By Norman E. Colby
Copyright 1996, 2007 by Norman E. Colby. All rights reserved.
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“Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour
wherein the Son of man cometh.”
“Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.”
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ second coming clearly state that the time of Jesus’ return cannot be precisely known beforehand, and they admonish us to continually watch for that event. Those warnings give rise to what is popularly known as the “imminent” return of Christ.
According to Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1967), the word “imminent” means “ready to take place” (p. 417). The word “imminent” and its synonym “impending” share a common meaning of “threatening to occur very soon”, but “imminent” has a fine nuance emphasizing the “shortness of time before happening” (p.418). The imminent return of Christ is the idea that His return is ready to take place very soon, or that it is about to happen quickly in the sense that there will be very little delay before it occurs. In other words, to say that Jesus’ return is imminent is to say that He is right now on the verge of coming back.
At the outset, it should be noted that this study is not designed to sort out any fine nuances which the word “imminent” may have. The word “imminent” is not even in the Bible. It is merely a convenient handle to attach to an idea in order to facilitate the discussion of Jesus’ second coming. Throughout this study our focus will not be so much on what men say the word “imminent” means, as it will be on what God’s literal words in the Bible actually say about the time of Jesus’ return.
The imminent return of Christ, as it has been defined above, is taught throughout the New Testament from Matt 4:17 to Rev 22:20. The basis for the imminent return of Christ is found in Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 weeks. Since the first 69 weeks were fulfilled at the crucifixion, there now remains only the last week of seven years to completely fulfill the prophecy. Put another way, there is only 1½ % of the total time (i.e., 7/490 years) left in God’s prophecy before the kingdom is established on earth, and Christ’s second coming must precede the kingdom (Acts 1:6-7). Indeed, the time is short, akin to a sprinter running the hundred yard dash with his foot about ready to come down on the one-yard line just ahead of the finish line. The race will soon be over, but who can say when the countdown on those last seven years shall begin ?
Unfortunately, there are some who have subtilely changed the truth concerning imminence into a lie. The truth is that “Jesus will return very soon.” The lie into which it has been corrupted is that “Jesus could return at any moment, maybe even today.” That subtle change creates two extremely different ideas. Although both ideas of imminence hinge on the genuine "unpredictability” of the time of Jesus’ return, only the former one is literally Biblical. The latter one is wholly extra-Biblical, invented by adding notions to the text which are not actually present, and by taking scriptures out of context.
The purpose of this article, therefore, is to set forth the true doctrine of Jesus’ imminent return, and to demolish the popular lie into which it has been converted.
The Truth About Imminence
Several passages within the Olivet discourse strongly emphasize the fact that we cannot know the exact day and hour when Jesus will return, to wit: Matt 24:36, 42-44 & 50, 25:13, Mark 13:32-37, & Luke 21:34-36 (See also Luke 12:37-48).
In fact, after those references which Jesus personally gave to us in His own words in the Gospels, there are no other literally explicit references to the “unpredictability” of the time of Jesus’ return anywhere else in the NT! Moreover, there is not one single reference in the entire Bible which literally states that Jesus will return at “any moment.”
All of the scripture references which are frequently invoked to change the truth of imminence into a lie are only explicit references to watching for or patiently waiting for Jesus to return, or else simple references to the quickness & nearness of His return, or even just to the fact of His return: Acts 1:11, Rom 13:11-12, I Cor 1:7, Philip 3:20, 4:5, Col 3:4, I Thess 1:10, 5:6, I Tim 6:14, II Tim 4:8, Titus 2:13, Heb 9:28, James 5:8, I Pet 4:7, II Pet 3:3-4, Rev 1:3, 3:3, 16:15, 22:7, 10, 12, & 20, et.al. Not a single one of those references literally refers to an “any moment” return, and many of them do not even have as much as an oblique connection to the time or conditions of Jesus’ return.
Probably one of the best NT examples of a clear reference to the fact that no one can predict the time of Jesus’ return is found in the Olivet discourse at Mark 13:35. Careful readers will notice that the verse does not literally say that Jesus “could” return at any hour of the day (or, by extension, at “any time or moment”). All the verse actually says is that we do not know at which of those hours in the day He will return. Moreover, the illustration, figuratively using the watch-hours of a ‘day’ to represent the times in which Jesus will return, when applied to real time, could extend to virtually any length or shortness of duration. So the idea in Mark 13:35 is not that Jesus could return at “any moment”; rather, from its immediate context (Mark 13:32-37), the idea is that, since we do not know exactly when Jesus will return, we must keep on working for our Lord without slacking off no matter how late the hour becomes.
