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In multiple New Testament passages the Disciples and even Jesus appear to think He would return within one generation or so:

  1. Jesus says, 'What I say to you, I say to all: Watch, for you know not the hour ...' or 'Some here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.' (Mt 16, Lk 9)

  2. Paul encourages people to remain in their current states of life (e.g. celibate) in anticipation of Jesus' return.

  3. The Christians waited to produce a written record of Jesus' teachings when need for it became apparent. (Such need was not immediately apparent because they thought Jesus would return soon.)

I can only guess that Jesus' return and the hour of our death are equivalent, hence Jesus tells everyone to keep watch, but I don't see that this interpretation is supported by the text. Rather, the text literally suggests that the end of the world would come at any time, but then Jesus has delayed it by 2,000 years, which seems unjust to all those generations, and to us as well, leaving us in a kind of painful suspense.

So what's the deal? Why did Jesus cause and allow the early Christians to be mistaken about the timeframe of His return?

I did read a book arguing that Jesus was actually using symbolic language to refer to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, but this theory merely replaces those questions with why Jesus would make His written testimony unreasonably difficult to understand.

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    This is a "truth" question, which means it's likely to be closed if you don't ask from the perspective of a single denomination. Each will have its own interpretation. To make my point, Mark 13:32 states that no one, not even Jesus, knows when He will return, save the Father (which is part of the answer to your Q). But churches that believe the Trinity is one god will have a different take on that verse than those who think the Trinity is three separate people. Therefore, I recommend you decide which POV you want and edit your Q and title to reflect that. – JBH Mar 27 '18 at 15:17
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The problem is not with the Bible, but with the way we have been taught to read it. For hundreds of years we have been looking at the scriptures from the wrong perspective. The New Testament is history for us, just as we know and recognize that the Old Testament scriptures recorded events of long ago.

The scriptures of the NT were written / recorded almost 2,000 years ago. They are a record of words spoken by Christ, and the letters from the apostles / disciples during that generation of the 1st century AD when Christ walked on this earth.

We have to put the scriptures in their time and place, and know that the words spoken and the letters written were to them, not us. They are recorded for our admonition (1 Cor. 10:11) so that we can know how to be acceptable to God, and that God's plan of salvation has assuredly been accomplished in Christ, but they were written TO THEM.

The events of the first century A.D. happened in our past. So, when we read of things promised to them, we need to understand it from the contemporary historical view point. The question then becomes - do we believe Christ lied to His disciples, or do we believe He meant exactly what He said?

That question then should make clear that our trust needs to be in Christ. Therefore anything we have been taught that causes a problem with our understanding of Christ's words means the teaching in our background / churches / traditions is a problem. It is not Christ that is the problem, but our understanding.

When we let Christ's words stand, when we let His words become the truth, then the Bible makes perfect sense.

So, when He said in Luke 16:16,

"The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it." (KJV)

We should KNOW of a certainty that the law and the prophets were speaking and pointing to the time of John.

Mal. 4:5-6,

"5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:

6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." (KJV)

John was promised to come "before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord". John was the Elijah promised from the OT prophecies to straighten the Lord's path (Isa. 40:3). He was the messenger sent to prepare the way before the Lord (Mal. 3:1).

Christ told them that the kingdom was at hand (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7). The gospels are filled with the promise of that kingdom to that generation. It was not a promise of a physical kingdom.

Luke 17:20-21,

"20 And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:

21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (KJV)

They didn't get it, just as many today still don't get it. The kingdom was not going to be a literal, physical kingdom on earth. It is a spiritual kingdom within the hearts of those who are in Christ. And, He promised that generation of the first century AD that it would be established in their lifetime.

Matt. 10:23,

"But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come." (KJV)

Matt. 24:34,

"Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." (KJV)

Luke 12:49,

"I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?" (KJV)

Matt. 16:28,

"Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." (KJV)

John 21:22,

"Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me." (KJV)

Christ told the disciples that John would live to see His second appearance in that generation. The second appearance promised in Heb. 9:28 were written to those of that generation of the first century AD who were anxiously awaiting His return. They knew it. They had been promised it.

No other generation than that in which Christ was manifested, in which He walked on this earth, in which He spoke to the people, in which He was crucified and was resurrected could have a second appearance of Him. You cannot have a second appearance if you have never seen Him even once!

