coming of Antichrist.

Space does not permit a complete examination of this system. But what I want to do is to look at a few of the Scriptures which are alleged in support of the any-moment coming and to show that none of them can fairly be used to say, “Yes, the Apostles did believe that Christ could come at any moment.” And in conclusion I want to show that there is a definite sequence of events which must take place before Christ can return, and that this sequence can be seen clearly in the Scriptures.

“We who are alive and remain...”

The first argument is based on the use of personal pronouns in some passages concerning the coming of Christ. Paul says to the Thessalonians, “We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord...” (1 Thess. 4:15). This is a leading text in support of the any- moment coming. Paul appears to include himself in the group who would be alive at the Lord’s coming, and at first glance this appears to be quite convincing.

1 John 3:2 uses similar language: “Beloved, now we are children of Yahuwah, and it has not yet been revealed what we will be, but we know that when He is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is.” John here appears to say that he might be alive at the coming of Christ.

The use of personal pronouns in this way does not however prove the point, for this is the regular and consistent way that the Bible writers referred to the community to which they belonged. “We who are alive, who are left until the Parousia,” can fairly mean no more than “those of the Christian society who will be alive at the Parousia.”1 Proof of this is found in the following passages.

In Numbers 14 the unbelieving Israelites were sentenced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, and it was made plain to them that none of them would enter the promised land. Yet we read in Numbers 15:2, “When you have come into the land...” The pronoun “you” here cannot mean the people who had been sentenced to die in the wilderness, even though the words were addressed to them. Clearly it refers to their descendants, those who would enter the land. We might say that this use of the word is “corporate,” that is, it refers to the group and does not necessarily include the people being addressed.

Deuteronomy 11:7: “But your eyes have seen every great act of the Lord which he did.” This was said at the close of the wanderings, and preceding verses show that this referred to the miracles which occurred at the Exodus. Yet the vast majority of the nation had not personally seen these at all. Again it refers to the group, in this case their ancestors.

Judges 2:1: The angel of the Lord said, “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers...” Again, the pronoun refers to their ancestors and not personally to themselves.

The prophet Daniel associated himself with the sins of his people in Daniel 9:5-6, even though he personally lived a blameless life. The Apostle Paul likewise says in Titus 3:3, “we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures...” See 2 Timothy 1:3, Acts 23:1 and Philippians 3:6 for Paul’s account of his actual way of life.

Note that in 2 Corinthians 4:14 Paul said that Yahuwah “will raise us also with Yahushua, and will present us with you.” Here he clearly anticipates dying and being resurrected at the coming of Christ. Has he changed his mind since 1 Thessalonians? Liberal theologians believe he did, but what does this do for our doctrine of inspiration? Which statement is inspired and which one is wrong? Both are inspired. Paul was consistently applying the corporate language of Scripture and speaking of the group to which they all belonged.

This use of the pronouns is consistent throughout Scripture and may be regarded as the “default language,” meaning that wherever we see pronouns used in this way, the use is corporate. Those who wish to apply Scripture language in a way different from this will really have to bring some convincing proof.

The Language of the Second Coming

second coming

In the interests of fairness we should summarize what the Dispensationalists believe concerning the second coming. The following quotation is from The Approaching Advent of Christ by Alexander Reese, and is compiled from his study of the writings of various Dispensationalists. This passage emphasizes several terms which are important for understanding the subject, as Dispensationalists see it:

“The Second Coming of Christ is to take place in two distinct stages; the first, which concerns the Church alone, occurs at the beginning of, or prior to, the last or apocalyptic Week of Daniel; the second, which concerns Israel and the world, takes place at the close of that Week. Between Christ’s Coming in relation to the Church, and His Coming in relation to the world, there thus intervenes a period of at least seven years — the period of the apocalyptic Week, during which Antichrist is manifested. At the first stage of the Advent all the dead in Christ, together with the righteous dead of the O.T., will be raised in the image and glory of Christ; these, together with those Christians who live to see the Lord’s Coming, will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. This is the Coming of the Lord, and is the true hope of the Church.

“At the second stage, seven or more years later, Antichrist will be destroyed, Israel converted and renewed, and the millennial kingdom set up. This is the Day, Appearing, or Revelation of Christ, and is entirely distinct from the Coming, for it concerns the Church alone. The second stage of the Advent has this, and this only, that it concerns the Church, that it will be the time for the judgment and rewarding of the heavenly saints for their service on earth. Some, however, refer the rewarding to the time of the Coming, or Rapture, as the first stage is generally called” (p. 19-20).

This passage emphasizes several terms which are important for understanding our subject. Rapture, Coming, Appearing and Revelation are all technical terms in the Dispensational scheme, and we should examine them briefly to see if they actually have the meaning claimed for them by Dispensationalists.