There is absolutely no justification for jumping to the conclusion that Jesus could return at “any moment” just because we cannot know the exact “day and hour” of His return, or just because we were told to continually “watch” for His return. Any such conclusion requires reading notions into the text that are not even present while ignoring literal words that are plainly stated in the text. The only purpose of Jesus’ admonitions concerning the time of His return is to keep His people in a state of constant expectancy as a motivation to ceaseless service without “giving up” just because the hour may get late. Since the purpose was certainly not to contradict the entirety of His previous statements within the same discourse, any further implications which those admonitions may have must be derived from a careful study of their context within Jesus’ entire discouse on the Mount of Olives.
It is of no little consequence for prophetic interpretation that all of the most explicit references to the “unpredictability” of the time of Jesus’ return are located within the context of the Olivet discourse! (The only possible exceptions are Rev 3:3b & 16:15; however, their context within the book of Revelation is not adverse to the context of Jesus’ words in the Gospels.)
Consequently, when Jesus said that His return was unpredictable with respect to time, He was necessarily referring to His second coming as He had just described it within the Olivet discourse (Matt 24:27-31).
This is significant, because the Olivet discourse limits the timeframe of Jesus’ second coming to a specific span of time bracketed by the abomination of desolation on the one side (Matt 24:15, et.al.), and by the initiation of God’s wrath on the other side (based on the interrelationship of the Olivet discourse and Jesus’ previous discourse in Luke 17:22-37). The context of the passages explicitly referring to the unpredictability of Jesus’ second coming thus constrains the application of “imminence” to that same time bracket! Thus, imminence with regard to Jesus’ second coming is not one of “any moment (maybe even today) imminence”; rather, it is one of “constrained imminence”.
So the truth is that the unpredictable status of Jesus’ return is specifically oriented toward a limited time span which will only begin when the abomination of desolation occurs at the middle of Daniel’s 70th Week (hence, the warnings in Luke 17:31, Matt 24:17-18, et.al.). By extension, since no one can tell exactly when those last seven years will begin, the unpredictable status of Jesus’ second coming gains universal application over all time. This means that it is impossible for anyone to ever calculate the exact day and hour of Jesus’ return – even from the prophecy of Daniel’s 70 weeks (such as by trying to peg it to the exact beginning, middle, or end of the 70th week).
More important for the present discussion, it also means that, although Jesus’ return is now imminent (in the sense that it is going to happen very soon – from God’s prophetic point of view), it is not now “any moment” imminent because the “abomination of desolation” has not yet occurred. In fact, the Apostle Paul wrote II Thess 2:1-4 for the specific purpose of making that point perfectly clear!
This stance on imminence is the only valid Biblical position which can be taken by anyone who takes the scriptures literally. It is the position which Jesus Himself established. There is nothing in anything the Apostle Paul, or any other Apostle, ever wrote that contradicts it. Not one of them ever said anywhere that Jesus could return at “any moment”. Instead, the very words of both Jesus and Paul contradict the notion of an “any moment” imminence.
Therefore, since the Bible does not literally state that Jesus could return at “any moment,” and since that notion directly contradicts what the Bible does literally state about the time of Jesus’ return, it is (at the present time, AD 2007) impossible for Jesus to return “at any moment, maybe even today” as a certain cultic sect often claims.
To summarize the matter so far, we note that Jesus said He will not return until after the abomination of desolation, which according to Dan 9:27 will occur at exactly the middle of the last seven years of this present age of grace. Only after that event occurs will Jesus’ second coming become “any moment” imminent. Until that time comes, everyone who says that Jesus Christ can return at “any moment, maybe even today” is, according to Jesus Himself (Matt 24:11), deceiving God’s people with a bold-faced lie!
The Lies About Imminence
Although the Biblical truth concerning imminence is fairly simple and systematic, as should be expected (II Cor 3:12), the cult’s complicated lies about it are a cunningly tangled web that forestalls easy detection. The cult’s ingenious lies distort what the Bible says about signs of Jesus’ second coming, make claims about things not even discussed in a passage, ignore things that are discussed, brazenly take whole passages right out of their contexts, and generally evince a complete failure to even think in a reasonable manner. This section will dissect and discard the cult’s primary lies about “imminence” and Jesus’ second coming.
