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Chapter 2 – Time is Running Out
The Proper Frame of Reference
The key to the proper understanding of New Testament prophecy is perspective. Just as a basic rule in physics is to recognize the relevant frame of reference, so it is in the study of Bible prophecy. Much confusion about prophecy disappears when the proper reference frame is honored: the first generation of Christians.
It is very easy to forget that our New Testament speaks of real people who lived at a particular time and place on planet Earth. It is not merely a collection of doctrine and practical truths. It certainly contains those things, but it is first of all an amazing story of events, such as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which happened in real time at a specific location on planet Earth. These first Christians are the reference frame for prophecy; many of them actually listened to Jesus teach in person. These real, live, historical human beings are the ones who heard Jesus promise them:
Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. (Matt. 16:28 NKJV)
Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. (Matt. 24:34 NKJV)
There are many who insist that Jesus never meant to imply his coming would take place in the first century. They deny that the original audience is the proper frame of reference for prophecy. Future expectations of fulfillment force many Christians to blunt or redirect the plain words of Jesus. Perhaps this is done out of habit rather than conscious effort. Some do it out of sincere concern to protect Jesus and the apostles from perceived error. What if the error is us not listening to what Jesus said?
His predictions are both clear and direct. No attempt to explain away or redirect these explicit time statements will ever be intellectually satisfying. Every other example in Matthew of the phrase "this generation" using the Greek word genea refers to contemporaries -- all those who live at one time. Every other example of "this generation" in the rest of the New Testament refers to contemporaries.
There are also many other places in the New Testament which show clearly how "generation" is a reference to a specific generation. Paul says:
In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. (Eph.3:4-5 NIV)
Paul understood the events in his generation would impact all generations to come. We see that in his doxology at the conclusion of Ephesians 3:
To him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:21 NKJV)
The only hope for truly understanding biblical prophecy is to abandon the blinding presupposition that Jesus' promise about his coming simply must refer to something which will happen in our future. As long as that presupposition prevails, the biblical evidence will remain a chaotic, incomprehensible confusion. If you were there and heard Jesus make these claims in front of you, would you not trust Jesus at his word?
The Disciples Followed the Master
His disciples did exactly that. If we compare Jesus' claims to what the apostles taught over the next few decades, as recorded in the New Testament, we will see how the apostles believed every word of Jesus' promise. They believed that all that Jesus promised -- the great tribulation, the destruction of the temple, and his coming -- would take place in their lifetime. What's more, they speak of some of the signs Jesus gave in the Olivet Discourse as coming to pass in their experience as we read later and later, chronologically, through the New Testament.
There is development in the early Church expectation as time goes by. The later it gets in New Testament times, the more urgency we see in the apostles' proclamation of the coming of Christ. In other words, the time statements narrow as the end of that generation gets closer and closer. A chronological look at the New Testament confirms the apostles taught nothing different than what Jesus promised during his ministry. The disciples proclaimed their Master's teaching. The time element in New Testament prophecy shouts "first century fulfillment!" from beginning to end.
Before Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist preached in the wilderness on the other side of the Jordan River. To the Pharisees and Sadducees, the same religious leaders Jesus later warned, John said, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Matt. 3:7, Luke 3:7 NKJV) Even before Jesus announced "this generation," John spoke of a coming judgment.
Seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, Peter adopted the same general expectation: "this generation." Luke records Peter's sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2. Notice Peter's conclusion:
And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." (Acts 2:40 NKJV)
Peter warned them about the judgment to come on Jerusalem as a result of their crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 2:22-23). Since many who heard Peter's sermon were in Jerusalem for the Passover feast seven weeks earlier, it is likely some of them joined with the crowds who answered Pilate by saying, "Let his blood be upon us and our children" (Matt. 27:25 NIV). Peter delivered a shocking message to his audience. He stood before God-fearing Jews and claimed they had put their long-awaited Messiah to death!
Peter's sermon makes sense when we place it in the context of the Old Testament which his listeners knew well. Moses prophesied in the Law that God would send another prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15-19). Moses warned anyone who would not listen to this prophet that God himself would "call him to account."
Peter's generation not only refused to listen to that prophet - they crucified him!1 Peter's message struck terror into those who became convicted of their guilt as they listened. When they came to realize what they had done to their Messiah, they were cut to the heart, and immediately asked Peter and the apostles what they should do (Acts 2:37).
