Did Christians Recognize Jesus at His Return?

PRETERIST BIBLE COMMENTARY Forums Forum Did Christians Recognize Jesus at His Return?

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    The most common argument against full preterism is the assertion that there is no evidence that any Christians believed in complete fulfillment of all Biblical prophecy until the 20th century. Though still weighty, this argument is not as devastating as it might first seem.  If someone teaches preterism today, they will likely lose their position of authority in the Church but they are not likely to be physically harmed.  This was not the case throughout the bulk of Christian history.

    From the time of St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) on for over a thousand years nearly all Christian theologians agreed that heretics should be persecuted and most even believed they should be executed as heresy was seen as a disease that threatened the civil and religious authority of the Church.  During this period the Roman Catholic Church forbid laymen to read the Bible and translating or printing the Bible was considered heresy and men and women were burned alive for the offense even as recent as the late 17th century.  For over a thousand years the Catholic Church had a virtual monopoly on the Bible and its interpretation and heretics were regularly executed for the most trivial deviation from official Church dogma.

    If heretics were killed for the sin of heresy, what do you think the Church did with their writings?  Would these writings have been saved and preserved with care? Obviously heretical writings were destroyed and thus eliminated together with their heretical authors.  If this is true, what do you think would have happened to full preterist writings discovered during the bulk of Church history?  Of course, full Preterist writings would have been quickly destroyed.  But the fact that the Church would have burned any full Preterist writings they could get their hands on is only one part of the many reasons the majority of Christians still await a future coming of Christ.

    Throughout the bulk of the last two thousand years, the masses were illiterate or barely literate. Furthermore, Bibles were not permitted to be translated into colloquial languages and were not allowed to be read by anyone outside the clergy. Making Biblical literacy even worse was the fact that books like the Bible were too expensive for anyone other than the rich to own before the invention of the printing press as books had to be copied by hand and could cost a year’s salary. If the only access to the Bible you had were what tidbits you were presented by a fierce and violent Church who made heresy a criminal offense, how could a grass-roots version of fulfilled eschatology ever sprout or take hold?

    Likewise, preterism was almost as unlikely to germinate among the ranks of the clergy.  With all the immense pressure to stay in line, you can image how few clergy would dare to think outside the box when studying and teaching the Bible and even fewer would dare to write or speak out.  Maybe some Catholic clergy from A.D. 354 to the late 17th century did realize that all end time Biblical prophecy had been fulfilled? If so, how would any of their documents survive to the present when the cache of ancient, historical documents that have survived to the present were generally held under the care of the Catholic/Orthodox Church–the same Church that regularly burned works of heresy along with their authors and owners?

    The fact that no ancient documents espousing full preterism have survived to the present is thought by some to be proof of the idea that full preterism is erroneous.  This argument is based on the false assumption that the record of Christian documents that have survived to the present is reasonably comprehensive, random and unbiased.  It is not.  The fact that the documents that have survived to the present are not a random, unbiased sample undermines this argument against fulfilled eschatology.

    The fact that Preterist writings surfaced immediately after a few of these above-mentioned hurdles were lifted testifies to the power these forces had in suppressing the germination, circulation and preservation of Preterism during the reign of the Catholic/Orthodox Church. As implied above, the inability to quickly and cheaply copy documents was a big hurdle to the surfacing of Preterist writings. According to preterist critics, the first preterist book was published in 1614 which was a preterist commentary on Revelation written by Luis Alcazar, a Jesuit Priest. Is it a coincidence that the first preterist commentary on Revelation was published just 174 years after the invention of the printing press in Europe in 1440?

    It is my belief, however, that the invention of the printing press alone was not enough to allow the circulation and preservation of Preterist writings. Printing press or not, if the Catholic Church deemed Preterism a damnable heresy, could Luis Alcazar, a Jesuit Priest, have ever published his commentary? Another, perhaps more powerful stimulus was needed to make permissible this heresy.