Rapture is derived from the Latin word rapere, which is the equivalent of the Greek word harpazo used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to describe the catching up of believers to meet the Lord in the air. As such there is no problem with using it to describe that event. But since this event is wrongly interpreted by Dispensationalists and is applied to a supposed coming preceding the tribulation, our use of it would have to be qualified by explaining what we mean. Perhaps it would be better not to use it at all to avoid misunderstanding.

the rapture

Parousia is the Greek word for coming. Paul’s use in 1 Thessalonians 4 is central to the discussion. “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming (parousia) of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of Yahuwah. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And in this way we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:15-18).

It is difficult to find anything secret in this passage. The parousia is the event at which Christ comes with his saints: “At the parousia of our Lord Yahushua with all his saints” (1 Thess. 3:13). This contradicts a key distinction made by Dispensationalists. The Parousia, they say, is when Christ comes for the saints. He only comes with the saints, they say, at the revelation, or the appearing.

However, 2 Thessalonians 2:8 shows that it is at the parousia that Christ will destroy the Man of Sin: “And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Yahushua will slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to an end by the appearance of his parousia.” This verse is contrary to the Dispensationalist scheme of things. According to Dispensationalists, the Parousia is supposed to occur before the rise of the Man of Sin (the Antichrist), yet here we have it happening at the destruction of the Antichrist.

The Parousia will be a glorious, visible event witnessed around the world and occurring at the end of the Olivet prophecy. “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so will be the parousia of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:27).

At this point Dispensationalists will argue that Parousia means “presence” and therefore covers the entire period, including either the rapture or the revelation at the end of the seven-year period. Parousia can indeed mean “presence” and is so translated in Philippians 2:12, but its usual meaning is “arrival.” When Parousia is used of Yahushua, it always means his arrival, Second Coming. The discoveries of scholars over the last 150 years have added vivid meaning to this term as used of Christ. Alexander Reese has this to say: “It is one of the great contributions of modern scholarship that we now understand what the early Christians felt when they read in Paul’s epistle of the Parousia of the Lord Yahushua Christ. Scholars and archaeologists have been digging in the rubbish heaps of Egypt and found this word used in scores of documents in everyday life for the arrival of kings and rulers, or the visit following.” He goes on to quote the great scholar Adolph Deismann who says, “From the Ptolemaic period down into the 2nd Cent AD, we are able to trace the word in the East as a technical expression for the arrival or the visit of the king or the emperor.” The application of this to the coming of Christ is obvious.

Revelation is a translation of the Greek word apocalypse (apokalupsis). According to Dispensationalists, the revelation is supposed to occur after the tribulation when Christ comes to judge the world and set up his Kingdom. The church, having been raptured, as they claim, before the tribulation, should not be waiting for the revelation but for the “rapture.” Yet this is not what we find. We are “waiting for the revelation (apokalupsis) of our Lord Yahushua Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7). The revelation is the event at which the saints receive their rest and relief after a period of affliction: “It is a righteous thing with Yahuwah to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us at the revelation of the Lord Yahushua from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those who do not know Yahuwah, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Yahushua Christ” (2 Thess. 1:6-8). But again, according to Dispensationalists, the saints had already experienced rest at the rapture. Peter also refers to a period of affliction which will be terminated at the revelation. “But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, so that at the revelation of his glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:13).

The revelation is then the object of Christian hope together with the Parousia, and the same is true of the epiphaneia, a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” the third distinctive word used of the coming of Christ. This word is actually used along with Parousia in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 which speaks of Christ destroying the Man of Sin at the “epiphaneia of his parousia.” Paul exhorts Timothy to “keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Yahushua Christ’s appearing (epiphaneia),” again showing that it is an object of hope. Paul looked forward to it: “In the future there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day; and not to me only but also to all those who have loved his epiphaneia” (2 Tim. 4:8).

We can only conclude from the scriptural usage of these words that they all refer to the same one event, the glorious return of Christ to destroy the forces of Antichrist and to give his people rest in the Kingdom of Yahuwah. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could possibly have thought otherwise. In no case can this evidence be reconciled with the idea of a pre-tribulation any-moment Coming.

The Prediction about Peter

Now let us look at the predictions the Lord made to his disciples before ascending into heaven. Here we will find once again that the evidence is wholly against an any-moment coming of the Lord. One of his more interesting predictions was concerning Peter, found in John 21:18-19. “‘Most assuredly I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.’ This he said, indicating by what kind of death he would glorify Yahuwah.” We may assume that Peter was about the same age as Christ at this point. Peter therefore could expect about thirty or forty years of life before his martyrdom. Thirty years later Peter himself wrote, “I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, even as our Lord Yahushua showed me. Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease” (2 Pet. 1:13-15).