As devout Jews, they knew that God is just and would avenge Jesus' innocent blood.2 But God graciously provided an escape for those who repented from their terrible act done in ignorance. Peter preached from the prophet Joel, "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Acts 2:21 NIV). While dying on the cross, Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34 NIV). For everyone who repented and received Christ, God answered Jesus' prayer (Acts 2:38-41).
Note that Peter's time perspective for the coming of God's judgment had not changed. Peter said the same thing Jesus did less than eight weeks earlier during the Olivet Discourse: "Be saved from this perverse generation" (Acts 2:40 NKJV).
Some time passed after Pentecost before the Church began to spread out across the Roman Empire. 1 Thessalonians, arguably the first of Paul's epistles, is representative of early New Testament teaching about the coming of the Lord. Paul taught the Thessalonian Christians (some of whom were Jews3) that the promise of Christ's coming was as sure as their shared faith in his death and resurrection. Paul based his teaching about the coming of Christ explicitly upon what Jesus promised during his ministry:
We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess. 4:14-15 NIV)
Does it not look like Paul believed that some would remain alive until the coming of the Lord? His time expectation is not focused any narrower than the limit of his own generation. Henry Morris, whom many consider the founder of modern young-earth creationism, agrees that Paul expected the Lord's coming in his day:
When Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, it was relatively early in his ministry, and he was evidently even then looking for the Lord's return. "We which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air," he wrote (1 Thess. 4:17).4
Why would Paul teach that some of his audience would live to see the coming of the Lord? Again, the answer is rooted in Jesus' own promises in passages such as Matthew 16:27-28, John 21:22-23, and Matthew 24:34. Paul believed that some of his own audience would live to see the coming of the Lord because of the Lord's own teaching. If Christians still await the coming of the Lord in our future, two thousand years later and counting, then we face some difficult questions about Paul's teaching. Was Paul mistaken? Did he teach the Thessalonians that some of them would remain alive "till the coming of the Lord" in error?
As we proceed chronologically later into the writing of the New Testament this time perspective begins to shorten.
James, the brother of Jesus, makes a direct reference to the impending judgment of Jerusalem and Judea and the coming of Christ. But he does not write in terms of a "generation." His expectation is noticeably shorter. James writes:
You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! (James 5:5-9 NIV)
Although there is some debate about when James wrote his letter, most agree that at least twenty years had gone by since Jesus taught the crowds in Judea. James encourages patience and promises, at the time of his letter, that the Lord's coming is near. His imagery of the judge standing at the door is a powerful testament to the fact that the time was getting closer. The coming of the Lord was nearer from James' perspective than from the delivery of the Olivet Discourse or Peter's sermon at Pentecost.
James also confirms that at least some of what Jesus predicted in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:9) had already taken place: people were being persecuted and killed. Jesus' promise of the coming persecution to death was already a fact in the experience of James. He had firsthand experience with the stoning of Stephen and the great persecution which broke out in Jerusalem.5 Like Jesus, James warned his hearers of the judgment to come on all those who spilled the innocent blood of God's beloved people.
The later books of the New Testament are difficult to place in exact chronological order. Whatever their precise dates may be, they highlight the growing urgency and immediacy with which the apostles spoke concerning the coming of Christ. Their time perspective narrowed even more as the years of that generation dwindled down.
One example is how the writer of Hebrews explicitly denies there will be a great delay before the coming of Christ:
Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry.' (Heb. 10:35-37 NKJV)
The writer of Hebrews quotes from the prophet Habakkuk. Why would he find Habakkuk relevant to his teaching? The answer is found in Habakkuk's historical situation as it compared to the early Church. In his own day, Habakkuk prophesied that Babylon would soon destroy Jerusalem and overrun Judah:
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. (Hab. 2:3 NKJV)
Habakkuk claimed that God's judgment would not tarry. And it did not. God judged Judah in 586 bc by ordaining the destruction of Judah and Solomon's temple. The writer of Hebrews repeats Habakkuk's warning because the time had come for God's judgment on Jerusalem and Judea by means of the Roman armies. His Hebrew audience, who knew their history well, could not possibly miss the power of this quotation. As surely as Habakkuk's prophecy was near in the prophet's day, so the coming of Christ was near in their day. Jerusalem and the Temple would soon be destroyed at the coming of Christ just as Jesus promised: "He who is coming will come and will not tarry."
