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By any account, Paul was the most intelligent and best-trained of the apostolic band, with only Matthew coming close as a candidate to overtake him. Our focus here is upon less than a dozen cites, used often by Skeptics but also by others of various persuasion, to suggest that Paul expected an imminent return of Jesus, indeed within his own lifetime.
As we examine the cites often appealed to in this context, however, we find a certain ambiguity -- if I may theorize, an intentional ambiguity. The reason for this I shall explore when we consider Paul's earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, and the second letter to the same church. But for now, here is some groundwork.
Our programmatic work for this essay is Ben Witherington's Jesus, Paul and the End of the World [JPEW]. Witherington's answer to the key question is neither no nor yes, exactly: It would not be proper, he says, to say that Paul thought Jesus would return soon. Rather, it is better to say that Paul thought Jesus could return soon -- and so adopted what Witherington called the "language of imminence"  to express his belief that Jesus could return in his own lifetime, or anytime at all thereafter.
As Witheringon further states :
Suppose Paul did not know and did not pretend to know the timing of the Second Coming, but thought it possible that it could be soon. Suppose also that he did not die before the parousia. Now if he did not know the timing of the parousia or of his own death, he could not assume that he would die prior to the parousia. This means that the only category into which he could possibly put himself when commenting on the parousia is the living...Paul could not have said, "We who will die prior to the parousia," because that would presuppose that he knew that the parousia was some distance off. The point is, Witherington says, Paul simply did not know the timing of these events, and thus he had to prepare and warn his converts because the parousia might be soon. [Emphasis in original.]
As it happens, current events provide something of a parallel here. Our government warns of imminent terrorist attacks, based on general knowledge that terrorists want to strike, and might; but they address the public in terms of saying, "Be on the lookout for an attack." They do not know when this attack will take place, and they could hardly tell everyone to look out, except those who will die in the next day or two.
Paul knew that the day of the Lord would come as a thief in the night (1 Thess. 5:2). In Jesus' own words, "And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not." (Luke 12:39-40)
This very simple consideration defuses a great many objections about Paul (and other NT writers) expecting Jesus to return in their lifetime. The "language of imminence" used by Paul and others was a constraint of their own ignorance, of not knowing when Jesus would return, rather than reflecting a "knowing" as the critics suppose.
This suffices as an adequate answer if we are committed to the dispensational viewpoint and suppose that Paul refers to the "altogether" end of all things on a cosmic scale. On the other hand, we have also noted that the Olivet Discourse predicts a "return" (or better, advent) of Christ, and it is also possible, perhaps even likely, that Paul, when he speaks imminently, actually does so with Jesus' "this generation" prediction in mind.
Either solution I think is possible for most of Paul's cites, but I do not think we can be certain which in each case, because very few of Paul's eschatological cites give informing content explaining what it is he is referring to exactly. I think there is a reason for this vagueness in some cases, and we will get to that later on. For now we will see how this works out in certain cases and proceed through Paul's letters in canonical order.
And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.
In practical terms, either the language of imminence or Jesus' generational prophecy does enough to explain Paul's urgency of thought here. If he thinks that Christ's return could happen at any moment, he could hardly frame this any differently; if he knows the advent is less than a generation away, this makes sense also. Paul is either commending moral earnestness (13:8-9) in light of the possibly soon return of Christ, or the imminent advent of Christ. This is a concept reflected in Jesus' own warnings:
Luke 12:42-46 And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath. But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.
On the other hand, neither view may be necessary to apply in this case. There is also some question as to whether, in Romans, the phrase "at hand" should be understood as meaning a nearness in time. As Witherington notes , there is some indication that it does not mean "at hand" but rather "has come", so that Paul is speaking of a present reality:
- In the Septuagint, the word behind "at hand" (eggizo) is sometimes used to translate Hebrew words which mean "to reach" or "to arrive."
- This is the sense that is likely meant in Luke 10:9: "And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you (eggizo eggizo)."