    The impetus that allowed Preterist writings to finally circulate appears to have been the growing threat of the Protestant Reformation (A.D. 1517-1648). During the Reformation, the Catholic Church was quickly losing its virtual monopoly over religion in Europe as many Christians were leaving Catholicism in favor of this new Protestant alternative, an alternative that even went so far as to claim that the pope was the Antichrist. At this time Preterism became a useful ally. The pope could not be the Antichrist if the Antichrist lived fifteen to sixteen hundred years ago. Thus no sooner than the Catholic Church permitted Preterist ideas to surface, they immediately appeared. If it is true that Alcazar’s commentary would never have been published without a printing press and Catholic approval due to the unique political and religious circumstances of the time, what chance did this formally-damnable heresy have of being circulated and preserved if it had to be painstakingly copied by hand all the while being a damnable heresy punishable by death or imprisonment? This fact, I believe, shows how strong the Catholic Church’s hand was in preserving Orthodoxy and how unlikely extant Preterist writings would escape destruction during the era of Catholic dominance.

    Above I addressed some of the challenges that impeded full preterist works from surfacing in the modern era dating between A.D. 354 to the late 17th century.  Now let us address the hurdles full preterism faced from A.D. 70 to A.D. 354.  I strongly believe that the vast majority of the early Church missed the Parousia.  How could the early church miss the Parousia? How could they be wrong about such a Biblically significant event? How did the first-century church seem to by-and-large miss the fact that Jesus had already returned and that all end time prophecy had been fulfilled? I believe it is possible and perhaps likely that many early preterist writings were destroyed by church-sanctioned book burnings or that pretrist writings were lost at the destruction of the Library at Alexandria. However, did these early preterist writings that may have been destroyed constitute a majority or minority of Christian documents in the first and second century A.D.? I believe full preterist writings, if they existed in the first and second century, were less prevalent than futurist Christian literature. Though I am fully convinced that all end time prophecies have been fulfilled, I doubt the majority of the first-century church would have recognized this fact and there are many reasons why I believe this was so.

    Guided by the Holy Spirit, the early church is often held in high regard as if it were the model of sound and correct doctrine. “We believe what the early church believed.” This is a statement akin to saying, “Listen to us we believe the truth.” Futurists wear this as a badge of honor. However, they forget that the early church universally believed that the end of the age was going to come in the first century. In the mind of futurists this is one “error” in the beliefs of the early church. Which is worse the fact that the early church was wrong concerning the timing of the Parousia or the fact that they did not recognize it when it came? Either way they were wrong about something.

    A quick perusal of the New Testament shows that the first-century church was plagued with doctrinal ignorance. Addressing this lack of wisdom and understanding, the author of Hebrews writes the following in Hebrews 5:11-14:

    We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil [emphasis mine].”

    Notice that the author of Hebrews says to the church that they “no longer try to understand” in v. 11. These people were just like the majority of Christians throughout all the centuries, they do not try to understand. And the leadership is perhaps worse of all treading the line of orthodoxy while shutting their eyes to anything that does not line up with their preconceived ideas.

    What is interesting about this quote from Hebrews above is that Hebrews was a letter written to Jewish converts to Christianity who were presumably at least superficially familiar with the Old Testament. If anyone were to grasp the meaning of apocalyptic language found throughout what would later be labeled the Old and New Testament it would have been these Jewish converts as they should have been fluent in the Hebrew language and its non-literal idioms and at least somewhat acquainted with Old Testament prophecy. However, it is precisely these people according to the author of Hebrews that needed to be retaught the elementary principles of the faith because they no longer tried to understand (Hebrews 5:11). If Jewish converts to Christianity could not grasp even the most basic elements of the faith, what chance did Gentile converts have who were much less familiar with the Old Testament as well as Hebrew language and culture?

    Toward the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century Christianity spread like wildfire among the Gentiles. At this time many Christian heresies like Gnosticism took firm root together with many futurist errors in eschatology. But is this truly that surprising in light of the fact that Christianity spread so quickly among people unfamiliar with the Old Testament Scriptures as well as Hebrew language and culture?

    Not surprisingly, the church addressed in Hebrews was not the only first-century church who constantly needed to be fed milk because they were unable or unwilling to grasp doctrinal meat. The church at Corinth was also plagued with similar ignorance according to 1 Corinthians 3:1-2:

    Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

    Do the churches addressed in Hebrews and 1 Corinthians seem like churches that had it all (or much of anything) figured out? It is unlikely that the churches addressed in Hebrews and 1 Corinthians were exceptions to the rule. It seems to me that the majority of the early church were spiritual babies who needed milk because they could not understand doctrinal meat. The reason this doctrinal ignorance existed was likely due in a large part to the fact that the early church did not care to learn as indicated by the author of Hebrews.

