Monday, April 25, 2011

An Imminent (Any Moment) Return?

An Imminent (Any Moment) Return?

In the late 1820s and early 1830s amidst the spiritual milieu of the 19th century a strange new group of teachings began to develop within the church and now, 170 years later, these teachings are everywhere. These teachings have come to be known as Dispensationalism.

One of the core beliefs of Dispensationalism which surfaced in the early 1800’s in association with the ministry of a man by the name of Edward Irving (amidst an outburst of “charismatic gifts”, such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing and some other more bizarre phenomena such as the “automatic writing” of Mary Campbell) was the teaching of a secret, invisible coming of Christ to take the church away from this earth at least seven years before His Second coming.

Dispensationalism teaches that this first Second Coming of Christ, the secret coming for His church, is “imminent”. The word imminent actually means “to project, threaten, ready to take place” or “to hang threateningly over ones head”.  When Dispensationalists use this word, however, they are usually saying something slightly different. Namely this; that this secret return of Christ could happen at any moment. It seems to be an undisputed fact among Dispensationalists that the writers of the New Testament taught that Christ could come back at any moment and that no prophesied events must take place before He can come back.

As a former Dispensationalist, my own thinking went something like this: since the Apostles taught that Christ could come back at any moment, then there could not be any prophesied events which must take place before He comes back. And if there are no prophesied events which must take place before Christ comes back to remove His church, and the tribulation (a seven year time of Gods wrath on the earth) is a prophesied event, then the tribulation must happen after the rapture (removal) of the church. And if the tribulation occurs after the rapture of the church, then the dispensational distinction between Israel and the church must be true, and therefore the doctrines of Dispensationalism must be the proper way to interpret Scripture.

There was only one problem with this logic, the apostles never taught that Christ could come back at any moment with no prophesied events occurring first! They could not have done so. The New Testament did not support such an idea of imminence at all. In fact, it demands some amount of time pass in which several events must take place. More than once it implies that this period of time would be somewhat lengthy. But I had heard it said so many times that the writers of the New Testament expected an “any moment” return of Christ that I never really stopped and examined this teaching at all. Some passages seemed to confirm this belief at first glance, so I just assumed that it was true.

But what does the New Testament actually say?

I found John 21:8-22 to be particularly devastating to my belief in the Dispensational view of the Rapture. In this passage Peter was told “by what death he would glorify God”. In verse 18, he is told that he would grow old and be crucified. This conversation was apparently well known to the early Christians, for the statement of Christ in verse 22 caused many of the brethren to believe that John would not die but live until the second coming (a fact which they were reading into Jesus’ words as John points out in verse 23).

It was a well known fact among the early church that Peter would grow old and be crucified! Therefore, they also knew that Jesus could not come back “at any moment” before this took place.

Consider the implications of this fact. It seems to be commonly agreed that Peter died sometime around 64 AD under the persecution of Nero, after most of the New Testament was already written! (67 AD. according to Charles Ryrie, a leading Dispensationalist, in his Introduction to 2nd Peter in the Ryrie Study Bible).

Paul’s last letter (2nd Timothy) was written about the same time Peter was put to death. (Ryrie dates the writing of 2 Timothy a year before Peter’s martyrdom). Think about that for a moment; Paul knew that Peter would grow old and be crucified and Paul most likely wrote all of his books before peter died, Paul, therefore, could not have taught anyone that Christ’s return could occur at any moment in any of his writings!
Neither could Peter have taught such a view of the “any moment” return of Christ for he knew that he would be dead before Christ would return.  In fact, it is commonly agreed that all of the New Testament, except for maybe John’s letters, were written before 65 AD and yet these are the very letters that are used to support the teaching of an any moment return!

But besides Peters death there were other time consuming events that were spoken of.

For instance, the Great Commission demands that some amount of time pass before the second coming. In Matthew 28:18-20, Christ tells his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. In Acts 1:8, Christ tells them that they would witness of Him in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth!

In Acts 9:15, 16, Ananias is told that Paul must suffer many things and bear Christ’s name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. In Acts 22:21, Paul is told that he will be sent far away to the Gentiles. And in Acts 23:11, Paul is told that he must also bear witness in Rome just as he had in Jerusalem.

In Luke 21:6, 20-24, Jesus tells His disciples to flee from Jerusalem when they see it “surrounded by armies” because both Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed (an event which did not take place until 70 AD.!), the Jews would be led away captive into all the nations, and Jerusalem would be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”! And again, in 2 Thessalonians 2, speaking of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him” (verse 1), Paul says that “that day will not come unless the falling away comes first and the man of sin is revealed”.

In 2 Peter 3:3, shortly before his death (1:14), Peter tells his readers that “....there shall come in the last days scoffers walking after their own lust 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.

Peter says that these mockers “will come”, future tense! In the future they will come to the church and say “where is the promise of His coming”. In other words, they will mock Christians because they have been saying that Christ is coming back for so long, and He still hasn’t come back!

Why hasn’t Christ come back? Because God has a redemptive purpose and thousands of years of patience (3:8)! In fact, He has so much patience that we will be tempted to think that He is “slack concerning His promises” (3:9) but Peter warns us not to succumb to this temptation, but to remember that God is long suffering with us (3:9).

Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:1 that in the latter times some “will depart” (future tense) from the faith and in 2 Timothy 3:1 he says “that in the last days perilous times will come” (future tense). Does this sound like the words of a man expecting Christ to return at any second?

