Audience Relevance, the Time Texts, and Bible Prophecy

I have been looking into prophecy books that deal with the history of prophetic interpretation. Dispensationalists are trying to claim that the “rapture” and dispensationalism (it’s the “ism” that makes a difference) had a long history before John Nelson Darby. You can read some of my articles on the subject here and here. One odd prophecy book I picked up is When Will the Rapture Take Place? (2011) by F. Kenton Beshore with William Keller.

Even after quoting two Greek lexicons that state “the Greek adverb eggus … means to bring near, to draw nigh, be at hand’ (Liddell & Scott, Greek Lexicon, p. 189)” and “Greek language expert Dr. Joseph Thayer [who] says that when it used in reference to time it is ‘concerning things imminent and soon to come to pass’ (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 164),” the authors immediately follow up these statements with this: “The passages noted above do not concern ‘time’ and they do not teach that  the return of Jesus was ‘at hand’ in the first century” (157). The authors claim that what these words really mean is that “the return of Christ is certain.”

It doesn’t take a Greek scholar to learn that the use of the Greek word ἐγγὺς/engus describes events that were “near” and not just “certain”: Matthew 24:32, 33; 26:18; Mark 13:29; Luke 19:11; John 2:13; 3:23; 6:4, 19, 23; 7:2; Rom. 10:8; etc.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

If you are looking for an antidote for the virus of prophetic speculation, then Wars and Rumors of Wars is the book to read. It’s a detailed study of Matthew 24 and other prophetic passages that are often used to claim that we are living in the last days.

Since John is told that the events revealed to him were to take place “soon” (1:1) “for the time is near” (1:3), Revelation is about events that were to happen soon for those living in John’s day, in particular, in events leading up to and including the end of the Old Covenant represented outwardly by the temple and Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem.

The Old Covenant was replaced with a better covenant in the person and work of Jesus Christ who embodies all that the Old Covenant could only represent in temporal (stones) and fallen elements (human priests). Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), the temple built without hands (John 2:13–22; see Mark 14:58; 15:29; Acts 6:14), the fulfillment of the Davidic kingship (Acts 2:22-36), and “a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man” (Heb. 8:1–2).

The Old Covenant was always planned obsolescence. With the coming of the true tabernacle in the Person and work of Jesus (John 1:14), the Jewish leadership should have used the temple as a museum or torn it down and used its stones for other habitable structures (see Num. 21:8–9; 2 Kings 18:1–7; John 3:14).

There is another component to consider in the interpretive process: audience relevance. How would John’s audience have understood the prophecy? Even today, prophecy preachers turn to the time indicators in Revelation and argue that Jesus is coming soon. But if “soon” means near to the time when we hear a prophecy enthusiast say that Jesus’ coming is “soon,” then why didn’t “soon” mean “soon” to Revelation’s first readers?

Dave Hunt’s book How Close Are We? includes the following subtitle: “Compelling Evidence for the Soon Return of Christ?” What did Mr. Hunt want his readers to understand by his use of the word “soon”? He certainly didn’t have in mind nearly 2000 years in the future from the time he wrote his book in 1993.

On the Brink is the title of a prophetic work written by Daymond R. Duck. In the introduction Duck tells his readers that his book has “300 Points of Light on the Soon Return of Jesus.”1 Duck and Hunt want their readers to believe that Jesus’ coming is going to take place soon, and by soon, they mean near, and by near they mean in this generation, and by “this generation,” they mean this one here and now. Why didn’t “soon” and “near” mean “soon” and “near” to those who read these time words in the first century?

Identifying the Real Last Days Scoffers

What were the scoffers in Peter’s day scoffing at when they asked, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:3) Modern-day prophecy writers argue that anyone who questions that the return of Jesus is near based on Israel becoming a nation again and certain end-time signs is an end-time scoffer, and Peter had them in mind when he wrote his second letter. The simple fact is, the New Testament writers, including Peter (1 Peter 4:7; cf. Heb. 9:26), taught that Jesus would return “shortly” (Rev. 1:1322:10), before the last apostle died (John 21:18–24Matt.16:27–28), within a generation (Matt. 24:34), because the time was “near” for them (James 5:7–9Rev. 1:3) that the old covenant was in the process of passing away.

