Don K. Preston
Almost two thousand years ago John the Baptizer said “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Matthew 3:2. Jesus, Son of God, echoed those words “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Matthew 4:17. The Prince of Peace sent his disciples out to preach the same message, Luke 10. Jesus clearly said the kingdom, and other events as we shall see below, were at hand.
A common response to these Biblical statements of the imminence of the kingdom in the first century is this: “Well, yes, the Bible said the kingdom was coming soon, but remember, ‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day.’ God doesn’t see time as man does; He is above time.”
Is there anything wrong with these statements? Well, if God cannot tell time there isn’t. But if God can read a calendar, and if God truly meant to communicate with man there is something drastically wrong. Essentially, what these statements say is that while God said the kingdom was “at hand,” God cannot tell time, therefore the “at hand” time statements mean nothing at all.
This little tract is about several things. It is about the inspiration of the scriptures; it is about the faithfulness of God; it is about God’s ability to communicate with mankind; it is about the kingdom of the Lord and other prophecy; it is about changing our preconceived ideas to bring them into harmony with God’s word.
The Bible says it is inspired, II Timothy 3:16. The original word translated “inspired” literally means “God breathed.” The thought of the Bible being from God suggests that since God is perfect or infallible, if the Bible is from Him it ought to be infallible as well. Specifically, if the Bible made a promise that something would happen within a specified time frame, if that event did not happen when and as promised the Bible’s claim to inspiration falls.
Note: There are conditional promises in the Bible. In other words God said “If you will do this, I will do this.” When and if man failed to keep his part of the bargain God was no longer bound to fulfill his promise. This does not prove a failed prophecy; it demonstrates just the opposite. He was keeping the negative provisions of the prophecy, see Jeremiah 18:1-6.
The promises we are studying in this tract were not conditional promises. As a matter of fact, premillennialists very often insist that the promises of the kingdom were not conditional. We agree.
The amillennialist observes that God promised to establish the kingdom in the days of the Roman empire, Daniel 2. The premillennialist says that was not done. The amillennialist points out that if this is true then one part of God’s promise failed. This is a valid and true statement.
If God does not keep the when part of his promises, he has not kept his promise! The inspiration of the scriptures demands complete fulfillment of every aspect of God’s promises. So-called prophets of today like to point to some of their predictions that seemed to come true, at least partially. To them, if any part of their prediction came true they claim victory! This is not the Bible standard of determining the validity of a prophet! Partial fulfillment means complete failure! It is Jehovah himself that gave the criteria for determining whether a prophet was true or false; if a prophet’s prediction did not come true he was a false prophet, Deuteronomy 18:15ff.
God’s Words-Vs-Man’s Words
It seems to have escaped the notice of many that the Bible was written in the common languages of their respective authors. The Old Covenant was not written in some mystical form of Hebrew. It was written in the language spoken in the homes, in the markets, in the fields and work places of the Jewish people.
We are not suggesting much of this language was not figurative, and apocalyptic. On the contrary, much of the prophetic literature is just that. What we are saying however, is that even figurative portions of scripture used types of language the people knew. The Jews of old were familiar with apocalyptic language. They studied it every Sabbath. We today need to be far more familiar with this apocalyptic form of language and stop thinking so literally when we read about the passing of “heaven and earth,” see Isaiah 34 for instance. In regard to time however we need to see that while much language was figurative, it is unusual for time words to be so used.
The New Covenant is the same. The New Testament Greek is known as the “koine,” meaning “common,” Greek of the day. The New Testament Greek, just as the Old Covenant Hebrew, was the language of fisherman, carpenters, tent-makers, husbands and wives. What is our point?
Our point is that the Bible is not a book that used words normally meaning at hand to mean a long time. When God said something was not near, it really was not near! We shall fully demonstrate this below; but the very nature of the languages of the Bible should make one very cautious before insisting God cannot tell time.