    This lack of a desire to learn Biblical truth and sound doctrine seems to have persisted throughout all generations of Christians through to the present. Recent studies show that the majority of American Christians have heretical beliefs concerning salvation, the trinity and other core Christian doctrines. Many of these commonly held heresies were historically seen as damnable by the orthodox church. Surprisingly, even self-professed Evangelicals and born-again believers oftentimes display higher rates of heretical beliefs than their more liberal Catholic and Protestant peers. Thus no self-identifying Christian group appears to be exempt.

    I can attest to this lack of understanding among church goers with first-hand experience.  I clearly remember sitting in religious education classes as a child and young adult and being literally the only one in all my classes to know anything the teacher asked the class—and I had never read the Bible and thus admittedly knew essentially nothing!  Everyone in all of my classes must have LITERALLY believed Jesus is the answer because no matter what question the teacher asked the answer always seemed to be “Uhhh… Jesus?”  It was presumably this same poor attitude and lack of motivation to learn that the disciples were frustrated to encounter among the people of their churches during the first century.  If these people could only be fed milk because they were spiritual babies, is it any wonder that the church by-and-large missed the Parousia?  It would shock me if they grasped the complexities of the Parousia and properly understood all that went along with it and yet seemingly failed to grasp just about everything else.  Thus the majority of the church of the first century parroted the words of the apostles concerning the future coming of the Lord long after Christ’s return but just like the preponderance of their modern counterparts today knew and understood very little as illustrated in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 and Hebrews 5:11-14.  And as a result future generations of Christians inherited these errors as the notion of a future second coming was just passed down lazily and uncritically through succeeding generations.  In other words, succeeding generations of Christians just parroted the statements of Jesus and His disciples as they are recorded in the New Testament because when Jesus’ disciples wrote and taught the end of the age was still in their future.  But is this a surprise if the majority of the first century church had to constantly be fed milk because they did not care to learn?

    The fact that the church uncritically parroted the teachings of the disciples immediately following the Parousia is illustrated, implied and even taught in Didache 11:1-2.  .  The Didache is a Christian noncannonical work thought by most scholars to have been written at the end of the first century.  It repeats the sayings of Jesus and the disciples which were already recorded in the Gospels and Apostolic Letters and lays out guidelines for the structure of the church as well as instruction on how to receive wandering prophets and teachers.  One of the guidelines for accepting the teaching of a wandering prophet is to reject this prophet if he teaches anything not already taught in this letter: “Whosoever then comes and teaches you all these things aforesaid, receive him.  But if the teacher himself be perverted and teach another doctrine to destroy these things, do not listen to him (Didache 11:1-2)[.]”  One of the teachings in this letter is the future return of Christ (Didache 16:7-8).   Would a Jewish Christian teaching that Christ had already returned during Israel’s war with Rome be received by the Greek churches addressed in the Didache in light of the fact that this teaching contradicts the future expectation of the return of Christ laid out in Didache 16:7-8?   Given the fact that the Didache is a late first-century basic guideline on how to govern the church, I believe in light of Didache 11:1-2 and 16:7-8 it is not surprising that the second coming was missed or at least met with skepticism.  The Didache teaches and encourages the church and its leadership to parrot the words of the disciples as this document models itself.  So when the events foretold in the eschaton began to transpire in first-century Israel, I believe the Greek churches to whom the Didache was addressed were almost trained to reject these ideas.  Thus I believe it is not surprising that the church uncritically parroted the teachings of Jesus and the disciples soon after the events they predicted transpired in first-century Palestine.

    Though the early church seems to have largely failed to grasp some of the most basic Christian doctrines due to a lack of willingness to learn and were taught to parrot the words of the disciples even if many believers did have a good understanding of sound doctrine there were many hurdles the first-century church faced which made it difficult to correctly identify the Parousia.  In v. 12, Jesus “has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.”  Without an identifiable nametag would Jesus’ followers recognize Him at His return?  The Parousia appears to have begun over thirty years after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Many of Jesus’ disciples and original followers would have likely been dead at this time and a new generation of Christians who had never seen Jesus face-to-face would have been born.  In light of these facts it is not surprising that a lot of first-century Christians might not have recognized Jesus at the head of this angelic army in the sky.  See Jesus, the Son of Man, was LITERALLY Seen in the Clouds in A.D. 66.