This conversation was evidently widely known throughout the Church, and it is not possible to conceive how anyone could imagine that the Lord might come at any moment given this prediction. As long as Peter was alive and had not been martyred such an event was impossible.

The Program for the Gospel

The Lord’s instructions concerning the preaching of the Gospel also rule out an any-moment coming. There are several accounts of this, but we will use the one in Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This is the program for the Church, and each of its phases is clearly marked out in Acts. The witnessing in Jerusalem takes up several chapters up to the end of chapter 7 with the martyrdom of Stephen. The consequence of Stephen’s death led to the beginning of the fulfillment of the second and third stages, witnessing in Judea and in Samaria. The Samaritan mission commenced in chapter 8 through the work of Philip and probably took place several years after the ascension.

At no time could the Lord have returned until at least these events had taken place. But the commission to go to the “end of the earth” could not commence until the Gospel went to the Gentiles and this is recorded in chapters 10 and 11. Commentators are uncertain what exactly “end of the earth” signified, but it must at least include the remainder of the book of Acts. Note that Paul quoted Isaiah 49:6 to the Gentiles in Acts 13:47. The commission in Isaiah 49 is actually given to the Servant, who is Christ himself, and it refers in context to the light going to the Gentiles before the people of Israel are re-gathered. (See verses 4, 5 for the chronology here.) This verse is the background to the Lord’s commission, and Matthew 24:14 is based upon it. It is clear that it again rules out an any-moment coming of the Lord.

Sequence of Events

A major contention of Dispensationalism is that the church will not go through the wrath of Yahuwah. “For Yahuwah did not appoint us to wrath but to obtain salvation through our Lord Yahushua Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9). And this of course is true, but by confusing the tribulation and the Day of the Lord, and seeing that the tribulation is a time of suffering for Yahuwah’s people, Dispensationalists then conclude that the church has been removed at the pre-trib Parousia and that the people who do go through tribulation are not the church but Jewish converts during the tribulation.

It is true that Yahuwah will not allow His people to be affected by His wrath, but He does not need to take them to heaven to protect them. In Revelation 7 we see the sealing of the 144,000 Jewish converts. It is clear from Revelation 9:4 that they are still on earth as the locust plagues are not permitted to harm them in any way. Psalm 91 gives us a beautiful picture of the way in which Yahuwah will protect His people during that time.

girl praying

When does Christ come? Revelation 16:15 contains the following warning: “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his clothes, so that he will not walk naked and they will not see his shame.” This is just before the seventh plague, the last event of the entire sequence, and Christ still has not come. The only remaining event is the battle of Armageddon, the great earthquake, the plague of hailstones. This is described in more detail in chapter 19, Ezekiel 38-39 and many other passages. We need not suppose that these events will take place within a few days. The invading armies assembling at Armageddon will no doubt require some time. Invasions do not occur spontaneously overnight as you might recall from the two invasions of Iraq in recent decades. At some point during the period Christ returns to resurrect his people (1 Cor. 15:23; Dan. 12:2), and destroy the forces of Antichrist. We cannot be more specific than this but we can look forward to it in hope.

The coming of Christ during the Day of the Lord is remarkably confirmed in the two Thessalonian epistles. Ironically, these two letters have been used to prove the pre-tribulation view, but they both witness against this in a remarkable way.

1 Thessalonians 5:1: “But concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night.” The chapter division obscures the connection with what has been said in chapter 4. The antecedent to “times and seasons” can only refer back to the Parousia mentioned in the previous chapter. The Day of the Lord is not therefore a new subject but a continuation of the same message.

The second letter also joins the Parousia, our gathering together with Christ, and the Day of the Lord, and warns them against the notion that the Day of the Lord had already commenced. It cannot take place “until the apostasy and the revealing of the Man of Sin take place first” (2 Thess. 2:3).

1 Corinthians 15:50-58 does not contain any note of time sequence, and there is certainly nothing in it which would require that the coming of Christ would take place before the tribulation. The mention, however, of the last trumpet (15:52) links it with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and with the seventh and final trumpet of the Book of Revelation (11:15; 20:1-4). This creates perfect harmony.

The importance of understanding prophetic events correctly, most notably the coming of Christ, is shown clearly by Paul’s attitude towards the Thessalonians. He had spent only three weeks in the city, yet it is clear from 2 Thessalonians 2 that he had fully instructed them on the coming of the Man of Sin, the apostasy, the Day of the Lord and the coming (Parousia) of Christ. Furthermore, he did not treat the erroneous, new views as permissible and unimportant unlike many contemporary Christians.

This is a non-WLC article written by John Cunnigham.
We have taken out from the original article all pagan names and titles of the Father and Son, and have replaced them with the original given names. Furthermore, we have restored in the Scriptures quoted the names of the Father and Son, as they were originally written by the inspired authors of the Bible. -WLC Team