How can we possibly maintain that the New Testament writers believed that Christ could come back at any moment with no prophesied events which must take place first?

If we will look just a little further we will also see that many of Christ’s parables either imply or explicitly teach that a prolonged period of time must pass between the first and second coming.

In Matthew 13, Jesus explains the kingdom in parables to a group of people who were very confused as to what the kingdom would be like. They expected the kingdom to come suddenly, powerfully and gloriously. But Jesus explains that many who heard of the kingdom would turn away from it (verses 4, 19). Some would receive it with great joy but quickly abandon it (verse 5, 20, 21). Others would listen for a moment but then turn aside after worldly things (verse 7, 22). Not the glorious, powerful kingdom they were expecting!

It would start off small like a mustard seed (verse 31, 32), like a little leaven (verse 33) or like a treasure hid out in a field (verse 4), but it would grow into a large tree “so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches”. Like a little leaven, it would leaven the whole lump of dough (verse 33) and like a dragnet it would gather fish until it was full. These things imply some time.

In another parable in Matthew 24:48, 49, the evil servant says in his heart “my master is delaying his coming”, and begins to beat his fellow servants. In Matthew 25:5, ALL of the virgins fell asleep “while the bridegroom was delayed”. In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, the master gives out the talents and immediately goes on a journey (verse 15). Verse 19 tells us that “after a long time the Lord of those servants came and settled accounts”.

Many read the repeated warnings in these parables of Matthew 24 and 25 which say “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (24:42, 44, 50; 25:13) and they say “see, Christ is warning them of his ‘any moment’ return!” But the exact opposite is true.

In Luke 19, He tells the same basic parable as the parable of the talents found in Matthew 25 and note why he tells them this parable in verse 11 “He spoke another parable....because THEY THOUGHT THE KINGDOM OF GOD WOULD APPEAR IMMEDIATELY”. They had an “any moment” view of the kingdom and Christ in effect warns them that a great deal of time would pass and many would fall asleep waiting, while others would get tired of waiting and go out and beat their fellow servants and hang out with the drunkards.

In this context Christ is not warning us of His “any moment” return, but rather He is warning us not to fall asleep during His long absence! For those who get tired of watching and fall asleep, He will come upon them like a thief. They will be surprised and unprepared for His intrusion. But it is not so for the watching and waiting Christian. That day may “overtake” us but not “like a thief” (1 Thess. 5:4). Though we do not know the day nor the hour, we are told of many signs which signal that day’s approach and when we see these things begin to take place, we are told to “look up and lift up” our heads because our “redemption draws near” (Luke 21:28). We will “see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:25). But as time drags on we will be tempted to quit watching, so He warns us against this tendency but yet it seems that it has happened just as He said it would; many of the “wise virgins” have fallen asleep along with the foolish.

Brethren, if our definition of imminence equates it with “any momentness”, I believe we have made a mistake. Just because we are to watch for Christ’s return, long for His return and live in light of His return, it does not mean it can happen at any second. The apostles did not believe this and, as we saw, they could not have taught it, and if they did not teach it, we should not believe it.

If, however, our definition of imminence is that the Second Coming is “hanging over our heads”, that it and the events associated with it could come to pass very quickly, and that it looms very large on the horizon and will make all the other events in our lives pale in comparison, then I believe that we are in agreement with the Scriptures.

Just as the word imminent speaks of something which projects upward, ‘That Day” towers above all others. Every other “day” stands in its shadows and points to it. Every other “day” that comes to us should remind us that “That Day” is also coming quickly. In this sense the return of Christ is truly imminent.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

[Hello, Polemos. Saw this goodie on the net. Any reaction? Jeremy]

Christ's return is NOT imminent !

by Bruce Rockwell

(Pretrib rapturists claim that Christ's return is imminent, that is, capable of occurring at any moment. Theologian and pastor Norman MacPherson, in his excellent book "Triumph Through Tribulation," offers proof that the Bible has never taught an any-moment return of Christ. Here are the points brought out and discussed at length by MacPherson:)

1. Great Commission fulfillment implies a long period of time.
2. Seed growth in Matthew 13 is a time-consuming process.
3. Paul expected death, not rapture, in II Timothy 4:6-8.
4. Jesus predicted Peter's martyrdom in John 21:18-19.
5. Matthew 24 teaches that signs must come first.
6. Many passages speak of a large interval between Christ's ascension and return: Jewish dispersion into "all nations" (Luke 21); "man travelling into a far country," "after a long time the lord of those servants cometh" (Matthew 25).
7. Apostasy of last days takes time to develop.
8. Bridegroom tarried in parable of virgins.
9. Pastoral epistles teach Church's continuing ministry, which involves time.
10. Paul says Christ's coming is not imminent (II Thessalonians 2:1-3), for apostasy and Antichrist must come first.
11. View of seven phases of church history (seven churches of Revelation) involves big lapse of time and imminence difficulties for pre-tribs; could Christ have come before the last phase?
12. Exhortations to watch and be ready are tied to what pre-trib teachers regard as the second stage (which is necessarily non-imminent) in Matthew 24 and 25, I Corinthians 1:7, Colossians 3:4, I Thessalonians 3:13, II Thessalonians 1:7-10, I Peter 1:13 and 4:13, and I John 2:28.

(How can Christ, returning imminently, have a greater practical effect on us than the indwelling Holy Spirit should already have on us? For more on pretrib beliefs and history, Google "Pretrib Rapture Secrecy," "Pretrib Rapture - Hidden Facts," "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," and "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty.")