    Furthermore, Jesus’ appearance seems to have been altered after His resurrection and yet again after His ascension.  Recall that Jesus’ disciples did not recognize Him initially after His resurrection.  If some of Jesus’ closest friends did not immediately recognize Jesus even while He stood right in front of them, are we to expect early Christians and Jews to immediately recognize Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven at the head of the angelic army witnessed in Judaea in A.D. 66 especially when this event occurred presumably at a great distance away high in the sky?  Also remember that Jesus’ appearance was altered after His resurrection and subsequent ascension such that it resembled the bright, fiery radiance of God and the heavenly host.  See How the Resurrection Bodies of the Saints Perfectly Mirror Jesus’ Resurrection Body after His Ascension Into Heaven Fulfilling Philippians 3:20-21 and ALL Other Bible Verses on the Resurrection!!!  The fact that Jesus did not appear in His earthly flesh and blood form at the second coming probably adds to the failure of the early church to confidently recognize Christ at His return.  In addition, His presence on the clouds would have further obscured His identity, His individual features being blurred by distance and cloud cover.  Perhaps these facts partially explain why many Christians today still await the return of the Messiah?  But these are many more reasons.

    Remember that the Parousia occurred at a time in which there was no printing press.  This means that every gospel and letter had to be copied by scribes by hand.  This meant that copies of the Gospels and related documents would have been too expensive for most Christians to own as the early church consisted primarily of poor people (Matthew 19:24, 1 Corinthians 1:26).  Not only was there a scarcity of sacred writings in circulation at that time which would have been indispensable in educating Christians as to the nature of the Parousia, few Christians were able to read at that time.   Illiteracy would have been especially prevalent in the early Church since during the first century the ability to read was primarily a luxury of the rich.  Thus a church may have possessed maybe one or two gospels (hopefully a cannonical one) and one or two Apostolic letters–if that.  Certainly no churches possessed a complete Canon as all possess today.

    Similarly there were no newspapers or television news so how many Christians truly knew what happened during the Jewish War?  Though Josephus recorded a detailed history of this event in Wars of the Jews and unknowingly recorded the fulfillment of very many end time predictions therein, how many poor, illiterate Christians–who were the vast majority of the church at the time–could read it?  And of those who could, how many of these people could afford to own a copy as this lengthy historical account would have cost a small fortune to copy and own?  Many early Christians would have no doubt heard by word of mouth the fact that the Jerusalem fell and the Temple was razed and this would likely call to mind some of Jesus’ teachings relayed by the disciples, but the historical details critical to accurately identifying many other end time predictions found in the New Testament would not have been widely disseminated.  And if these details were not widely disseminated to Christians living outside of Palestine, how could these people confidently say the end of the age had come? In light of these limitations it should not be a shock that a sizable portion of the Church did not recognize the end of the age after it had just past.

    Not only would there have been a scarcity of inspired writings and people able to read it together with an expected lack of historical knowledge concerning the details of Israel’s war with Rome which was necessary to identify the fulfillment of many end time predictions, the first-century church was also plagued with false-teachers.  These charlatans like the Judaizes, proto-gnostics and other individuals such as Hymenaeus and Philetus (1 Timothy 1:1-8; 2 Timothy 2:17, 18; 1 John 4:1; Revelation 2:14-16, 20) infiltrated these churches and poisoned the doctrinal waters.  There were even false apostles who infiltrated the churches according to Revelation 2:2.  These false-teachers drew many away from sound doctrine and undermined the credibility of the inspired apostles.  The disciples planted several churches and were often not around enough to fully check every pernicious and erroneous doctrine that continuously crept into each church.  Illustrating the proclivity of the early church toward doctrinal error, Paul says the following after saying farewell to the leaders of the church in Ephesus: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.  Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).

    But the Apostle John died at the end of the first-century, wouldn’t John have checked any false futurist eschatology after A.D. 70?  Remember false doctrines sprung up in the very first churches as we read often throughout the apostolic letters.  Even with the apostles circulating throughout these churches fallacious doctrines still thrived.  Could one apostle alone stop the tide of error?  Ultimately no one knows what John taught after A.D. 70, all we know is what John did not teach or reveal:

    We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that [or he] was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign. (Against Heresies 5.30.3.)

    Ireneaus assumes that if John knew who the Antichrist was that John would have revealed this fact.  Is that true?  Look at what John says concerning the beast in Revelation 13:18: “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”  Here we see John saying that only the wise would ever figure out the identity of the beast.  If John did not clearly reveal the identity of the beast to his audience before this figure caused any harm, why would John suddenly reveal this figure to the church after the danger had passed?

