The Imminent End in the New Testament and Early Christian Literature

The Imminent End in the New Testament and Early Christian Literature

Contents


Introduction

Protestant Christianity is commonly known for sects that boldly proclaim the current times are the ‘end times’. This apocalypticism is usually associated with Baptist, Charismatic, and Pentecostal denominations, as well as groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, or various Worldwide Church of God splinter churches. Yet, this thinking is not at all new, but can be found across the last two thousand years.

Most Christians are aware of these predictions, and dismiss them as errant theology. Often, Mark 13.32 is cited to justify failed predictions: ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.’

While apocalyptically-minded ministers proclaim that Jesus will return in our near future, Christians are broadly unaware that the very same predictions are made by the authors of the New Testament. Paul, for example, bluntly states no fewer than three times that his times were the ‘end times’, that members of his congregations would still be alive when Jesus returned.

These apocalyptic expectations in the New Testament, and contemporary Christian literature, evolved over time as historical events came and went. The centrality of the idea that the end was about to happen was gradually replaced by a more ‘realized’ eschatology: the end could still occur at any moment, but Christian theology increasingly emphasized the present reality of salvation and new creation over the future arrival of those things, to the point that ‘soon’ lost all meaning and became ‘any time’.

This is all generally taken for granted within scholarship, so this list below provides examples showing that early Christians believing they were living through the world’s final days was not just a widely held opinion, but was a cornerstone of their theology, a key component of their divinely-inspired scriptures. The resurrection of Jesus just a few decades in the past was essential to their entire belief system; the return of Jesus no more than a few decades in the future was just as essential.


Paul

1 Thess 4.16–17 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in the Messiah will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
1 Cor 4.9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals.
1 Cor 7.26–31 I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. […] I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
1 Cor 10.11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.
Php 4.5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Rom 8.18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
Rom 13.11–12 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.
Rom 16.20 The God of peace will soon crush the satan under your feet.

Mark

1.15The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
8.38–9.1 ‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the son of man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
13.28–31 ‘Then they will see the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’
14.61–62 Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am. And you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’

Q source

11.29–30 But some were demanding a sign from him. But he said, ‘This generation is an evil generation. It asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the son of man will be to this generation.’

Matthew

3.1–2 In those days John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
3.7–9 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath about to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor.” For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
4.17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
10.14–15, ‘If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. […] When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next. For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the son of man comes.’
16.27–28 ‘For the son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.’
23.32–36 ‘So, fill up the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehinnom? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you shall come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.’
24.30–35 ‘And they will see the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’
26.63–64 Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’

Hebrews

1.1–2 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.
8.13 In speaking of a new covenant, he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.
10.24–25 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.
10.37 For yet in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay.

James

5.1–3 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.
5.8–9 Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the judge is standing at the gates.

Judah

17–19 But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus the Messiah; for they said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts.’ It is these worldly people, devoid of the spirit, who are causing divisions.

1 Peter

1.20 He was destined before the foundation of the world, but he was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.
4.7 The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.
4.17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God. If it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

Revelation of John

1.1 A revelation of Jesus the Messiah, which God gave him to show his slaves what must happen soon.
1.3 Blessed is the one who reads, and the ones who hear the words of the prophecy, and the ones who keep what is written in it, because the time is near.
2.5 ‘So remember where you have fallen from and repent, and do the first works. But if not, I am coming to you, and I will remove your lampstand from its place if you do not repent.’
2.16 ‘So repent. But if not, I am coming to you soon, and I will wage war against them with the sword of my mouth.’
3.11I am coming soon. Grasp what you have so that no one may take your laurel.’
22.6 And he said to me, ‘These words are faithful and true. And the Lord God of the spirits of the prophets sent his angel to show his slaves what must happen soon.’
22.10 And he said to me, ‘Do not seal the words of this scroll’s prophecy, because the time is near.’
22.12 ‘See, I am coming soon, and my reward is with me to give each according to his work.’
22.20 The one who witnesses these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon. Amen.’ Come, Lord Jesus.

1 John

2.18 Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that an anti-messiah is coming, so now many anti-messiahs have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.

Ignatius

Eph 11.1 The end times have come upon us, so let us, then, be of a reverent spirit and fear God’s patience, so it will not turn to our judgment.
Mag 6.1 Jesus the Messiah, who was with the Father before the ages and appeared at the end of time.

Shepherd of Hermas

Vis 3.8.9 Then I asked her about the times, if the end is now. But she cried out, saying, ‘Foolish man, do you not see the tower is still being built? So when the tower’s construction is finished, the end comes. But, it will be built up soon.’

Vis 4.3.3–5 I said to her, ‘Lady, [I saw] a huge wild animal, which could have destroyed entire peoples. However, by the power of the Lord and his great mercy, I escaped it.’

‘You escaped it well,’ she said, ‘because you cast your anxiety upon God and opened your heart to the Lord, believing that you could be by nothing other than his great and glorious name. […] You escaped a great tribulation […] So go and tell the Lord’s chosen ones […] that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is about to come.’

Par 9.3.2 The virgins standing around the gate told the men to hurry up building the tower.

Par 9.12.2–3 ‘The son of God is older than all his creation, so he became the Father’s counselor in his creation. So it is ancient.’

‘But why is the gate new, lord?’ I said.

‘Because,’ he said, ‘he was made manifest in the last days of [the tower’s] completion. So the gate is newly made, so those who are about to be saved may enter through it into the kingdom of God.’


Barnabas

16.5 Again, it was revealed how the city and the temple and the people of Israel should be handed over. For the scripture says, ‘And it will be in the last days that the Lord shall hand over the sheep of the pasture and the enclosure and their tower to destruction.’ And it came to pass as the Lord said.

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