God, Time, and Communication
Are we saying God is not above time? Are we saying God is bound to time like man? Not at all! God’s years are endless; “from everlasting to everlasting thou art God” Psalms 90:2. Isaiah calls Jehovah “the Father of eternity” 9:6-9. But the fact that God is above time is irrelevant to this discussion.
Now, if God was talking to God when he said certain events were “at hand” we would be justified in saying that mankind would have no way of telling what “soon” or “quickly” meant. But, in the Bible, God spoke to man. The time statements about the kingdom’s establishment were made to man. The time statements in the Bible were spoken to man to encourage or to warn man. If God did not mean TIME when he used time words what did he mean? Since man thinks in time when “a long time” or “at hand” is used would it not have been misleading on God’s part to say something was not going to happen for a long time when in fact it was imminent? Conversely, would it not have been misleading for God to say something was at hand when it was really not to happen for centuries?
The question here is one of communication. Can God communicate with his creation in an understandable way; or does Jehovah speak in purposely ambiguous ways? Does the Lord hold out a carrot stick of imminent blessings to his hurting creation while knowing all the time he is not really going to bring the promises soon? Did God constantly threaten nations with imminent judgment and not punish them for centuries? Where then is the reality of the threat to the wicked? Does God’s transcendence over time prevent him from speaking to man in words that convey genuine nearness?
If God is in the practice of saying something is imminent when in reality it may not transpire for centuries, why is there not one single Old Covenant prophecy of the kingdom that said it was “at hand?” Daniel said the kingdom would be established in the days of the Roman empire; he called it “the last days,” 2:28. From Daniel’s perspective it was several hundred years away. From God’s perspective of course, it was only a moment; but that is not the issue. God was speaking to Daniel about things to happen in man’s world–not in timeless eternity. This is why God did not cause Daniel to say the kingdom was “near,” “at hand,” “right at the door,” or coming “very, very soon.”
It was not until John the Baptizer came that the message “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” was preached; and the kingdom was established in the very generation that heard John say it was at hand. In other words, God did not allow his prophets to say the kingdom was at hand until it was really at hand. It would have been something less than honest if God had said the kingdom was imminent when it was really hundreds of years away.
Why did Isaiah, who wrote over 600 years before the birth of the Messiah, never say his coming was at hand? Would it not have been terribly distressing for the Jews to have heard a constant message of the imminence of the kingdom and their savior yet hundreds of years roll on and on without fulfillment? The writer of Proverbs correctly noted mankind’s attitude toward waiting for fulfillment of promises “Hope that is deferred makes the heart sick” 13:12.
It is one thing for God to promise something and not give any indication as to when he would fulfill the promise, for then man has no indication of when to expect fulfillment. It is an entirely different thing for God to indicate a time frame for fulfillment and not bring the promise to fulfillment in that indicated time frame. This involves a basic attribute of the nature of God.
God Is Faithful
In II Peter 3:8 we find the statement about “one day being as a thousand years,” etc. (By the way please note the verse does not say one day IS a thousand years with the Lord. Some millennarians insist earth will only stand for six thousand years followed by a thousand years of utopia. This is based on a mistaken association with the days of creation and II Peter 3.) In verse 9 we find a “forgotten statement:” “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some count slowness” (NASV). The word translated “slow” (Greek “braduno”) means just that. Compare Paul’s usage of the term in I Timothy 3:15. Peter’s point is that if God sets a time for fulfillment he fulfills on time! He is not slow; God can tell time and knows how to keep his promises on time! This verse asserts in no uncertain terms that God is a God who keeps his promises! Now notice the inherent contradiction between this inspired statement and the claims of men today.
The premillennialist admits Jehovah promised to establish the kingdom in the days of the Roman empire; and that Jesus said the kingdom was at hand, Matthew 4:17. Unfortunately however, God was unable to complete his promise due to the unbelief of the Jews. Therefore God postponed the kingdom to a later date. But wait. What has happened to Peter’s inspired statement that God is not slow about fulfilling his promises? What about the faithfulness of God that the Hebrew writer asserts, Hebrews 6:18? That writer insists “God cannot lie.” Well, if he cannot lie, can he fail, or alter his promises?
