Q. Thank you so much for answering all of my questions. You provide such a great service to Christians helping to deepen their faith.
From the letters John, Jude and Peter- in addition to many other scripture writings, it is very clear that the early church expected
Christ to return in their lifetime. If they were so close to the Truth by a generation or less, why did they not have a clearer understanding that it would be at least thousands of years until the end of the age?
Why did they not have a better understanding of New Testament prophecy? We seem to have a better understanding in this century than any generation after the birth of Christ. In contrast, the Old Testament prophets clearly understood that the birth of Christ would not occur in their lifetime much less 500 years later. Why the difference in prophetic understanding between Old and New Testament writers?
A. By the end of the Babylonian captivity it was clear that the Lord’s first visit was over 500 years away, based on Daniel 9:24-27. And when the decree to rebuild Jerusalem was signed by Artaxerxes as described in Nehemiah 2 they could begin counting off the years, which is exactly what Daniel told the Magi to do, and that’s why their descendants showed up in Bethlehem.
Early Church writers believed that the Lord could return at any moment. Some say that’s because most of them wrote while the Temple was still standing and Israel still existed as a nation. After 70 AD that was no longer true and hasn’t been since, but by then most of what became the New Testament had already been written, John’s books being the exception. But that isn’t consistent with the view that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, who knows the end from the beginning.
Since the Lord did nothing to dissuade them from believing this and writing about it, and since He obviously knew the schedule, they couldn’t have been referring to the 2nd Coming.
I believe that for each generation the statements concerning the Lord’s coming for us (as opposed to His 2nd Coming to Earth) have been true on an individual basis, and that this is what the New Testament writers were really referring to, whether they understood it that way or not. No one has ever known the day or hour of his or her personal appointment with the Lord, for many He has come at a time when they weren’t expecting Him, and obviously it’s never been more than a lifetime away for anyone.
So in the personal sense the doctrine of imminency has always been valid, and takes no liberties with the Scriptures. We’re taught to live each day as if it might be our last, and to always be prepared to vanish. For all but the last generation, it’s been a personal event rather than a corporate one, but it’s always been an imminent one.