As I consider the writings of the New Testament, I have to wonder at our modern understanding of the apostolic teaching concerning the coming of Jesus. We seem to offer a picture of the Apostles believing the end was near, but which one of us truly imagines any one of them carrying around signs like “Repent! The End is Near!”? Doesn’t it seem obvious that what we believe is in error, as it pertains to the apostolic understanding of the coming of Christ ? After all, if I truly believed Jesus would return in my lifetime, I would hit the streets every day. My bank account would reflect an expectation of short term needs, and owning a home would never have been a consideration. How about you? Can we expect less of the Apostles?
To be sure, Peter did leave his fishing business, and the other apostles left their worldly means of support in order to witness full time for Jesus, but there is absolutely no evidence that they sold their homes and/or lands in efforts to feed the poor and finance the mission field. Moreover, we don’t see any one of them, whether Peter, Paul or the Hellenist Messianic believers, who were expelled from Jerusalem following the death of Stephen, rushing through the countryside as reporters of an imminent end.
What do we see? Well, as I mentioned in a resent blog, following Stephen’s death, the Hellenist Messianic believers preached (Acts 8:4) and discussed (Acts 11:19) Jesus with folks as they were scattered abroad from Jerusalem across the Syrian Province. This preaching and discussing presupposes lengthy stays at different communities to which they traveled. An example of a typical community in which preaching and discussing occurred would be Samaria, where Philip ministered immediately following Stephen’s death. One could hardly believe Philip’s ministry was a ‘weekend wonder’ or even accomplished over a period of weeks. It had to have taken at least several months or even a year or longer. At this rate, it would hardly be wrong to conclude that the arrival of the Hellenist Messianic believers in Antioch could have been before Paul’s own expulsion from Jerusalem and ministry in Syria-Cilicia (Acts 9:30). In fact, he was probably ministering in Tarsus and its surrounding regions for at least a year before the arrival of the believers from Cyprus and Cyrene in Antioch (Acts 11:20).
Nevertheless, however the ancient evangelistic effort took shape, it wasn’t a mere ‘reporting of what Jesus had done and an expectation of his imminent return.’ No! The New Testament has the Apostles expecting Jesus to return in their generation, but their evangelistic efforts were worked out in such a way as to build up Messianic communities throughout the empire and preparing them for life in the then present world.
When the Apostles asked Jesus just prior to his ascension into heaven—“Will you at this time restore again the Kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6)—the Lord responded with “No!” At least this is our interpretation of his response (Acts 1:7-8), is it not? Don’t we believe the Apostles knew less than we do about what Jesus told them? Who really understood Jesus better, the Apostles or us? Didn’t they expect him to return in their generation or expected lifespan? How is what they believed about Jesus reply (Acts 1:7-8) compatible with what they believed about the end of the age and the coming of Jesus?
In Matthew 24:3 they asked Jesus what sign would there be of his coming. Common sense would demand that they understood Jesus’ coming quite differently than we do today. First of all, not one of them expected Jesus to die, so what would Jesus’ coming mean in that context? Secondly, when Jesus did die, the Apostles thought all was lost. They all threw their names in with Jesus, but now he was dead, and they feared for their own lives. Yet, while he was still alive, they asked for the sign of his coming (Matthew 24:3), and he gave it in Matthew 24:30—that is, the sign of his coming would be his judgment upon Jerusalem and the Temple. In fact, Luke offers an added indication that Jerusalem would be surrounded by the armies of Rome (Luke 21:20-21). How, therefore, could the coming of Christ, as the Apostles understood it to be, be the same kind of coming that we believe that to be today? Their question in Matthew 24:3 was put to Jesus, while he was yet alive, and at that time they had no idea he would be dead in two days!
It seems to me that we need to reconsider what the Second Coming of Christ really means.