The “Imminent” Return of Jesus from a NT Vantage

It is common to find statements like “We believe in the imminent return of Jesus” in confessions of faith.  But what if we step back into the pages of the Gospels and epistles and find it is not there?

Does truth matter?

Does it matter enough that we should want to know what is true, even if it causes us to question dearly held assumptions?

Some would say love is more important.  But love is reflected in a faithful and sincere sharing of truth with others.  If one declines to speak the truth, he does not truly love his brother or sister in Christ.

So.  Speaking the truth in love is our goal.

imminent return of Jesus

The imminent return of Jesus — opening the discussion

Let me be clear at the beginning.  In this post, we are not questioning the reality of the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We are only re-examining a prevailing belief that the New Testament teaches that His return is “imminent.”

The imminent return of Jesus — proof texts

As I said, the words “We believe in the imminent return of Jesus” are common in statements of faith.  And they are usually regarded as having a solid basis in Scripture.  After all, they have NT “proof” texts to support them.  However, those texts only speak of Jesus returning, without a reference to imminency.  In fact, they do not generally possess a time-related component.  Except for this: that it will be “in an hour when you think not.”

The Greek word ταχυ, “quickly,” in Revelation 22:7 and 20 (“I come quickly“), for example, carries the element of speed and surprise (as in I Thess. 5:1-6: Jesus’ coming is sudden and unexpected).  To translate it as “soon” is somewhat misleading.

We find a good example of how this word is used in the NT in Acts 12:7.  The angel tells Peter, who is in prison, to “Stand up.”  The words εν ταχει (ταχυ in another form) follow these words directly, and translate into “Stand up quickly!”  If we translate them as “soon” (as in the “near but undetermined future”), it could be too late.  Whereas “quickly” indicates the urgency and speed needed for Peter to make a quick escape!  The NT word is not related so much to time as to action.

So why are statements in confessions of faith, like the one quoted above, usually accepted without question?  And even considered a measure of one’s “orthodoxy”?

The reason for the why

Here is why.

Christians are often content with an unexplored, unexamined Christianity.  Footpaths that lead to the personal discovery of truth don’t bear a great number of joggers.  So the wonders of personal voyages and explorations into the infinite Word, are, to a large extent, never experienced.

Gone are the days when even Paul’s teachings were examined by Scripture to see whether they were so (Acts 17:11).

An introduction to the subject of the imminent return of Jesus

To begin the subject of the “imminent return” of Jesus, let us look at the customary way Bible teachers understand I Thessalonians 4:13-18.  Because of what Paul says in this passage, they say he believed Jesus was coming in his lifetime.

If you will pardon me for a moment, I think I see a rabbit trail.  Why miss an opportunity to follow those little padded feet?

Let’s just take “Paul’s part” and say Jesus did return in Paul’s lifetime.  What would that mean?

Try for a moment to imagine Christianity lasting for little more than half a century (that would spell the end of you and me), after the thousands of years that lead up to it, and the numerous prophecies that spoke of it and the ultimate King and kingdom it represents.  The Church Jesus said He would build would not have gotten much beyond its “infancy.”  There would certainly not be “a multitude no man could number” (Rev. 7:9) standing before God in the end.  And the earthly phase of the kingdom would have “come near” just before its “plug” was pulled.  And, saddest of all: you could say, Jesus would have been “King for a day!” or less, in earthly terms (unless you believe in a thousand-year reign on the earth).

A reality check is helpful once in a while.

Returning from the rabbit trail

As I said: because of what Paul writes in I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Bible teachers commonly say he believed Jesus was coming in his day.  This is based on his words, “We who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord,” and, “Then, we who are living and remain will be caught up together” with the dead in Christ who are raised first (I Thess. 4:16,17).

Is Paul saying, “I will be living when Jesus comes”?  No.  He is not.  He is simply employing the customary way we describe such things.

Imagine a ship going down a short distance off the coast.  The captain says to everyone on board: “Those of us who are unable to swim will get in the lifeboats.  The rest of us will swim to shore.”  He’s not saying he is going to be in a lifeboat or that he is going to swim (he will obviously do one or the other).  He’s just pointing out what everyone is going to do under these circumstances.  That’s what Paul is doing.  He’s simply saying, when Jesus comes, the dead will rise first, and then, those who are alive and remain (he is alive when he writes this, so he includes himself), whoever they are at the time, will gather with them in the clouds to meet the Lord.

A fair question

Do you seriously believe Paul thought he would be alive when Jesus comes?

Before you answer, consider four texts of Scripture (highlighted in red) in the New Testament that would teach otherwise.  They will shine a light on the NT’s point of view on an “imminent” return of Jesus.