If the premillennialist is right and the appointed time for fulfillment has come and gone yet God has not fulfilled the promise, has God not been extremely slow in fulfilling his kingdom promises? Has the faithfulness of God not been seriously called into question? Reader, if God is as slow as the premillennial doctrine implies how can we be assured of any of his promises?
We maintain that the faithfulness of God demands we believe he keep his word not only in the way he promised but when he promised to keep it as well. The time frame for fulfillment is as important as the how of fulfillment.
God and Time
In spite of the issue of the faithfulness of God some writers insist we must believe in what they call the “elasticity of prophetic chronology;” and that “time, in connection with prophecy, is an exceedingly relative matter.” We are told that prophetic time may indicate imminence when in fact hundreds of years are involved. In order to demonstrate the utter falsity of this concept let us see how God has dealt with time statements in scripture.
In Numbers 24:17-18 Balaam the prophet made a prediction of Christ’s coming: “I see him but not now, I behold him but not near.” Notice he said Christ’s coming was not near. It was not at hand. Why did he say this? Because Christ’s coming was over 1400 years away, and 1400 years really is a long time. Here is a concrete example where God referred to a long time as just that.
In Daniel 10-12 is a vision encompassing a period of time from 536 BC to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD; about 600 years. Two times in this text Daniel was told “the appointed time is long” and “the vision refers to many days to come” (10:1,14). Remember, this vision was relayed to Daniel from God. While God is not bound by time, he was communicating to man who is bound to time. God called this 600 year period of time “long;” he said it involved “many days.” God can most assuredly tell time and read a calendar!
Daniel contains another important example of how God used time words. Chapter 8 contains a prophecy that extends from 530 BC to about 165-164 BC and the death of Antiochus Epiphanes. The time covered is about 365 years. How did God express the prophecy? Did he say it was at hand? Did he say SOME of it was at hand while some of it was for a long time off? No! God viewed the prophecy as a whole. He said the vision “refers to many days in the future” (8:26). Here is a prophecy that covers 365 years and God called it “a long time.” Friends, if God called 365 years a long time, how can man say that time, when God is speaking to man, means nothing?
This is an important question in light of the traditional interpretations of Revelation. Daniel was told to seal up his vision because the time for its fulfillment was a long time away–365 years. John was specifically told not to seal up his vision because what he saw was at hand. John is told his vision, not part of his vision, was “at hand” and “must shortly come to pass!” Reader, did God call the 365 years for the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy a “long time” and call the fulfillment of Revelation, which most commentators say has not been fulfilled after 2000 years so far, “at hand?” To say the least, this would hardly be consistent!
In Jeremiah 29:10 Jehovah told his prophet the Babylonian captivity would last for seventy years. In verse 28 the people complained that Jeremiah had told them “The exile will be long….” Here is an example of a prophet specifying a period of time, seventy years, and the people said the prophet, and remember the prophet was inspired of God, said the captivity would be “long.” Why was seventy years called a long time by Jeremiah? Because to man seventy years is a long time. Thus, God used time words as man would normally understand them. God can tell time when speaking to man!
Many do not realize the Bible gives an example of man attempting to change the meaning of time words used by God; and God’s response.
In Ezekiel 7, God through Ezekiel said the Day of the Lord was at hand. The Day of the Lord in this context was when God used Babylon to punish Israel for her sin. This is the concept of the Day of the Lord; it is not an “end of time” idea. It is when God used a nation to punish another as it related to his chosen people.