One of the cult’s commonly-repeated lies about imminence is that Jesus can return at “any moment, maybe even today,” without regard to the necessary occurrence of any other prophetic events, and that the admonition to simply “watch” for His return actually precludes any prior events signaling His second coming.
It should be noted that Jesus’ disciples triggered the Olivet discourse by asking for “the sign” (Mark 13:4) of His second coming, and that the specific sign they were instructed to look for (literally, to “see” in Mark 13:14) is the “abomination of desolation”. It is quite significant that Jesus instructed His disciples to “watch” (Mark 13:37) for His return, even though He had just finished telling them that it will not happen until after they first see the abomination of desolation come to pass. This sequence of words and events is mirrored in all three accounts of the Olivet discourse. Thus, Jesus’ admonition to “watch” was actually made within the context of His own words setting forth the “abomination of desolation” as a prior “sign” of His return.
It has been shown that the only explicit references to the unpredictability of Jesus’ return are found within the Olivet discourse, and that those references must be interpreted within the context of that discourse. Moreover, it has also been shown that Jesus instructed those who believe in Him to “watch” for His return as He has described it within the Olivet discourse, even though that event will not occur until after another specific prophetic event has occurred by way of a “sign”. Those observations contradict the cult’s notion that Jesus can return at “any moment”, as well as the cult’s notion that watching for Jesus to return implies that “no intervening prophetic events” can occur first. In other words, Jesus has already exposed the cult’s popular lie for the lie that it is.
Nevertheless, some additional attention will now be directed to the cult’s claim that no “signs” can precede Jesus’ second coming. That claim is often rooted in a distorted interpretation of I Cor 1:22, in which signs are supposedly promised only to the Jews, while denying them to the Gentiles. But, of course, that verse does not literally say any such thing. It only tells us what men want; it does not say what God will actually provide to either Jews or Gentiles. In fact, the Bible nowhere literally states that prophetic signs are reserved only for the Jews, and nowhere does it literally state that signs will not be given to the Gentiles.
As far as God giving signs to the Jews is concerned, Isa 7:14 says what sign He will give to Israel as a nation. Matt 13:55a, Luke 4:22b, & John 6:41-42 reveal just how much heed the Jews paid to that sign. Moreover, Jesus told the Jews what other signs they will get in Matt 12:38-40 & 16:1-4. Once again, we see how much heed they paid to that sign in Matt 28:11-15. So much for signs for the Jews. They may want a sign (Matt 27:39-42), but God has not promised to give those unbelievers any more signs than they have already received (ref: Luke 16:30-31).
The critical prophetic sign which Jesus did provide (i.e., the “abomination of desolation”) was not given to the Jews as a “race”; instead, it was given to His own disciples who believe in Him (as is plain from Mark 13:3, when compared with Matt 16:16, etc.). All those who believe Jesus’ words, and actually only those who believe His words, may profit from the knowledge of that sign, whether Jew or Gentile. (What good is a sign to those who do not even believe the words of Him who gave it?) So signs are not given exclusively to the Jews as a “race”; instead, they are given to those who believe God’s literal words, regardless of race.
So much for the cult’s “sign” arguments. Now to address the cult’s habitual violation of the rule of “context”, which is probably the tactic they rely upon the most to support their lie of an “any moment” imminence.
The favorite passage which proponents of “any moment” imminence like to take out of context is I Thess 4:13-17. After using devious devices to isolate that passage from virtually all the rest of the Bible, they assume that since this passage talks about Jesus’ second coming without referring to any related signs, it automatically follows that there are no prophetic signs at all associated with what they call the “first phase of Jesus’ second coming”. (They might also make a similar claim based on I Cor 15:51-52.)
However, in order to give the illusion of some agreement between Paul’s supposed notion of “any moment” imminence and Jesus’ doctrine on the second coming, they sometimes appeal to Jesus’ words in John 14:2-3, which they proceed to take right out of its overall context within the four Gospels. Here they make the same claim: the text neglects to mention any signs in conjunction with Jesus’ return. They conclude from that silence that there must not be any prior prophetic events which will serve as a sign of Jesus’ second coming for His own.