1. The “imminent return” of Jesus — not something Peter was looking for

According to John 21, Paul and other first-century Christians were most likely aware that Peter would be martyred before Jesus returned.  Jesus had told Peter, before His ascension, that this would happen to him when he was old (John 21:18,19; II Pet. 1:14).  For those who knew this, no return of Jesus was expected before Peter was martyred (around 67-68 A.D.).  We understand that Peter’s martyrdom was common knowledge in the first-century Church because of the way John addresses the subject in chapter 21 of his Gospel.  As if his readers are already familiar with the story.  Truth is, they were aware of it from the day Jesus spoke to Peter (John 21:23).  Remember.  This was before His ascension to the right hand of God, shortly after His resurrection.

2. An imminent return — not something John was looking for

First-century Christians also knew that John would receive a special visitation from Jesus before His return (John 21:22).  He experienced this on the Isle of Patmos and in the presence of the throne of God, where Jesus gave him the book of Revelation.  (Varying dates for John’s Gospel are 61/62 or 80-90 A.D.)

But there is more.

When John wrote in John 21 that “Jesus did not say to [Peter] that [John] would not die” (John 21:23), it was another way of saying that John would in fact die.  Jesus had told Peter, “If I will that [John] remains till I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:22)  First-century Christians thought this meant John would not die.   John corrected their misunderstanding.  So they knew two things would happen to the Apostle John before Jesus returned.  (1) He would have a unique visitation from Jesus.  And, (2) he would most likely die.

3. No imminent return before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

imminent return of Jesus

In the Olivet Discourse: Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 (also 19:41-44), Jesus taught that Jerusalem would be destroyed before He returned.  So, in 70 A.D., Christians living in Jerusalem, who were aware of His teachings about this, fled into the mountains when the Roman armies mysteriously backed off from the city for a short time, which allowed them to escape, according to the Lord’s words.

Needless to say, this would also preclude any return in Paul’s lifetime.  In fact, Paul himself was most likely aware of Jesus’ words relating to the destruction of Jerusalem.  Not only were Matthew and Mark the first Gospel writers (possible dates of their Gospels: earliest, 38-41 A.D.; latest, 50s A.D.), but Luke (date of his Gospel: 45/46 or 60/61 A.D.) was Paul’s traveling companion (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16; Philem. 23,24) who was with him to the end (II Tim. 4:11).  So Paul and Luke were often together, from around 50 A.D. to the end of Paul’s life (around 67 A.D.).  They probably shared this information with one another during those years.  And Paul, if given the opportunity, would have surely read Luke’s Gospel, and possibly, even his book of Acts: for Paul is still alive when Luke closes the book of Acts.

Furthermore.  Notice what Jesus says in Matthew 22:1-10 on Jerusalem’s destruction (v. 7) and the Gospel call it inspires (vv. 8-10).  This carries any “imminent return” of Jesus into a distant future beyond Jerusalem’s destruction.

4. No return until the “man of sin” appears

This is something Paul himself wrote: “The day of Christ [His return] will not come until there comes the falling away [apostasy] first, and the man of sin is revealed” (II Thess. 2:1-12).  There would be no “imminent return” of Jesus before there was a great falling away (Luke 18:8) and the “man of sin [or lawlessness]” appeared.

And that places the subject of an “imminent return” squarely on our own doorstep.  You could say, it’s a “Back to the Future” moment.  Because, to this day, we are still wondering what “the apostasy” is, and who “the man of sin” is.  We can’t say that we have seen them yet.  Another thing we cannot say is that the return of Jesus is “imminent” until these things become a reality in our lives.

But there is something else to think about. . .

If Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, speaks prophetically of events that precede the coming of Jesus, but find their fulfillment beyond his lifetime, how could he say in his first letter that he will be here when Jesus comes?  Gifted prophetically, as he was, he would be aware of this.

The “imminent” return of Jesus and statements of faith

Unfortunately, we can only submit ourselves to a statement of faith, or any other teaching of man, insofar as it is Biblical.  And therefore, we must take our stand, and say, with Martin Luther: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God” (a quote from Luther in Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton, p.144).

Scripture is our measuring line.  “Man will not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”  “I did eat Your words.”  Deuteronomy 8:3 and Jeremiah 15:16.


Does that mean everything else is just “junk food”?  🙂

Bidding adieu with a consideration of Jesus’ admonition to “Watch”

Jesus’ admonition for us to “Watch” does not mean His return is “imminent.”  It means that every generation of believers should love and long for His return (II Tim. 4:8; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 9:28; II Pet. 3:12) because most of us will be the first to meet Him in the air.

Only a relatively small portion of believers in the history of the world will be “alive and remain” when He comes.

Yet we are all admonished to “Watch.”

Learn more:

The Constitution and American Christians


© James Unruh 2024 and beyond

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4 Responses to The “Imminent” Return of Jesus from a NT Vantage

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  2. Mabelle says:

    This is a topic which is close to my heart… Cheers!

  3. brad bauder says:

    Very enlightening!

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