In chapter 11 Israel responded to the threat of coming judgment. They insisted that although Ezekiel said it was at hand it was really not. It was time to build houses, not worry about judgment. One can almost hear some of those people: “Well, yes, Ezekiel has said the Day of the Lord is at hand, but after all, ‘one day is with the Lord as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day,’ Psalms 90:4”
When Israel “elasticized” God’s words of imminence into relativity, ambiguity and meaning-less-ness, God responded. In Ezekiel 12:21ff, (Please, take the time to get your Bible and read it for yourself.) Adonai told Ezekiel to tell Israel that her days of changing the time for his predictions were over. He had said judgment was at hand; Israel said it was not at hand. Jehovah would not tolerate it.
Ezekiel was instructed to tell Israel that in that generation judgment would fall just as Jehovah had indicated when he said it was at hand. (Have you read those verses for yourself yet? If not, why not do it right now and see for yourself that what we are saying is true?) What we have then, is an example of man saying that while God had said something was imminent it really was not; it was for a long time off. We have God’s response; when God said “at hand” he meant “at hand!” He did not mean hundreds or thousands of years; he meant “soon!”
Another example of man changing the meaning of God’s time words is in Amos 6:3. God warned Israel the time had come for her to be judged, 8:2, Hosea 1:4. In spite of the warnings Israel “put far off the evil day.” Isaiah 56:12 shows they were saying “tomorrow shall be as today.” In spite of God’s warning that judgment was at hand they insisted “All things continue as they were,” cf. II Peter 3:3-4. They refused to believe God meant “near” when he said “at hand.” As a result God said “Woe” to them!
Reader, what is the practical difference between Israel of Old denying “at hand” meant “soon,” and Bible students today who read the New Testament time statements and say they did not mean “soon?” What is the difference between those in Isaiah’s day who denied the warnings of imminent judgment, saying life was going to go on as usual, and those today who read the time statements made in the first century and say the predicted events were not truly imminent? Those who deny the first century application of the at hand time statements of the New Testament are doing the same thing as the Israelites of Old–denying that “at hand” meant “soon.”
Upon what basis can one acknowledge that God condemned Israel for changing “at hand” into a “long time” and then think it is justifiable for modern man to do so when studying the New Testament? Israel of old apparently argued that time doesn’t mean anything to God. By the way, they had Psalms 90:4 when Amos and Ezekiel was written; were they appealing to this as justification for saying “at hand” did not mean soon? When they so argued, God condemned such rationalization. What has changed with God to allow modern man to go to New Covenant promises that certain events were “at hand” and change those statements of imminence to make them say they have not been fulfilled after two thousand years so far?
Has God changed his vocabulary? Is it true that “at hand” once did mean “at hand” but now it can mean “a long time?” If so, where is the evidence for the change? Surely, the honest student can clearly see there has been no such change in God’s vocabulary. God can tell time; God can read a calendar. When God says something is at hand it is near. For man to argue otherwise is to reject the inspiration of the scriptures; it is to impugn the faithfulness of God; it is to impugn the ability of God to communicate; it is to do the very thing Israel of old did and for which they were condemned! This is a very serious matter indeed!
Making An Application
Chances are, if you are an amillennialist you have pretty much agreed with this tract so far. If you are a premillennialist, hopefully you have seen the power of the language of imminence in the Bible. That language is very powerful and significant. We wish to demonstrate in the remainder of this tract that the issues we have raised have serious implications for both amillennialists and premillennialists.
If the time statements of the Bible are to be understood as truly communicating what the words themselves normally mean, and we believe we have sufficiently demonstrated that they do, then the traditional views of eschatology are presented with some insurmountable problems. In other words, if “a long time” really meant a long time in man’s concept of time, and if “at hand” truly meant nearness and imminence then the traditional eschatological interpretations are false.
Everyone admits there are numerous New Testament passages that say “The coming of the Lord is at hand;” or in other ways indicate Christ’s return was imminent–and that was almost two thousand years ago. One of the ways men have dealt with the problem is to say “Yes, the Bible said the coming of the Lord was ‘at hand’ in the first century, but time doesn’t mean anything to God therefore ‘at hand’ didn’t really mean it was imminent.”