But, just because signs are not mentioned in every passage that discusses Jesus’ second coming does not mean that passages silent on the matter necessarily refer to an entirely different set of events from those which do mention signs in conjunction with His return.
Jesus’ lesson in John 14 was given only two days after His discourse on the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:1), so there was no need to repeat everything He had already said all over again at the Last Supper. Remember, in John 14 Jesus was talking to the same group of people that He had addressed earlier in Matthew 24; namely, His own disciples who believe in Him. It is unreasonable to suppose that Jesus was trying to confuse His disciples at this critical juncture in His ministry. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the disciples would have legitimately connected what Jesus said in John 14:3 with Jesus’ prior discussion on the Mount of Olives. In addition, we should realize by now that Paul, the ever faithful Apostle, would not have been saying anything later on to contradict what Jesus had already said (I Cor 3:11 & I Tim 6:3-5). The fact is that the second coming in Paul’s Thessalonian epistles reflects Jesus’ own words like a mirror.
With regard to Paul’s doctrine on Jesus’ second coming, one cannot argue either for or against “any moment” imminence from I Thessalonians 4 standing alone, because that passage contains absolutely no literal phraseology which either confirms or denies that concept. Arguments in either direction cannot be conclusive when based upon the silence of scripture. An “argument from silence” can never defeat an argument based on literally stated words. (The whole legal concept deciding between arguments over written contracts versus unwritten oral statements is based on that principle.) The issue of imminence can only be decided by properly integrating the words and contexts of related passages.
When Jesus’ words in John 14:3 are correctly integrated into the other Gospels, and the historical context of Paul’s words in his first & second Thessalonian epistles are correctly integrated into the rest of NT prophecy (beginning with the Gospels), it can be seen that Paul’s doctrine supports the same doctrine of the second coming which Jesus established in the Olivet discourse. Correctly integrating those related passages shows that Paul’s doctrine in I Thess 5:1-9 (which is a continuation of his exposition in I Thess 4:13-18) conforms to Jesus’ prior doctrine in Luke 17:22-37 (regarding exemption from God’s “wrath”), and Paul’s doctrine in II Thess 2:1-4 concerning the “day of Christ” conforms to Jesus’ prior doctrine in the Olivet discourse (regarding the relationship between the “abomination of desolation” and Jesus’ return for His saints). Thus, Paul’s doctrine, being identical to Jesus’ doctrine, could not possibly be advocating a proposition contrary to Jesus’ prior doctrine on “imminence” (I Cor 3:11 & 11:1).
The bottom line is that I Thess 4:13-17 does not teach “any moment” imminence. Those who claim it does, if they also claim to interpret literally, are obligated to point out the literal words where it actually says so. (Needless to say, they cannot do that.)
Unwilling to give up their false hope in lies, advocates of “any moment” imminence resort to the “looking for Jesus” argument. They claim that since we were told to watch for Jesus to return, there necessarily must not be any intervening prophetic events between now and then. As noted earlier, Jesus thoroughly demolished that erroneous supposition when he admonished us “all” to “watch” for Him to return after the “sign” of a specific event. Not only do the cult’s antagonistic arguments continue to brazenly and consistently contradict the very Highest Authority on Bible prophecy, Jesus Christ, the very Son of God Himself, but their weak spin on the “look” argument does not even make common sense. In order to look for a certain event to come to pass, it is not necessary to suppose that no other events can occur prior to the anticipated event.
We all look forward to various events as a natural course of things, but that does not preclude observing the occurrence of other events which will happen prior to them in time. For example, suppose a loved one is returning from a distant trip at a certain time. Does that mean that nothing else can happen first? Of course not. Moreover, we observe signs (e.g., the clock) to tell us about when to expect our loved one’s arrival. But our observance of signs does not detract from anticipating the arrival of our loved one; in fact, if anything, it enhances our excitement.
Applying that perfectly natural concept to Jesus’ second coming means that we may legitimately look for the passing of the abomination of desolation, as signifying the proximity of His return, without it detracting a whit from our also looking beyond that event to Jesus’ glorious second coming. Of those two events, only one holds a special place in our heart, and that one is Jesus’ second coming. After all, Jesus’ return is our supreme hope, whether we live or whether we die, because it is in His second coming, no matter how soon or how late the hour may be, that our “blessed hope” of resurrection unto eternal life in new bodies that will never die will be fulfilled (Titus 1:2, 2:13, & 3:7).