    Remember that the first-century Church often received letters allegedly written by the Apostles that were forgeries.  2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 reads, “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.”  The fact that the first-century church was occasionally receiving forged letters allegedly written by the apostles is also presumably why Paul calls attention to his handwriting in Galatians 6:11: “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!”

    Now let’s imagine for a moment that John DID teach or write a document or letter concerning first-century fulfillment.  How do you think the Church would have received this letter?  In light of these uninspired forgeries mentioned above, how was the first-century church to distinguish sound teaching from that which was uninspired? And how were the people addressed by John in this hypothetical letter to know that this letter was authentic?  If a first-century church received a letter allegedly written by John after the fall of Jerusalem stating that the eschaton had passed, how do you think the majority of the church would respond to the letter? I think we all know what a Christian in Asia Minor or Rome might think, “But I never saw Jesus come on the clouds?” One could imagine the myriad of questions and objections that would be raised to this letter.  I believe any letter allegedly written by John stating that the end had come would be dismissed as a forgery. And it is likely this alleged forgery would be lost to time or destroyed by the Orthodox Church in subsequent book burnings.  After all there are few things more emotionally charged and maybe nothing more complicated in the Bible than eschatology.

    Let’s imagine for a moment that John tried to teach his churches fulfillment in person after A.D. 70, how do you think John would have been received?  Christians living outside of Palestine did not see streets paved with gold most also did not see Jesus come on the clouds during the Jewish War.   According to Church tradition all the other disciples had been martyred prior to A.D. 70 so John was the only one alive at that time so John had no one to back him up.  How easy would it have been for these Christians to think, “John is old now his mind is failing him”?

    For those who believe that if all end time prophecy was fulfilled in the first century this fact should have been recognized by the church and many extant preterist writings should exist in ancient Christian history.  To these people I would ask, do you think the Bible is easy to understand?  To further complicate this issue the writings of the disciples were often hard to understand as they undoubtedly still are to modern Christians today.  Who can sensibly argue that the Bible is tough to understand?  There are Biblical scholars with advanced degrees fluent in the native languages in which the Bible was originally written who are also familiar with Hebrew culture and the cultures of surrounding nations who would readily admit after a lifetime of study that they are far from fully understanding the Bible.  It is highly unlikely that even with billions of Christians alive in this century that there exists even a single human being who fully understands the Bible.  It generally takes years and years of prayer and study for astute, spirit-filled believers to accurately grasp even basic Biblical teachings.

    The Apostle Peter understood how challenging it is to understand some of these epistles when he explicitly said in 2 Peter 3:16 that Paul’s letters are often hard to understand: “His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Here one can see that even Peter appears to think that some of the things Paul writes are difficult to understand. And Peter appears to have been the disciple that Jesus entrusted to lead the church after Him (Matthew 16:18). It should also be recognized that Paul generally wrote in plain, literal language that is not nearly as steeped in symbolism and metaphor as is much of the rest of the Bible (Ephesians 3:1-10).

    It was not just the epistles that were and still are difficult to understand, Isaiah 29:10-12 reads,

    The Lord has brought over you a deep sleep: He has sealed your eyes (the prophets); he has covered your heads (the seers).  For you this whole vision is nothing but words sealed in a scroll. And if you give the scroll to someone who can read, and say, “Read this, please,” they will answer, “I can’t; it is sealed.”  Or if you give the scroll to someone who cannot read, and say, “Read this, please,” they will answer, “I don’t know how to read.”

    Now it is important to note that Isaiah 29 is no more or less difficult to understand than is the rest of the Book of Isaiah.  And the Book of Isaiah is no more or less difficult to understand than Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos or any of the rest of the prophets.  One might argue that Isaiah’s words are like a scroll sealed to his audience because of their sin.  Perhaps there is some truth to this?  However, the fact remains that Isaiah and all the other prophets wrote in a cryptic, symbolic style that is difficult to understand.  Of course if Isaiah wrote in plain, literal language no one, not even sinners, would likely struggle to understand his predictions.