- Paul tells the Romans to put on the "armour of light" (v. 12) "which seems to imply that the time of light and the equipment of the 'enlightened' is already here." This is confirmed by 1 Thess. 5:4-5, where Paul calls believers "sons of light and also sons of the day." The Semitic idiom "sons of" is used in the sense of one who follows or is a product of their "parents." The light is already here; it is not "on the way"!
Of course, no matter when the return or advent of Christ might occur, Paul could always say that our salvation was "nearer" than when we "believed" -- a heavy warning, like that in Luke, not to think we can do what we like.
And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.
This one is fairly easy to deal with.
It is far from clear that Paul here necessarily refers to an eschatological condition. God could "bruise Satan" in any number of ways in the temporal life of the believer. However, the phrase used for "shortly" (en tachei) could also have two meanings: either shortly in time or speedily, with dispatch.
Witherington notes that the phrase is adverbial and should indicate manner.  The verse tells us how, not when, Satan will be crushed. There is, in any event, no contextual reference to the parousia or any event associated with Christ's return or advent; and even if not, preterism holds that Satan was bound around 70 AD, so that it could be argued that this prediction was fulfilled.
1 Corinthians 1:7-8
So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Little more needs be added other than our primary points above. Either Paul could not speak in any other way than inclusively of the Corinthian congregation, otherwise he implies that "the end" and "the day" of Christ will happen after his readers and hearers are deceased; or else the "end" is that of the age of the law in Judaism and the "day" of Christ is his judgment on Jerusalem.
As noted here, the "day of the Lord" refers to any time that God acts decisively in judgment. That could have been 70 AD, or it could be a final judgment. We can read this passage either way (though we can assume that the Corinthians knew which it was).
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.
I have seen critics quote only verse 29 out of this without context; don't let them get away with it! First of all, the time is "short," but what does "short" mean here? It is not a word of time-reference in itself; here is the only other place in the NT we find it:
Acts 5:6 And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.
We might say, "things are wrapping up" -- but in saying that, we refer not to time, but to process. Paul does indeed see the final processes in action, but in no way does he imply that there is a definite timetable merely by saying this.
The potential imminence of Christ's return does indeed lie behind this language, and the advice is of the same tone as Jesus' admonition to be on guard and not get lazy. Once again, this could be events of 70 or events of a final judgment; it makes little difference.
Second, what is this time "running out" on? Not the world per se, but the fashion of the world, the schema. Here is the one other place where that word is used in the NT:
Phil. 2:8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Paul's dictates of behavior are to remind the Corinthians that their existence is no longer to be dictated by the schema of the world -- its institutions, its things, its joys and sorrows -- because those institutions are going to be radically transformed and/or are not permanent.
This indeed did come to pass, of course, under any view -- Paul's opponents in Corinth and their ideologies (proto-Gnosticism perhaps, or Stoicism) have indeed passed away, as have the social institutions and schemes associated with the Roman Empire and the world as Paul knew it.
Paul's point is that, "...for Christians the world is not to be the means whereby they attempt to create their own lives or indulge their own selfish desires." [JPEW, 30] Such transformation is a component of the total refashioning of the world, but says nothing about how long it will be taking place. We might choose to read this, however (as I prefer) as a reference to the "grand opening" of the messianic age in 70.
That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ...
Critics will say, "Paul is talking to the Phillipians, so he must have expected Christ's day in his lifetime." But here again, either the necessity for the language of imminence, or an expected judgment within the generation, is the only answer required. (Here again the "day of the Lord" phraseology could mean either event; I prefer to say the events of 70. On the other hand, note as well that the two answers can be combined, since it is just as likely that some of Paul's readers will be dead before 70 -- and Paul probably was!)
Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.
Note please: It is "the Lord" that is "at hand," not "the day of the Lord." But the word for "at hand" could mean either close in time or in space. (John 3:23 "And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim...") That Paul has the "space" idea in mind is shown first by the lack of a chronological marker. Where it says, "the day of..." the word used here "is used in the sense of temporal nearness [and] refers to a thing or an event, not a person, being near."
It is shown secondly by the similarity of this passage to Psalms 145:18-19 ("The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth."