Do you see the problem? The problem is real and has troubled honest Bible students for centuries. The question is “Can God tell time?” As we have seen, when God uses time words he does not have a special hidden meaning unknowable to man. Prophetic time statements are not so “elastic” that the words “near” and “at hand” can encompass hundreds, or even thousands of years. At hand means at hand whether it referred to the coming of the kingdom or the coming of the Lord.
If, as the amillennialist insists, it is dangerous to deny the time for the coming of the kingdom, why is it not equally dangerous to deny the time-frame for the coming of the Lord? It is clear to this scribe that to deny either the fact or the time for the coming of the Lord is to deny the inspiration of the scriptures. This is a serious matter indeed. How clearly does the New Testament affirm the imminence of the coming of the Lord?
A Look At the Evidence
1.) Matthew 10:23: Jesus said he would return in the lifetime of his disciples.
2.) Matthew 16:27-28: Jesus said he would return with his angels to judge all men before every one standing there died. Please read it!
3.) Matthew 24:29-34: Jesus said he would return in the clouds with his angels — in that generation.
4.) Acts 3:19ff: Peter said Jesus would return when all the Old Covenant prophets were fulfilled. If the Old Prophets have not been fulfilled the Old Covenant is still in effect, Matthew 5:17-18.
5.) Romans 13:12: Paul said “the day is at hand.”
6.) Romans 16:20: Paul said God “will bruise Satan under your feet shortly.”
7.) I Corinthians 1:4-8: Paul said the Corinthians would have the miraculous gifts until “the end,” the Day of the Lord.
8.) I Corinthians 7:28-31: Paul said “the fashion of this world is passing away,” and “the time is short.”
9.) I Corinthians 15:51f: Paul said not all of them then living would die before the resurrection.
10.) Philippians 3:20-4:5: Paul spoke of the resurrection at Christ’s coming and said “The Lord is at hand.”
11.) I Timothy 6:14: Paul told Timothy to live faithfully “until the appearing of our Lord.”
12.) Hebrews 9:28; 10:37: The writer said Christ would appear a second time for salvation and then asserted “in a very, very little while he that will come will come, and will not tarry.” Isn’t it sad that man says Christ has delayed, in spite of what this verse says? what does inspiration mean? Did the writer lie? Was he mistaken?
13.) James 5:7-9: James urged his readers to be faithful “until the coming of the Lord;” he says “The coming of the Lord is at hand:” and “The judge is standing right at the door.”
14.) I Peter 4:5, 7, 17: Peter said Jesus was then “ready to judge the living and the dead;” “the end of all things is at hand;” and “the time is come for the judgment to begin at the house of God.”
15.) I John 2:15-18: John said the world was passing away and “it is the last hour.”
16.) Revelation: this book says no less than ten times that its predictions “must shortly come to pass,” were “at hand,” were to happen “quickly,” there would be “no more delay,” etc, etc.
Reader, these are not all the verses that either directly stated Christ’s return was at hand or indirectly taught it as true. What will you do with these verses in God’s inspired word? Do you realize there is not one verse that uses language of imminence about the coming of the kingdom that is as strong as some of the language about the coming of the Lord? See Hebrews 10:37. Christ never said “in a very, very little while the kingdom will come” But the inspired writers said it about the coming of Jesus. If, as the amillennialist correctly insists, we must acknowledge the strong language of imminence in regard to the coming of the kingdom, must we not acknowledge the even stronger language that is used in reference to the coming of the Lord? If not, why not?
Someone will respond to the above by saying “Wait, now, Christ has not returned because earth and time continue. Every man did not see him come back, therefore he did not come back.”
The problem here is one of preconceived ideas. The prevailing idea about Christ’s return says he will come back bodily, on an actual cloud, with real angels. Time will end as the physical earth is burned up, and every nation and all the dead are raised out of physical graves to stand before Christ and be judged.