    Now let us look at the prophet Daniel.  As stated above, Biblical prophecy is nearly always written in a cryptic, poetic and symbolic style.  In fact even the prophet Daniel admittedly did not understand most of his own predictions unless it had been explained to him (Daniel 8:15-16; 10:1, 13-14; 12:8-9).  This is significant because Daniel was a prophet who was famous for his wisdom and understanding even among his fellow prophets, Ezekiel writes the following concerning Daniel in Ezekiel 28:3: “Are you wiser than Daniel?  Is no secret hidden from you?”  If even Daniel, perhaps the wisest of all the prophets, could not understand the bulk of his own visions, is it surprising if Christians still struggle to comprehend these predictions today?

    Jesus taught in a manner that is very similar to the prophets which, of course, is much more cryptic and symbolic than Paul’s more literal and explicit–and yet still difficult to understand–teaching method:

    The disciples came to him [Jesus] and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them (Matthew 13:10-15).’”

    The fact that Jesus always taught the masses in parables which are cryptic, symbolic stories explains why the Gospels are so much more difficult to understand even than the Apostolic Letters including the letters that Paul wrote.  Jesus implies that He purposely hid His messages in parables so as to make it difficult for the hard-hearted to understand His teachings concerning the kingdom of God as Jesus explicitly says in Matthew 13:10-15.  Perhaps Jesus had to speak cryptically throughout His ministry because He had many enemies who closely followed His teachings who were not afraid to have Him arrested or even killed (Matthew 21:45-46)?  However, even if Jesus did not have enemies actively seeking to kill him, Jesus would have almost certainly still spoke to the public in parables and riddles.  Why?  Because this is how God speaks to everyone other than Moses according to Numbers 12:6-8: “When there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams.  But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house.  With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles.”  If God spoke to His prophets in riddles, this means that God spoke to everyone in riddles because the prophets were God’s messengers to the people.

    A big part of the reason why the Gospels and the Apostolic Letters were hard for the early church to understand was because the letters the Apostles wrote to their churches often contained content that might have seemed contradictory to an unastute or novice believer. For example, in Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul tells the church at Ephesus that they are saved by faith, not be works: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).” However, James appears to contradict Paul when he writes the following in James 2:26: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” Though Paul was writing about works of the Law and James was talking about good deeds at first glance these two inspired letters seem contradictory.

    Similarly, throughout the history of the church, many Christians have mistakenly imagined that Christ, the Son of Man, would come on the clouds alone despite abundant Biblical evidence to the contrary.  Despite popular perception, the Bible indicates that Jesus was to return in the presence of the holy angels (Matthew 16:27, Mark 8:38, 2 Thessalonians 1:7, and Jude 14-15).  This misinformed assumption might also explain why Christian scribes did not add apologetic components to Tacitus’ and Josephus’ writings identifying the army of angels seen in the sky with the initial aspect of the second coming.  These scribes, like many people today, did not recognize this event as the second coming.  Not as familiar with the Bible as they should have been, these scribes might have mistakenly expected Christ to return alone, not at the head of an army.

    In light of all the hurdles mentioned above it should not be surprising that the first-century church appears to have by-and-large missed the second coming and the fulfillment of all end time prophecy.  Of course the first-century church did have a small advantage over modern Christians in that they would have better understood non-literal Greek and Hebrew idioms.  However, exactly how much of an advantage these first-century Hebrew speakers would have had over modern readers is hard to gage. It took a thousand years for Latin to transform into Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish. And a modern English speaker would likely be able to communicate with an English speaker five hundred years ago, but not much beyond that. The first thing to be lost in understanding an old language would appear to be idioms.  Although it must be the case that first-century Hebrew speakers had at least some advantage in understanding their ancient writings over modern readers, this advantage is not likely as robust as one might be inclined to imagine and clearly insufficient to offset all of the above-mentioned impediments.

    Though some Christians may not have recognized Christ’s return, maybe some did?  From time to time ambiguous statements implying the belief that Jesus had already returned pop up in extracanonical literature.  For example, Eusebius says some noteworthy preterist things from time to time in History of the Church (A.D. 313).  Likewise the following statement implying the resurrection had already taken place is written in the Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians (roughly 100 A.D .):

    If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death — whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master — how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, having come, raised them from the dead. (It is possible the past resurrection referred to in this v. is the resurrection mentioned in Matthew 27:52. Special thanks to Andy Martin for finding this pearl.)

