Biblical Doctrine on the Imminency of Jesus' Return
The Belief Defined
A common teaching in the Christian church is that when Jesus died his disciples expected him to return quickly: that week, that month, or even that year. He would surely return, they felt, within their lifetimes. Our understanding (so the teaching goes), that the disciples expected Jesus to return soon helps us understand some of the things written in the New Testament. Is that common teaching correct or should we re-examine it?
The Importance of the Belief
This belief is not doctrinally important. So what if the disciples believed Jesus would return soon or not? Everything still is as it is and nothing changes. It is like a brick in the wall; even if we remove the brick, the wall still stands. The only reason it holds any importance at all is that it is a stepping stone that helps us understand other aspects and doctrines of the Bible that are important.
That is the crux of the matter. Knowing exactly what really happened, even if it’s not important, helps us to understand other matters that are important. It adds another light, in order that we may see another aspect of the whole truth. The reverse is also true. If we have long believed a certain “fact” that actually is false, then it wrongly colors other areas of our doctrines.
The Purpose of this Paper
Many Christians believe that the first disciples expected Jesus to return quickly after his death. What if that belief is wrong? If it were wrong, it would force us to re-examine, re-interpret and re-understand certain scriptures, and that is important. I submit that the belief is wrong, and I think that it’s relatively easy to show it’s wrong.
Examine the Timeline
First, let’s look at the timeline. As best as we can determine, Jesus was crucified sometime around AD 29, give or take five years. Furthermore, the first book of the New Testament was written around AD 50. That right there should tell you the disciples did not expect Jesus to return imminently: that week, that month or that year. Twenty-five years later they would not be writing that they expected Jesus to return quickly after his death.
During the first twenty-five years after the crucifixion, persecutions of the church were happening and Christians were being killed. Stephen was martyred. When they wrote the New Testament they certainly could not have expected Jesus to return before any of them died.
Examine John 21:22
Now let’s look at some of the scriptural evidence. We’ll take first of all Jesus' appearance to the disciples as recorded in the gospel of John, 21:22-23.
Jesus answered, “If I want him [John] to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”1
What can we draw from that? We can see here that the disciples were expecting they would all die except John by the time Jesus returned.
That can be understood in two ways:
- They would soon die a martyr’s death except John
- John would miraculously live beyond a normal lifespan
No matter which option is correct, the fact remains they were all expecting to die before Jesus returned, except for John.
Another scripture of interest is taken from Matthew, 28:18-20.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The disciples were told to go and “make disciples of all nations.” That is hardly a task that can be done in “a week, a month, or a year.” Even if we condense the world to be the “known” world, that would include Europe, India, Persia, and Africa, as well as the Mideast. The disciples could not have believed Jesus was returning imminently in bodily form after having heard that.
Jesus did say, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Another word of “age” is “eon.” The King James Version translates it as “world” – “even to the end of the world.” It basically means, “to the end of forever.” They knew by that that the preaching of the gospel would continue until the end of the world as they knew it.
Jesus promised to be with them from now on. Then he was lifted up and taken away from them. Did they expect he would come back right then? Or did they think he would be with them in a spiritual way? Even if at that minute they did expect him to come back right away, they certainly would not have thought that twenty five years later when the gospel of Matthew was being written. When the gospel was written, they knew he was not coming back quickly.
If they had thought Jesus would return immediately, what would his return mean? They understood it to mean that Jesus would restore Israel and rule the world himself. When that happens, what need would there be for them to preach the gospel to all nations? Jesus himself would reveal himself to all nations.
This scripture could only mean that the disciples understood they were to preach the gospel and convert all nations until Jesus returned, whenever that may be.
Matthew 24 sheds more light on the disciples' understanding of the end times.
the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
To answer their questions,
Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
"Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come."
We learn by this that we can see signs occurring before the end of the age. Furthermore we know the gospel will be preached until the end of the age. We also know that Jesus himself will not physically be present because
"For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many."
If Christ were already here, how could people come and claim, "I am the Christ"?
By this we know the disciples knew Jesus would not return imminently but at the end of the age.
There is more in Matthew 24 that we should examine.
"At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other."
If the angels gather the elect from the "four winds," the elect are no longer present to preach the gospel. When will that happen? It happens when they see Jesus appearing in the sky. The disciples cannot think Jesus will return quickly after hearing this.
The instruction of not predicting the return of Jesus started from the beginning, when Jesus himself told the disciples that no one knew the hour of his return.
"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man."
If they "knew" Jesus would return almost as soon as he left, isn’t that predicting his return?
This belief is incorrect that the disciples thought Jesus would return imminently, "this week, this month, this year or before I die." Therefore all scriptures that are interpreted and understood using that as a guideline should be reexamined. They did not expect Jesus to return soon. They expected him to return after they had preached the gospel to all the world. Furthermore those events were all recorded many years later, so even if a belief of imminent return had existed at one time, it certainly could not have existed during the writing of the New Testament.
1This and all scripture in this paper is quoted from The New International Version,
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984.