Without any further ado then, it should be obvious from proper hermeneutical analysis, as well as from common sense, that the “look” argument absolutely fails to establish the necessity, much less the veracity, of the cult’s claim for the “any moment” imminence of Jesus’ second coming.
An extension of the “look” argument holds that Paul’s use of the word “we”, in conjunction with several references to the Lord’s return (most notably in I Thess 4:15b & I Cor 15:51), implies that Paul was looking for Jesus to return at “any moment” even in his own day. But, once again, that inference does not automatically follow from the literal words of the text, and, in fact, it contradicts Paul’s own explanation of this very point in II Thess 2:1-4. What those references actually prove is that Paul was only doing what Jesus had instructed him to do; namely, Paul was looking for Jesus to return sometime within his own lifetime, even though he knew that the abomination of desolation would have to occur first. That example is the very one we are all supposed to emulate (I Cor 11:1). Verily, every day of our life we look forward to that great day to come.
On no account whatsoever does the cult of “any moment” imminence find any literal or legitimate support anywhere in the Bible. According to Jesus, signs are not incompatible with looking for His return; signs are not exclusively limited to the Jewish race; Paul did not teach a notion of “any moment” imminence, in fact he contradicted it; and, finally, common sense tells us that looking for one event does not preclude looking for prior events, including specific signs of the anticipated subsequent event.
So what is there to base the cult’s popular notion of “any moment” imminence upon? The answer is that, since there is no scripture anywhere in the Bible which literally teaches that notion, and since that notion contradicts everything the Bible does literally state, the false doctrine of an “any moment” imminent second coming must be based on nothing more than mans’ own emotionally-laden imagination coupled with an avalanche of deviously ingenious pseudo-scholarship. The cult’s lie continues to be perpetuated by its adherents with a mindset that stubbornly refuses to believe the truth of God’s literal words, no matter how plain God made them.
Proponents of “any moment” imminence claim to interpret Bible prophecy literally. However, they do not do what they claim to do. Instead, they play theological word games using words that are not even in the Bible, they change the meaning of words around to suit themselves, they read implications into the text which are not literally justified, they take passages out of their overall contexts, they draw improper conclusions from faulty presuppositions, and, finally, they conceal all their sloppy “scholarship” within a complicated system of obfuscation (which most cult members do not even understand). Their methodology results in an interpretation of prophecy which is the exact opposite of the literal meaning of God’s plain and simple words in the Gospels. And, having perverted the Gospels, they proceed to pervert Paul’s epistles as well, with one error leading to another, until God’s truth has been turned into a Satanic lie (Rom 1:25a).
However, when a valid hermeneutic is applied to Biblical interpretation, we find the Bible means just exactly what it plainly and literally says. What it says is that Jesus is coming soon, very soon, but not until after the sign of the abomination of desolation first comes to pass. Not only is that what Jesus said in the Gospels, but it is also what the Apostle Paul repeated in his epistles; and the two are in perfect agreement with one another on this point.
In the past there has been some misunderstanding about what the abomination of desolation really is (some called it the destruction of Jerusalem, AD 70, while others related it to the Medieval fulminations of the Roman Pope, etc.). Those suppositions, in turn, led some to believe that, since those events had already come to pass, Jesus’ return was therefore “any moment” imminent in their own day. However, in our day there is no longer any excuse for that sort of ignorance (Acts 17:30), and those mistaken ideas from the past should not be perpetuated in the present.
The truth concerning imminence and the second coming of Christ is that His coming is “imminent” right now, but only in the sense that He is going to return very soon. However (at least at the present time, AD 2007), Jesus’ second coming is not now “any moment” imminent in the sense that “He could return at any moment, maybe even today”, because the “abomination of desolation” (as defined in II Thess 2:4) has not yet come to pass. So let’s all just get back to work harvesting our Lord’s fields (John 4:35 & Prov 11:30), and patiently wait for the great “day of Christ” to come (II Thess 3:5).
1 This article has been partially extracted from the author’s book entitled The True Resurrection (copyright 1989, 2006). However, for simplicities sake, direct quotations taken from that work have not been demarked within this article.