    It is also possible that the army of angels recorded by Josephus and Tacitus in A.D. 66 which bears a striking resemblance to the description of the Parousia recorded in Revelation 19 explains why many Christians fled Judea to Pella at the coming war.  (Eusebius The History of the Church 3.5.) See Jesus, the Son of Man, was LITERALLY Seen in the Clouds in A.D. 66. In Matthew 24, Jesus describes a hand-full of signs including His second coming that would indicate to His followers that they must leave the city of Jerusalem to avoid the coming tribulation. Perhaps this, in conjunction with the fulfillment of other signs mentioned in Matthew 24, led to the exodus of the Jewish Christians out of Judea? Not only does this event help to shed light on why the Jewish Christians may have fled, it also might explain why the rest of the Jews went to war with Rome.

    The second coming began right at the start of the Jewish revolt in Iyyar of A.D. 66. (Josephus The Wars of the Jews 2.14.4-2.15.2, 6.5.3.) Interestingly, those Jews who did not believe in Christ’s return may have been deceived by this specter. Two hundred years earlier, a similar phantom army appeared over the skies of Judea. This omen, recorded in 2 Maccabees 5:1-4, foreshadowed the future victory of the Jews over their Greek oppressors. Perhaps first century Israelites saw in this event a sign that God would now lead them in victory over Rome?

    Futurists like to cite the lack of Christian writings dating back to the first or second century validating the belief that Christ had already returned. If Christ returned during Israel’s first-century war with Rome, shouldn’t there be at least some extant Christian literature affirming this belief? Wouldn’t this silence be evidence against the preterist view? Absolutely not! Josephus, Tacitus, Yosippon and The Sibylline Oracles all record a mass vision of an angelic army of horsemen riding on the clouds that was seen all throughout Judah at the start of the Jewish revolt which explicitly and literally fulfills John’s vision of Christ riding on a horse leading an army of angelic horsemen in the sky in Revelation 19:11-16. [Josephus The Wars of the Jews 6.5.3; Tacitus The Histories 5.13; Sepher Yosippon A Mediaeval History of Ancient Israel translated from the Hebrew by Steven B. Bowman. Excerpts from Chapter 87 “Burning of the Temple” cited in http://fulfilledtheology.ning.com/forum/topics/historical-records-with-some (9/16/2014); The Sibylline Oracles 3.889-1003.] This specter also literally fulfills all the following verses concerning the Parousia: Matthew 16:27-28; 24:30; Mark 8:38; 14:62; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; Jude 14-15; Revelation 1:7. Furthermore, this vision of what seems to be the “coming” aspect of the Parousia also appears to have been accompanied by lightning according to Tacitus explicitly fulfilling Matthew 24:27. See Jesus, the Son of Man, was LITERALLY Seen in the Clouds in A.D. 66.

    In light of the evidence presented in the above link, I believe there can be little doubt that Jesus did, in fact, return in His generation as predicted in Matthew 24, Mark 14:61-62, and John 21:22-23. But if Jesus did visibly return throughout all of Judah during the war with Rome as appears to be the case according to the evidence cited above, why is there no extant Christian literature affirming this fact? First of all there are many Christian documents that are known to have existed in which no extant copy presently exists. There are also documents known to have existed which had not been discovered until very recently. For example, the first complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas was not discovered until 1945, and the Gospel of Judas did not surface until the late 1970’s. Could a copy of a first or second century Christian document acknowledging the past fulfillment of the Parousia someday surface?

    Though I believe some Christian documents affirming the past fulfillment of the Parousia did at one point exist dating just after the war with Rome, I am not holding my breath that any of these documents will ever surface.  This is because the confident assertion that Christ had already returned comes with a lot of baggage.  I believe there were likely to have been very many Christians living in Judah who having seen the mass-vision of Christ coming on the clouds in A.D. 66 believed that this was the fulfillment of at least the “coming” aspect of the Parousia.  However, let us not forget that the coming of Christ on the clouds is inextricably tied to very many events such as the resurrection, the coming of the Lawless One, the destruction of heaven and earth, the creation of a new heaven and earth and the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom to just name a few.  It is conceivable that a great number of Christians living in Judah would have believed that this vision of Christ and His angelic army on the clouds was the Parousia.  Yet how many of them would have adequately understood all of the related prophecies that went along with it such as resurrection?  In other words how many of these Jewish Christians would have known that the resurrection at the end of the age was not a resurrection of eternal, earthly bodies as most Jews believed at the time?  Though Paul explicitly denies the resurrection of eternal, earthly bodies in 1 Corinthians 15:35-50, this letter was written to the church at Corinth, not the churches in Judah who were privileged to have visibly witnessed the Parousia. See The Notion that the Resurrection is an Earthly Phenomenon whereby the Dead are raised as Perfected, Eternal Earthly Bodies is dispelled by 1 Corinthians 15:35-50 and Isaiah 65:20.