It is a symptom of the confusion that dominates current discussion of prophecy that those who continue to place the coming of Christ in our future speak of Christ as "tarrying" to our day, thousands of years later. However the author of Hebrews plainly says that he who is coming "will not tarry." Hebrews teaches explicitly against an indefinite time period of waiting for the coming of Christ.
Peter's second epistle is another late New Testament book. We know it must be very late because 2 Peter 3:15-16 indicates Paul's letters were in wide circulation by the time Peter wrote. The chronology helps us because the conflict between the early Christians and Jewish unbelievers forms the backdrop for the entire letter. Note how 2 Peter 3 places the promise of Jesus' coming at the very center of a great debate between the Christians and those who continued to reject Christ. Peter writes:
First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "Where is this ‘coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." (2 Peter 3:3-4 NIV)
Keep in mind that Peter wrote this passage some thirty years after the ministry of Christ. Yet, the scoffers remembered exactly what Jesus promised would happen before that generation passed away. He said that generation would see him coming with power and great glory. He promised that generation would not pass away until the temple and Jerusalem had been completely destroyed. Even unbelievers in Peter's day understood precisely what Jesus taught the people.
The point is that the scoffers were not scientific uniformitarians looking at the creation and extrapolating from that to a denial of Christ's coming. They were looking at the (imagined) stability of their world. It was a world determined by "the fathers," and that was the Old Covenant world.7
These scoffers in Peter's day believed the non-occurrence of Jesus' prophesied coming refuted everything Jesus taught. Doesn't the fact that Peter had to contend with scoffers confirm that Peter believed what Jesus predicted would come to pass in their experience?8 After all, it was Peter who wrote, "The end of all things is near" (1 Peter 4:7 NIV) in his first letter.
As we now know from history, the scoffers' assessment was a wee bit premature. But we should understand how important their argument would be at the time of Peter's writing. The Old Testament teaches God's people to test anyone who claimed to be a prophet. How were they to test a self-professed prophet who appeared to them (as Jesus did)? The Law teaches:
You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. (Deut. 18:21-22 NIV)
If what Jesus predicted in his Olivet Discourse did not come true by the end of that generation, then no one should listen to him or his followers. The Law gave a standard by which the people could judge those who claimed to be a prophet of God. 2 Peter 3 shows how the Christian faith stands or falls on Jesus' promises given during his earthly ministry. The skeptics knew it. Peter knew it. All debate ended in AD 70.
Many Christians continue to place Peter's reference of the coming of Christ into our future. By so doing, they end up agreeing, unintentionally, with the scoffers of Peter's day - that Jesus' promise to come to that generation failed. Unfortunately, the implication of placing the coming of Christ into our future is that Jesus was a false prophet. How many consider the fact that if Jesus was a false prophet, then his crucifixion at the hands of the Jewish leaders was justified? The religious leaders had authority under the Law of Moses to punish false prophets. If Jesus did not come to that generation, then time showed he was a false prophet and deserved his death sentence.
We will have much more to say about how careless Christian teaching about what the Bible purportedly says can destroy the credibility of the Bible and our Christian faith. The very same issue relates to the Genesis debate as well.
The book of Revelation was one of the last New Testament books to be written. Revelation, written c. AD 64-66 under the reign of Nero, gives a new level of urgency and expectation. If we consider a biblical generation to be approximately 40 years (cf. Num. 14:32-33), then most of the time for the fulfillment of Jesus' predictions had expired by the time John wrote the book. This was around the time of Peter's death. (Remember, Jesus promised that Peter would die a martyr's death and John would live to see the coming of Christ in John 21:20-23). Revelation also appears to have been written while the temple in Jerusalem was still standing (Rev. 11:1-2).9
John opens the book by writing:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants - things which must shortly take place. (Rev. 1:1 NKJV)
John communicates a near expectation from the very first verse! But John does not stop there. He emphasizes the time element by repeating his claim with slightly different wording to emphasize his point:
Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near. (Rev. 1:3 NKJV)
John also claims to be a companion in that day of persecution. The tribulation was already present when John wrote the book of Revelation:
I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Rev. 1:9 NKJV)
Isn't John referencing the great tribulation Jesus promised would come upon his disciples?