Obviously, from a physical perspective all this has not happened. But is it just possible that this concept of the Day of the Lord is wrong? If you have agreed with our investigation about God’s use of time words you are forced to rethink your concept about the nature of the Day of the Lord; or else call the inspiration of scripture into question! Which will it be?
The Day of The Lord
How is “the coming of the Lord” defined?
Just as the restoration of the kingdom of Israel was a spiritual, not a physical restoration, Acts 1:6; 2:29ff; 3:19ff; 15:14ff, etc; the return of Christ was a spiritual, not a physical, event as well.
In the Old Covenant the Coming of the Lord was when Jehovah acted by “instrumental means” to judge a nation or people. The language used to describe the event sounds like the end of creation; but was only the end of the “world” under consideration. God was said to ride a cloud into Egypt in judgment. He did not bodily ride a cloud into Egypt; the Assyrians destroyed Egypt. But since God used the Assyrians he was said to come with the clouds, Isaiah 19-20.
God predicted Edom’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, Isaiah 34, in what sounds like the end of material creation. Earth was to burn and melt, the stars would fall. This did not happen literally of course. Edom was destroyed, Malachi 1:2-3. It was the Day of the Lord. God acted, therefore he came.
In Psalms 18 David described in graphic detail how God had delivered him from his enemies. He said God descended on the clouds, the earth was shaken, all creation was moved. This did not literally happen but is highly symbolic language to describe God’s actions. The technical term for this language is “apocalyptic language.”
Apocalyptic language was never intended to be taken literally and leads to direct contradictions when literalized. When Jesus promised to return with the clouds and angels he was using standard apocalyptic language to describe the time when he would put a full end to the Old World of Judaism. When Peter, II Peter 3, described the Day of the Lord when “heaven and earth” would perish he was using Old Covenant apocalyptic language to predict the very same day Jesus spoke of. This was when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.
In 70 AD Jesus destroyed the Old World of Judaism that had stood for over 1500 years. The temple was the only place on earth where sacrifices could be offered; and only genealogically confirmed Levites could offer those sacrifices. National Israel had been God’s chosen people to bring Messiah and his word. That purpose was now accomplished and Israel had rejected her own Messiah and kingdom. Concurrently, God was establishing a New Covenant and a New People. When that New Covenant was fully delivered and confirmed, and when the Old Covenant people had fully rejected it, Christ came in judgment. He took that Old Nation out of the way. When Jerusalem was destroyed Jesus’ claims were fully vindicated by the fulfillment of all prophecy, Luke 21:22. He was “seen” to be true when his predictions came to pass. He was revealed to be at the right hand of power on high when his prediction of Jerusalem’s fall came to pass. This was the coming of the Lord. In short, Jesus never predicted to bodily return to this earth.
This extremely simplified explanation will hopefully cause you to want to study more. You may not be familiar with these ideas but we hope we have piqued your curiosity.
This one fact remains. Jesus promised to return in the generation of his disciples. Language could not be clearer. We have demonstrated above that when God used time words he meant what the words suggest. “At hand” means “at hand;” a “long time” means a “long time.” This being true one must acknowledge 1.) Jesus lied, 2.) He failed, 3.) He was mistaken or 4.) He came!
The Bible is either inspired or it is not–I believe it is inspired. I believe Jesus also did not lie, fail, or make a mistake. This is why I have changed my mind about the nature of the coming of the Lord.
God truly can tell time; he can read a calendar. In the clearest language possible he predicted the time, not the day or hour, but the generation of Christ’s return. That was the first century generation. The only way to maintain a belief in the inspiration of the scriptures and Jesus is to be willing to believe he kept his words; this means a change in your beliefs about the nature of the coming. Are you willing to change?
(Copyright © 2001 by Don K. Preston. Used by permission. For additional articles, CDs, and books by Don K. Preston, go to www.eschatology.org.)