The Imminent Expectation of Our Fathers

René Malgo

If we look back over the history of the Church of Jesus Christ, we see that even before us prominent personalities expected the imminent return of Jesus. What does this mean for us?

Already in the first generation after the apostles, there was a distinct imminent expectation among Christians. The conquest and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, for instance, led many to believe that the Antichrist was at the door. For this reason, the author of the epistle of Barnabas wrote, “The day is near in which all is lost for evil; the day is near for the Lord and His reward.” 

In the third century, the church father Tertullian came to the conclusion that the violent persecution of Roman Christians at his time must be birth pangs of the return of Jesus. When later on in history Visigoth Barbarians conquered Rome, which had in the meantime become Christian, many believers saw in this a sign of the coming end. 

In the twelfth century, the French abbot Bernard de Clairvaux battled with the moral corruption in the church, and thought that the antichristian time of persecution had begun through deception, affluence and false peace. Bernard was convinced that Jesus Christ would soon destroy the Antichrist with “the spirit of his mouth” at the time of His coming in glory.

About 400 years later, Martin Luther saw in the papacy the Antichrist. For this reason the German Reformer emphasized all his life, “I am convinced that the last day is imminent.” Like Bernard and others before him, he interpreted the events of his time as the fulfillment of Biblical end-time prophecies. Luther emphasized, “The signs proclaimed by Christ, as well as the apostles Peter and Paul, have for the most part already taken place.”

Over the course of church history, end-time expectations have continually changed. In America during the eighteenth century, the preacher Jonathan Edwards, for instance, considered the revivals of his time as a sign of the end. He read various reports from all over the world, compared them with the Bible, and came to the conclusion that it could not be long till the return of the King of kings. He expected a gathering and restoration of the Jews in “Palestine.” When Israel really did become an independent state in 1948, many prominent Bible teachers, such as Hal Lindsey, proclaimed that in the generation of the Jewish state founders, the Lord Jesus would definitely return…

Every generation of Christians thinks they can see the signs of the approaching end. This is good. The Lord Jesus expects His disciples to be “like unto men that wait for their lord” (Luke 12:36). It is part of a healthy Christian life to be conscious that we are living in the last days and that our Lord can come at any time (1 Peter 1:13; 4:7). Anything else is less than sober (1 Thessalonians 5:6).

The American theologian Michael Heiser, however, presumes that in spite of all the signs, the details of Biblical prophecy, God has intentionally kept us in the dark. This is why we Christians argue so often over end-time questions, because the Bible is not as clear in this regard as we would like. God’s enemies in the invisible world, namely the devil and his demons, should not know what, when and how things will take place. The apostle Paul confirms this from the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Jesus: the victory of the Lord through His sacrificial death on the cross was “the wisdom of God in a mystery,” for if the powers of darkness had realized it then, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8).

The coming of our Lord will ultimately be surprising (Matthew 25:13; Acts 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6). But it will be as Jesus said, “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37). The reaction of every Christian to the promise of Jesus, “Surely I come quickly,” can only be, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).

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