John's clear time statements are not limited to the introduction of Revelation; they are sprinkled throughout the book. Here is one example of the immediacy of his expectation:
Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! (Rev. 3:10-11 NKJV)
Many ignore the time statement because of the "global" sounding language in this passage as well as the general "global" flavor of the book that a surface reading might suggest. One might reason that this time statement could not be fulfilled already because the subject is the "whole world" and "the earth." In the chapters to come we will discuss the seemingly global language in this passage and how our interpretation of it relates directly to the Genesis debate. For now, it is important to consider that this passage does possess a clear time statement, and that John expected the coming of Christ to take place in his very near future.
John concludes his book with an avalanche of time statements that highlight just how close he believed those events to be. Consider how much John emphasizes his near expectation for the events in the conclusion to Revelation:
Then he said to me, "These words are faithful and true." And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show His servants the things which must shortly take place. "Behold, I am coming quickly!" (22:6-7 NKJV)
And he said to me, "Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand." (22:10 NKJV)
And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work. (22:12 NKJV)
He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming quickly.' (22:20 NKJV)
If repetition is used to mark emphasis in the Bible, then no one should miss John's point. Over and over he says the time is near. This is exactly what we would expect John to emphasize if he understood that the time Jesus allotted for fulfillment, i.e., the passing of one generation, was almost up. It also may very well be that by this time John knew that Peter had been martyred as Jesus promised back in John 21:18-19. Everything Jesus promised had come to pass -- there was nothing left for which to wait.
The time statements throughout the book imply that the subject material of Revelation parallels Jesus' Olivet Discourse. John's highly symbolic apocalyptic style can easily lose modern readers, but the content of Revelation mirrors the Olivet Discourse. Consider Matthew 23:30-36 and Revelation 18:20, 24 as parallel passages:
Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matt. 23:34-36 NKJV).
Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God has avenged you on her!...And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who were slain on the earth. (Rev. 18:20, 24 NKJV).
The similarity of these passages suggests that first century Jerusalem is at the center of the story Revelation tells.
Revelation: John's Olivet Discourse
Since Revelation parallels the themes and teaching of the Olivet Discourse, we suggest that Revelation is John's extended version of the Olivet Discourse. John's gospel is the only gospel which contains no reference to the Olivet Discourse. That is no coincidence, because John dedicates the entire book of Revelation to a full unveiling of the meaning and fulfillment of all Jesus promised in the Olivet Discourse as well as the vision of the coming Messiah in power and glory.
There is a great deal of symbolism and imagery in Revelation. We will talk more about the style of John's poetic and symbolic writing in the chapters to come, but the best way to read the book is to place yourself into the shoes of the early Church and make their expectations of the coming of Christ your own. They patiently awaited their vindication by the hand of God. John wrote to them and promised deliverance to come soon.10
The Jewish leaders, many of whom attempted to destroy the early Church across the entire Roman Empire, were utterly destroyed in AD 70. Jews from around the Empire who rejected Jesus and the testimony of the apostles gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover in the spring of AD 70. This is when the Roman siege of Jerusalem began. As a result, they all became trapped inside a doomed city. Those who ignored the days of vengeance Jesus promised would come on that generation were either killed or taken out of Judea as slaves. National Israel was destroyed. The old covenant's institutional forms of sacrificial worship, made obsolete by the finished work of Christ (Hebrews 8:13), also perished in the flames of the Roman destruction in AD 70. The bottom line is that a first-century fulfillment of Revelation not only fits the time element we've seen so predominant in Jesus' teaching, it also makes all the references to common warfare at the time - siege warfare, battle horses, swords, etc - intelligible. Revelation speaks about things past, things present, and things future in John's world.
All of the New Testament writers taught that Christ would come to their generation. They emphasized the near expectation of the coming of Christ more and more as time passed in the historical context of the
New Testament. Their time statements narrowed as they came closer and closer to the ultimate fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy in the Olivet Discourse. What really happened in AD 70? Can Christians honestly say that prophetic events happened how and when Jesus and the apostles said? There is no argument for Christianity more powerful than the direct fulfillment of prophecy. Could it be that the coming of Christ with power and great glory was fulfilled in first century events centered in Jerusalem and Judea?
1 See Acts 3:22ff; Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19.
2 The same principle of justice applies to the persecution of Jesus' followers: c.f. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-7.