Note Phil. 4:6, "Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.") and other Psalmist passages that refer to the "nearness" of the Lord to others (34:17-18, 119:151). [Witherington, Friendship and Finances in Philippi, 112-13]
1 Thessalonians 4:17, 5:23
Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord...And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
These passages require little more explanation than that of the matter of the language of imminence. Moreover, as Seraiah notes [The End of All Things, 177], it is clear from verse 5:10, "Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him," that Paul also considered it quite possible that he and his readers/hearers would all be dead by the time Christ returned; see also language in 1 Cor. 6:14 and 2 Cor. 4:14 that speaks of his readers all being "raised" as though they would possibly be dead.
But here in the Thessalonian correspondence, I think, is a very important key to understanding Paul's lack of detail in other eschatological references. In our examination of the Olivet Discourse I noted that the word parousia is used only in the Gospels in Matthew, and in Paul, only in certain places. Let's look at what we found again:
But what, then, of Jesus answering regarding his "coming"? The word Matthew uses is parousia, and Matthew alone among the Gospels uses this word. The word means presence or arrival. Here is how it is used in an "everyday" sense:
2 Cor. 10:10 For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.
1 Cor. 16:17 I am glad of the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus: for that which was lacking on your part they have supplied.
Some observations on this word:
- Prior to the NT and into the second century, the word was used "for the arrival of a ruler, king or emperor." It is used for example of a special visit by Nero to Corinth, when coins were cast in honor of his visit.
- However, the term was also used in Hellenistic contexts to refer to a theophany, or a manifestation of deity. In the Greek form of several Jewish apocryphal works (Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Testament of Judah, Testament of Levi) it is "used to refer to the final coming of God." Josephus uses the term to refer to OT theophanies (Ant. 3.80, 202-3; 9:55).
In our later examination of the Pauline use of this word, we will be tying together some issues and Paul's own use of parousia to refer to the time of the resurrection. For now, it should be remembered that parousia has several shades of meaning (including an "everyday" meaning whose "everyday" use by Paul suggests that it is not a technical term referring to one event), and is also clearly a word choice of Matthew.
I believe that these word choices were made independently and may have caused the confusion referred to by Paul in the Thessalonian church. But we will reserve that commentary for later, and will return to the word parousia in Matthew 24:27 and following, where it is next used, and discuss in that context what it means and how Jesus' "coming" could have occurred in 70 AD. It is enough for now to observe that the disciples are asking about Jesus' parousia in terms of expecting Jesus to take the throne of David as the Messiah.
It is now time to tie together our theory, and explain what this "confusion" is that I have alluded to. I believe that Paul's use of parousia, tied with another part of his letter, was badly misunderstood by some of the Thessalonians and as a result Paul was thereafter more circumspect in his use of eschatological language, and the word parousia in particular.
The Parosuia Problem
1 Thess. 1:10 And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.
This is Paul's first hint of eschatological trouble, but it is not yet specific enough for any conclusions. It does suggest that the Thessalonians are the ones delivered, and this fits with either a 70 or use of the language of imminance. However, the use of the word "wrath" suggests the former more strongly.
1 Thess. 2:14-16 For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.
Some may recall that we had some words with Earl Doherty on whether this passage was an interpolation. I now believe that we have even firmer reason for supposing it is not -- because they make sense of later confusion reflected in 2 Thessalonians. It would also suggest further that Paul does indeed have the predicted overthrow of Jerusalem in mind in his first verse above.
A key here: The word "wrath" in both verses is orge. As we noted against Doherty, Paul is either referring to one of the pre-70 events we have listed, or else is speaking proleptically, knowing that the wrath is imminent within a generation. Either way, we will see the results of this in 2 Thessalonians.
