Most Christians probably agree that Jesus will return “soon”. This becomes obvious if we examine the “signs of the times”. Jesus said that we should look at the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:29-31) But how soon is “soon”? Tomorrow? In a few years? During this century? Here most people reply that we can and should not know. It is a carefully kept heavenly secret. The common opinion is that when Jesus comes, He does so unexpectedly and surprisingly.
There are two different theological positions that underlie such a view: amillennialism that believes in a quick and unexpected end to this world, and pretribulationism that assumes an imminent and surprising “rapture” of believers. (The concepts will be clarified later.) The opinion that we cannot know largely overlaps a belief in either of these views, and because the views are common, so is the opinion. Therefore, many think it is misguided and perhaps even sinful to try to figure out the time of Jesus’ return.
But does the Bible really teach that the return will come without any warning? In Matthew 24, Jesus lists a number of events that must precede His return, and the list culminates with: Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken… Then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds. (Matthew 24:29-30) As long as this cosmic climax has not yet appeared, the return cannot take place. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 testifies to the same thing: Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ… Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Of course it may be argued that “the falling away” has already taken place, but I find it difficult to think of an already occurred event that may be linked to “the son of perdition” who “sits as God in the temple of God”.
The most popular Bible passage in defence of an immediate and surprising return is probably Matthew 24:36 (NIV): About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. However, the translation may be questioned. In the original text, Jesus uses verb tense perfect, and in addition, the Greek word for know may also mean discover. Therefore, an alternative translation becomes: About that day or hour no one has discovered… Jesus never says that no one will ever in the future discover the day. He is on the same wavelength as the Old Testament prophet Daniel who received the explicit message to seal the book until the time of the end when knowledge shall increase (Daniel 12:4).
We must not forget that it is almost 2,000 years since Jesus said that no one knows. When interpreting what He means, it is important to take the recipients and their situation into consideration. Not all of Jesus’ statements apply to all times, all people, and all situations. When He sent out the twelve apostles, He instructed them to not go into the way of the Gentiles (Matthew 10:5), but at the Great Commission the same disciples received a completely different marching order: Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. (Matthew 28:19) God’s salvation plan goes through separate phases, and hence the target group for the apostolic mission has also changed over time. Therefore, the words of Jesus in Matt 24:36 do not need to apply to all times, and this regardless of which translation (“no one knows” or “no one has discovered”) is correct. Jesus also tells the apostles that it is not for you [the apostles] to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority (Acts 1:7). Of course He is right – it was not for them to know. Neither has it been for anyone else in the last 2,000 years, but today this situation is changing.
Matthew’s 24th chapter contains eschatological (doctrine of the end times) instructions that Jesus gave His apostles on the Mount of Olives. The teaching is initiated by the apostles’ question: When will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3) Jesus’ answer includes a reference to the book of Daniel: When you see the “abomination of desolation,” spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24:15-16) So Jesus suddenly changes whom He addresses from the listeners (apostles) to the readers (you and me). Therefore, what He says should be more relevant in our day than when He uttered the words. And the reference is to a prophecy that Daniel received during the Babylonian captivity where a question was raised: How long shall the fulfillment of these wonders be? The answer is that the revelation of the time will delay: The words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end…None of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand. So no one will be able calculate the time of the end except the wise who are alive when the time is approaching. If you as a reader want to belong to this crowd, this booklet is for you.
The teachings of Jesus on the Mount of Olives also contain a parable: If the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. (Matthew 24:43) Note the causation between knowing and watching. If the homeowner had known when the thief came, he would have watched and so avoided disaster. Watching requires knowledge of the time frame, and hence Jesus warns against not finding out about the thief’s arrival. He then reconnects to His own (second) coming and gives His listeners a central command: You also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:44) How will they be ready? Analogously with the homeowner, by finding out the time.
But why is there a need to watch if the time is known? Watching means waiting for something one knows will happen but not exactly when. The answer is revealed by a careful study of what Jesus is saying. KJV has a more literal translation of Matthew 24:43: If the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched… A “watch” was a three-hour shift for the Roman guards in Jerusalem and therefore the uncertainty about thief’s arrival (and hence about Jesus’ arrival) only needs to be three hours. That is probably why Jesus also said He will come at an “hour” when no one expects it.
Paul formulates the message about the thief in a slightly different way: Concerning the times and the seasons… you.. know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ”Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman… But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief… Therefore, let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-6) Paul contrasts “they” (people in general) with the “brethren”. The former are surprised but not the latter. “Therefore” the brethren should not sleep but watch and be sober.
Much later, long after Jesus had risen and ascended to heaven, He revealed himself to the apostle John and repeated the analogy with the thief: If you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. (Revelation 3:3) Again He emphasizes that the surprise is conditional: The shock will only hit the unprepared.
Humanity is facing the next phase of God’s salvation plan for man and earth. Daniel is instructed to shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end (Dan 12:4), which should be compared with the corresponding instruction to the apostle John in the very last chapter of the Bible: Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand. (Revelation 22:10) Evidently, God provides information on a need to know basis. The fact that the Bible chronology gives us a firmer understanding of the time of the return is in itself an indication that we are near. The prophecy of increased knowledge is being fulfilled before our very eyes. It is time to start preparing for the greatest event in world history!
Extracted from a book called Bible Chronology for the Last Generation Christians by Anders GardeBorn from Sweden. The book was originally written in Swedish and translated into English.