    Not only did the majority of first-century Jews believe in an earthly, corporal resurrection, they also expected the Messiah to be an earthly king ruling over an earthly Israel.  It is because of this belief that many Jews rejected Christ especially after His crucifixion (Matthew 27:37).  As is certainly the case today, I believe most first-century Jewish and Gentile Christians also expected that at Christ’s return He would set-up an earthly kingdom centered in Jerusalem ignoring the fact that the New Testament suggests that Christ’s kingdom was a spiritual, not earthly, one (John 18:36, 1 Corinthians 15:50).  In other words, I believe the majority of the first-century Church stumbled over the same point that their non-Christian Jewish contemporaries had which led most of them to reject the Messiah’s first coming.  Thus Christ’s church appears to have made the same mistake as their non-Christian brethren and thus by-and-large missed Christ’s second coming.  Thus of those Christians of Judah who witnessed the second coming of Christ and did properly understand the invisible and heavenly nature of the resurrection, how many of these Christians also understood that the Messiah was to rule over a spiritual kingdom and that the New Jerusalem was not a literal cube fifteen hundred mile long ruled by an earthly king which was to literally and visibly descend from heaven?

    How many of these Christians truly knew what was meant by the destruction and creation of heaven and earth?  How many could confidently identify the beast?  How many could confidently identify the little horn of Daniel 7?  The list could go on and on.  The coming of Christ points to the fulfillment or impending fulfillment of all or nearly all end time prophesy found throughout both the Old and New Testaments.  Thus a confident assertion that Christ had come back during the war with Rome presupposes that the author would have also confidently grasped the fulfillment of ALL or nearly all end time prophecy.  How many first-century Christians in Judah had a confident grasp of nearly every end time prophecy from Genesis to Revelation?  This is the type and magnitude of wisdom and knowledge of the Bible which would have been required to confidently assert the fact that Christ had already returned.  Preterists today are still hotly debating most of these issues two thousand years later and none of us would admit to having it all figured out!

    Who can argue that Biblical prophecy has a way of fulfilling itself in a manner in which people do not expect?  The fact that many Jews today reject Jesus as their Messiah because they are still awaiting the arrival of their earthly king proves this fact.  Thus I believe after witnessing the second coming and failing to see many of their mistaken assumptions literally and physically come to light, most of these first-century Jewish Christians later began to look ahead to a future time in which their beliefs would be fulfilled in a more earthly and literal sense. Those first-century believers who overcame these mistaken assumptions and wrote concerning the fulfillment of the end of the age were likely rejected as heretics by the majority of their Christian contemporaries who still looked to the future for the literal, earthly fulfillment of their hopes.  These few ancient documents where then likely lost, decayed or burned in church-sanctioned book burnings.  And should it be a surprise if these documents were in one way or another lost to history?  After all how many orthodox scribes would have undergone the trouble to copy and transmit these heretical documents in the first place?  The fact that preterist writings would have likely been destroyed seems especially probable in light of the fact that the first-century Parousia was not visible outside of Judah, and after A.D. 70 Christianity spread more rapidly among Gentiles believers outside of Israel who had a poorer grasp of non-literal Hebrew idioms and who also would not have witnessed this event.  Thus if what has been stated above its true, why would anyone expect one or more two thousand year-old documents which had to overcome the myriad of above-mentioned hurdles to ever surface?

    Over the millennia, God has allowed people to believe in thousands of different gods and religions. If God would allow such an expansive array of different religions, why would He micromanage the proper understanding of eschatology in the early church if this aspect of the Christian faith has no bearing at all on salvation? Furthermore, if it was important to God that His first-century church get its eschatology right, why did Jesus ONLY speak publicly in parables?  If He wanted His message to be properly understood, why did He always preach so cryptically?  Mark 4: 12 says, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding.”’  Thus I agree with R.C. Sproul in that I can believe that the church was wrong about the timing of the second coming and the end of the age, but I can’t believe that the bible itself was wrong (especially when it so clearly points to A.D. 70).

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