1 Thess. 2:19 For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?
1 Thess. 3:13 To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.
In both cases here Paul uses the term parousia. Now let's remember two points: Parousia is not a technical term for a specific event, and it was used only by Matthew, which we hold to be the earliest Gospel. This is needful to keep in mind, because it will become clear that when Paul refers to the parousia here he is not referring to the events of 70 that Matthew (but not Mark or Luke) used that word to describe. In these passages, he is indeed using Witherington's language of imminence, and could not be referring to 70 events, as is shown by this passage:
1 Thess. 4:14-17 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming [parousia] of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
When Paul uses parousia in 1 Thessalonians, he has in mind the final resurrection -- not events of 70. Now consider that Paul, when he quotes directly from a Gospel, and when we can tell that he is, he is obviously using Luke's version (as in 1 Cor., the reference to the Last Supper, and the Pastorals, the reference to the worker and his wages), which did not use the word parousia.
But then, Paul goes into this subject:
1 Thess. 5:1-4 But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.
Paul no longer refers to the parousia here, but to the "day" of the Lord and the generational prophecies. He appeals to the unknown timing of the "day" as programmatic of the unknowing timing of the final resurrection he has just referred to. This is good rabbinic exegesis: what is true of the lesser is also true of the greater. But here is the problem: The Thessalonians apparently don't realize that Paul refers to two different events. We'll explain in a moment, but there is one more reference to the parousia:
1 Thess. 5:23 And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is once again Witherington's imminence language at work. But now we move to 2 Thessalonians, and Paul's corrective to the Thessalonian believers:
2 Thess. 1:7-10 And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.
The text here is no different than what we find in Matthew 25. This is the first step to assuring the Thessalonians of their error on the key point:
2 Thess. 2:1 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.
Here is our key. It has come to Paul's attention that the Thessalonians believe that the "day of Christ" is at hand. How has this happened? I believe it came of two misunderstandings by the Thessalonians which Paul had no possible control over:
- In 1 Thess. 2:14-16, Paul referred to the "wrath" (orge) as having come at last upon the Jews. The Thessalonians either did not recognize his allusion to a lesser event, or else did not understand his proleptic form of expression.
- Paul has used parousia, a word that the Thessalonians recognized from its use by either Matthew's gospel, or evangelists/missionaries informed by it, or those who just preferred the word for whatever reason.
Paul, knowing only Luke's Gospel or Aramaic traditions, could hardly be expected to anticipate this misunderstanding; indeed, there should not have been one, since parousia was never meant to be used as a technical term for a certain event. The Thessalonians therefore thought that the parousia consisted of all fulfillment, both the resurrection and the Olivet events, and that is what caused them to panic. In essence, they came to be flummoxed by what we now call pantelism.
Thus indeed, I hypothesize that it was a "letter" from Paul that got the Thessalonians into a huff -- and that is why he is saying, "there is no way that was communicated by us in any form or fashion." He would not know of course that his own first letter was what the Thessalonians were misunderstanding; to him the language is perfectly clear. And he adds for good measure:
2 Thess. 2:3-6 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time.
Who is this man of perdition? If we coordinate with Daniel's use of the words "consume" and "destroy" (7:26) then it is the Emperor Vespasian, he who wanted to destroy the Christians if we are to believe Severus. Note that Paul reminds his readers that they've gone over these details before. Eventually the parousia terminology would have to be worked out, but even here it is clear that Paul does not associate it with a specific event of Christ -- as he also uses it to refer to the advent of the man of perdition (2 Thess. 2:9).
After using parousia seven times in the Thessalonian letters, it appears in Paul's works afterwards only seven more times -- eschatologically in 1 Cor. 15:23, and clearly with reference to the resurrection; but also 1 Cor. 16:17 to refer to the "coming" of church members, and three times in 2 Cor. for a "coming" or presence of a human person -- just in case anyone thinks Paul has a specific event in mind, a parousia with a capital P. It is used twice in Phillippians of Paul's personal presence.
Thus Paul used the word only once more eschatologically in his canon. In essence: Once burned, twice shy. Hereafter Paul would change his eschatological language, and quite likely found out how Matthew and his people used the word -- and therefore avoided using it eschatologically. (The Corinthians may have been better informed to allow Paul to use the word with non-eschatological connotations.)
An understanding of the "language of imminence" puts paid to any notion that Paul definitely thought that the resurrection would occur in his own lifetime; other references are properly understood as referring to events of 70.