We have to admit in analyzing the New Testament that the early church thought Jesus was serious about coming back really soon. Waiting a few millennia was not at all the way they interpreted Jesus’ prophetic statements. In Mark 13 He said he’d be back before a generation passed and so the New Testament authors write with a hurried expectation. Paul takes the gospel to the ends of the known world, which as Michael Heiser points out, “was the extent of the Roman Empire” in Paul’s time (Heiser, Michael S. The Unseen Realm. p. 300). Paul even writes with the expectation that everything is coming to an end soon.
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor 7:29-31)
Paul’s words here are strong. The old world is passing away and the new one is taking over and it is doing so with such urgency that even something as good and right as marriage itself should not get in the way of us preparing for the coming end times.
Even Jesus expected to be back within a few decades at most. Sure, He admitted that, “concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13:32), but his best guess was still that He’d return before His disciples died.
And the rest of His prophetic words about the end times were coming true, so the early church had reason to be on edge. Jesus said some would pretend to be Him and people like Theudas came about “claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him” (Ac 5:36). Jewish historian Josephus gives us a few more details, mentioning that Theudas
persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. (Antiquities 20.97-98) (Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Translated by William Whiston. Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.)
Jesus also said that there would be earthquakes and Phrygia was struck in 61 AD and Pompey in 63 AD. He said there would be rumors of war before he returned and in Caligula’s day there were, with actual war breaking out 25 years later in 66 AD. He said there’d be famines and there were (Ac 11:28). He said the second temple of His time would be destroyed, and in 70 AD, it was. (For more information on these prophetic words coming true, see, Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. pp. 390-392.)
And so Jesus’ prophetic words had a lot of traction. Everything He said would happen was actually happening. But now a generation of Christians were dying out and it was clear that Jesus wasn’t going to make His return within His expected timeframe. So what were these Christians to make of his expected return date? That conversation continues in our next blog post.
Return to Part 1 of this series.