We either believe Christ, or we count Him as a liar. Why is it then that so many have been taught to doubt the scriptures, and to doubt His word?

His promised return in that generation was the "end of days" told Daniel by Gabriel for the desolations of Jerusalem, and the destruction of that 2nd temple which happened in AD 70. His return was a day of judgment just as all OT prophesy is couched as "a coming of the Lord," or a "day of the Lord," or a "day of calamity," or the "day of His wrath."

His return was not to set up a physical kingdom on earth but to remove the last remnant of the old Mosaic sacrificial covenant, the temple where the Jews were still offering animal sacrifices. Those sacrifices had become profane once His blood became that sacrifice promised by OT prophesy (Dan. 9:24-27; Psa. 22:16-18; 2 Sam. 7:14; Isa. 53:5, etc.)

That the Jews were still offering those sacrifices in the temple is indicated by Christ's condemnation of them as the "synagogue of Satan" in Rev. 2:9, 3:9.

The problem is not with Christ's words, but with our eyes. We cannot read a record of almost 2,000 years ago as though the promises made to a long ago generation are still in our future. Their future, their time period is in our past.

This view point necessary to understand Christ's words and promises to a past generation is called the contemporary historical view point. And it will open much of God's word to you.

We can assuredly know that He came to them just as He promised He would, and He established His kingdom over all of the kingdoms of the earth just as He promised He would. He rules now at the right hand of the Father just as He has since His ascension in that first century AD. He continues to judge the nations of the world, and He continues to judge each of us as we pass from this life to the next.

For more evidences of His fulfilled promises, see the posts at ShreddingTheVeil. You might want to start with the ten parts of "It's Not The End of The World" at the bottom right margin, and work your way up.

You might also be interested in an article at JewsforJesus called "Four Startling Facts About the Identity of Jesus" here.

(All bold emphasis is mine.)

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So your really important question is this: "Why did Jesus cause and allow the early Christians to be mistaken about the timeframe of His return?" Let's figure that out, before we attempt to answer this headline question: "Why did the early Christians think Jesus would return soon?"

I've often wondered about what Jesus was saying in Matthew 24:36 & Mark 13:32 during Jesus' 2nd coming.

Matthew 24:36 (NKJV): “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.”

Mark 13:32 (NKJV): “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

The Bible informs us that God knows everything, thus making Him omniscient.

1 John 3:20 (NKJV): "For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things."

The Bible also tells us that Jesus is God.

John 1:1 (NKJV) "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

John 20:31 (NKJV) "but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name."

Now that we've found where the Bible states that God knows all things & that Jesus is God, then how does Jesus (who is God)... not know the day, nor the hour?

I came up with these ideas:

  1. Jesus who is God is also a human on Earth, before He died & rose again. That's how He identifies with us. So when He was born & growing up, He wouldn't have known when He'd return the 2nd time (or 3rd time, if you count His resurrection as the 2nd time). He may have had to wait until after He ascended into Heaven to learn that information from God the Father.
  2. God the Father may not yet have chosen which day nor hour, that the return will happen. If He hasn't yet decided, then nobody knows. Thus Jesus' quotes in Matthew 24:36 & Mark 13:32 would still be 100% accurate. (Don't quote me on that idea, but at least it satisfied my initial curiosity in the past about those 2 verses. It freed me from worrying about them & allowed me to move on towards learning new things.)
  3. From reading the Bible, I've discovered some more details... like God is patient & He is still waiting for Israel to do something. (This sounds like the most accurate of these 3 ideas. Let me explain why....)

2 Peter 3:9 (NKJV) "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."

Part of the problem appears to be that the Jewish Pharisees & Scribes of the law didn't want to honor Jesus as God. They should have known when Jesus was coming the 1st time:

Luke 19:41-42 (NKJV): "Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes."

The people did acknowledge & honor Jesus as God in Matthew 21:9 (on the 1st Palm Sunday), but the religious leaders did not. (But the people wanted a king who would free them from the Roman occupation. They weren't looking for a new religious leader... God. They wanted a military king, like David.)

Matthew 21:9 (NKJV): "Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
Hosanna in the highest!”"

Then Jesus says,

Matthew 23:39 (NKJV): "for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’"

Now before this in verse 29, Jesus starts off with: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!...”

