Mar 26, 2014

Paul and the Imminent Return of Jesus

Tony GarlandBy Dr. Tony Garland

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Q. Please consider the following verses:

I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.... I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife.... But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away. But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband (1 Cor. 7:8, 26-27, 29-34 NKJV)

Through these verses the Apostle calls for an undivided devotion towards the Lord. Considering the "present distress" and the immediate nature of "the time" he goes on even to dissuade marriages among Christians (provided they can exercise self-control). But we know he had no intention to make Christianity an extinct religion.

One possible explanation is that these verses were meant only to the Christians of Corinth considering the then prevailing distressful conditions. But this is highly unlikely since the motivating factor for the Apostle was "the time is short." So in the final analysis I should conclude that the Apostle thought that the second advent of the Lord would take place in his time. He seemed to be so sure about it.

I have heard many people saying that the Apostle only taught the principle that the Christians of every generation ought to maintain such a hope. This is also highly unlikely since then he would be doing injustice to the then Christians saying "But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none" (1 Cor. 7:29) and "But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am" (1 Cor. 7:8).

So the Apostle had in his mind about the coming of the Lord in his own time. But we know that the Lord did not come in his time.

My question is where have I gone wrong in my thinking that the Apostle had gone wrong?

A. A natural understanding of this passage, and numerous others, would lead us to conclude that Paul believed it was possible—even likely—that Jesus would return for the Church during Paul's lifetime.

  • Paul included himself among those who could be alive at the return of Jesus for the Church (the Rapture). "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed ... the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:51-52) "We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.... the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air...." (1 Th. 4:15-17).

  • Paul emphasized the any-moment return of Jesus. "Knowing the time ... it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand...." (Rom. 13:11-12). "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself" (Php. 3:20-21). "Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand" (Php. 4:5).

  • Both Paul and Peter taught fellow believers to watch for the possible return of Jesus in their lifetime: "For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1 Th. 1:9-10). "But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers" (1 Pe. 4:7).

I do not believe that Paul was writing from a purely hypothetical point of view—as if he knew Jesus wouldn't return that soon, but was trying to encourage the expectation of Christians in generations to come. Paul's concern was to instruct the recipients of his letters living at that time. His expectation that the return of the Lord for the Church could happen at "any moment" was genuine.

This does not pose a problem concerning the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. All that inerrancy requires is that definite statements made by the inspired writers of Scripture are in fact accurate. It does not require the writers to be omniscient and have full knowledge of areas which God only granted limited revelation. For instance, article IX of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states:

We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.

Since Paul does not categorically state that Jesus must return in his lifetime, he is not in error. Rather, he is revealing just what the Holy Spirit had shown him: the real possibility that Jesus could return during Paul's lifetime: there was no additional prophetic event that needed to happen before the return could take place. I believe this was by design. God has purposely withheld knowledge of the timing of the Rapture because He desires every generation of believers to understand the return could happen at "any moment." Like the Old Testament prophets before him, Paul was only shown certain things. Other aspects of the Lord's plan were not revealed in detail.

Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into (1 Pe. 1:10-12, NKJV).

The any-moment (imminent) return of Christ is by God's design. Because there are no preconditions before the Lord's return for the Church, we remain focused on watching for Christ (rather than other events such as the rise of Antichrist). We have greater motivation to live each day in diligent service to the Lord. This uncertainty leaves us with all sorts of productive questions: "Is today the day Jesus will return? Is the next moment the moment He will arrive? What activity will I be engaged in when my Lord returns?"

Peter emphasizes this motivational aspect of the unknown timing of the Lord's return when he predicts the scoffers who would say it had been so long that Jesus would never return:

But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? (2 Pe. 3:8-12, NKJV)

Because we know the seriousness of the Lord's return and understand it can occur at any moment, we are motivated to live a pure life while continually watching. "As someone once said, 'Bible prophecy is not given so we can make a calendar—it's given to mold our character.'" [1]

[A] continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth 'thrown in': aim at earth and you will get neither. [2]

Thus, we find the New Testament teaching an ongoing expectation for the any-moment return of Jesus (even in Paul's day) and the need for patience because God's perspective regarding time is immensely different than ours.

Paul wrote from the perspective of believers in his generation and saw the possibility of the Lord's appearing for the Church in his lifetime. Yet the possibility also remained—as it turned out—that many more generations would pass before the Lord returned. This perspective seems to be reflected in Peter's passage cited above.

Understanding how Scripture teaches an imminent return of Jesus while also containing detailed predictions regarding events at the end of the age requires a careful study of the differences between passages which concern Jesus' return for the Church (the Rapture) verses those which concern His return as a thief on an unsuspecting world ushering in the Day of the Lord, culminating in His Second Coming in judgment. But those are subjects for another time! ☺


[1] Matthew Waymeyer, Revelation 20 and the Millennial Debate (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2001, 2004), 1.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing, 1943, 1977), 118.