Chuck Smith published The Soon to be Revealed Antichrist in 1976. What did Chuck Smith mean by “soon”? While he says we can’t know who the antichrist is, he does say “God is giving us many signs that we are nearing the last days — the stage is being set.” Smith also stated that “we are living in the last generation, which began with the rebirth if Israel in 1948 (see Matt. 24:32–34).”2 We get some idea from these comments what Smith means by near.

What did these authors intend for their audience to understand with words like “at hand,” “soon,” and “close”? Does anybody think that these books would have sold well if they carried a title like “We Don’t Know When the Antichrist Will be Revealed So Quit Asking”? The authors purposely chose time words to put readers on the edge of their prophetic seats because they know that “soon,” “close,” and “at hand” mean soon, close, and at hand.

I wrote Is Jesus Coming Soon? The answer is, Jesus came in judgment soon after He told His disciples that He would return within a generation of His earthly ministry based on what He told them in Matthew 24: “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (v. 34), and that included His judgment coming (v. 27) and His ascension where He took His seat at His Father’s right hand (v. 30).

Chuck Smith appealed to these same passages to persuade his 1976 reading audience that they were “nearing the last days” and “this generation” is their generation. So why didn’t Jesus’ audience interpret these words and phrases in the same way and apply them to their time? They did, and that’s the point.

While Dave Hunt offered what he believed was “compelling evidence for the soon return of Christ,” he claimed that “the early church believed that Christ could come at any moment.” In a chapter describing what he believes is the New Testament doctrine of “imminency,” he writes:

 From even a cursory reading of the New Testament there can be no doubt that it was considered normal in the early church to expect Christ at any moment. Paul greeted the Christians at Corinth as those who were “waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7) — again language that requires imminency. He urged Timothy to “keep this commandment without spot, unrebukable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:14).3

What we find missing in Hunt’s study of the issue of timing related to the coming of Jesus is a discussion of verses that deal with the timing of Jesus’ return. The Bible does not tell us that Jesus can come “at any moment” spread out over several millennia. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus’ coming was “near,” close at hand, for those living in the first century. Here are some examples:

  • “Be patient, therefore, brethren,until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts,for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door” (James 5:7–9).
  •  “The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1 Peter 4:7).
  • “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond‑servants, the things which must shortly take place¼” (Rev. 1:1).
  • “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3).
  • “And he said to me, ‘These words are faithful and true’; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to his bond‑servants the things which must shortly take place” (Rev. 22:6).
  • “And behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev. 22:7).
  • “And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near’” (Rev. 22:10).
  • “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12; cf. Matt. 16:27).
  • “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

These verses, and others like them, clearly state that Jesus’ return was “near,” that He was coming “quickly.” Dispensationalists like to claim that Jesus could come at “any moment” to “rapture” His church. There is no such doctrine in Scripture. “That James does not expect the period to be long is clear when he says the parousia of the Lord (cf. 5:7) is near.”4

Last Days Madness

The end is here…again, this time as a pandemic. At every calendar milestone, self-proclaimed modern-day “prophets” arise to stir up a furor rivaled only by the impending apocalypse they predict. This doom-and-gloom prognostication is not only spread by a few fanatics, but millions of Christians, including some of the most recognized names in mainstream Christianity who are caught up in the latest “last days” frenzy.

In the closing chapter of Revelation John is told, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (Rev. 22:10). The first readers of Revelation would have read words like “soon,” “near,” “quickly,” and “at hand” and most likely would have assumed that the time was near for them. This contrasts with what was told to Daniel hundreds of years before: “But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the time of the end; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase” (Dan. 12:4; also 8:26, 10:14). A. Berkeley Michelson writes:

Everyone who interprets a passage of the Bible stands in a present time while he examines a document that comes from a past time. He must discover what each statement meant to the original speaker or writer, and to the original hearers or readers, in their own present time.5

This is easier said than done since there is always the temptation to interpret Scripture in terms of our own reference point. We are comfortable with the familiar and not so competent with the way other people write and think.

  1. Daymond R. Duck, On the Brink: East-Understand End-Time Bible Prophecy (Lancaster, PA: Starburst Publishers, 1995), 9. []
  2. Chuck Smith, The Soon to be Revealed Antichrist (Costa Mesa, CA: Maranatha House Publishers, 1976), 3. []
  3. Dave Hunt, How Close Are We?: Compelling Evidence for the Soon Return of Christ (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 248. []
  4. Peter Davids, Commentary on James (NIGTC) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 184. []
  5. A. Berkeley Michelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 55. []
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