Apparently, God is still waiting for Israel (especially, the religious elite in Jerusalem... today known as rabbis) to acknowledge & honor Him as God. The end of the world won't happen, before that point.

The Hebrew leaders who left Egypt during the Exodus, saw God with their own eyes... before having a feast in front of Him:

Exodus 24:9-11 (NKJV): "Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank."

So initially, God was happy with His people. :-)

The early Christians could have been mistaken about the timeframe of Jesus' 2nd coming, as they didn't have access to personalized copies (nor online versions) of the Bible, where they could study for themselves. They had scrolls, auditory knowledge from preaching & shared letters. Today, we have the ability to do our own Bible study homework, both in print form & online.

Now, Zechariah 14 & Amos 5:16-27 both talk about the Day of the Lord, which hasn't come yet. You can read those if you'd like to do that.

So what about this question? "Why did the early Christians think Jesus would return soon?"

During Jesus' day, there was a temple in Jerusalem. It was the 2nd temple. At the end of the world, there will be another temple, the 3rd temple. Here are some links about that 3rd temple, which contain additional Bible verses in these articles:

In Jesus day, they had a temple. So it would have been easy for them to assume, that Jesus could return at any time.

After reading Amos 5, it seems clearer that God doesn't want the 3rd temple's sacrifice system:

Amos 5:22 (NKJV): "Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings."

After the temple was destroyed in AD 70, there hasn't been a temple in Israel. Most of the people were older or dead at that point. So they would have realized the need to write everything down.

Revelation appears to have been written after the temple was destroyed & before AD 96. See:

  1. When Was the Book of Revelation Written?
  2. Wikipedia: Revelation

I would assume that some people wanted Jesus' return to happen early - in their lifetimes - for the same reason that people today want the "Rapture" to happen early in our lifetimes. People are terrified of death. The problem isn't death itself, but what lies beyond death. For the believers, it's an eternal happiness in Heaven. For the unbelievers, it's a firey torturous experience in hell. People are afraid of going into hell, so they tend to want Jesus to return early to avoid death & hell.

John talks about Heaven, starting with Revelation 4. Revelation, gives us hope that a brighter future is coming! Here is some encouragement to brighten your day:

Acts 16:31 (NKJV): "So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”"

Romans 10:9 (NKJV): "that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved."

So don't worry too much about when Jesus will return, but focus more on the quality of your relationship with God. Keep reading your Bible. The more times, the better! You'll find out in Heaven, that you'll gain eternal rewards from continually reading it. If you'd like to see a bit of that before then, check out these links, about which crowns that believers can receive in Heaven:

  1. https://www.gotquestions.org/heavenly-crowns.html
  2. http://so4j.com/five-crowns-rewards-in-heaven

Hopefully, that answers some of your questions! :-)

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They knew that Jesus would return after the Tribulation and they thought they were suffering through the tribulation at that time.

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In pre-trib theory, "imminence,” is the idea that the rapture could occur at any time without any preceding events needed beforehand. They say that the rapture of the church is the immediate expectation of those who put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. That is also true of the spiritual resurrection (2 Pet 1:19), or even of physical death.

John 5:24-25 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. also John 11:25-26

Jesus spoke of the resurrection to come (general) and the one that “now is.” The spiritual resurrection is imminent. That’s why I don’t believe in a rapture. Pre-tribbers say the debate is about when the rapture will occur, but I believe in the concept of resurrection. The supposed rapture verses (1 Th 4:16, 1 Co 15:52) are talking about resurrection, and Paul makes it clear that he is talking about resurrection (1 Co 15:12-13,21,42). The nature of the Kingdom can't be both eternal and temporal. Premillennialists believe the kingdom is earthly and lasts for a thousand years (Rev 20). The word kingdom isn’t found in Rev 20 if you want to be literal about it. Here is what Jesus and Paul said about the kingdom and His return.

Luk 17:20-21 And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.

Jesus speaks in the same way of His coming.

Mar 13:21-27  And then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ; or, lo, he is there; believe him not: For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.  But take ye heed: behold, I have foretold you all things.  But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven. also Luk 21:8; Mat 24:23-28

He returns spiritually in the hearts of believers who can even see Him even now (Rev 1:7). That doesn't preclude a bodily return and resurrection.

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