I thank my friend Tom for providing this article that refutes the Jehovah’s Witness belief that we are living in a special time. Part 2 can be read here.
Are We Living in a Special Time? — Part One
by Tom Cabeen
A long-standing and very prominent Watchtower teaching is the belief that in 1914 a special period of time Jesus called the “Gentile Times” ended, the “last days” began, and Christ began to rule over the whole earth for the first time since his resurrection and ascension to heaven. Immediately prior to that time, Jesus, in anticipation of his imminent reign, began inspecting the religious organizations of the world to see which one would be his official representative when he began to rule. He examined the teachings of all religions on earth claiming to be Christian and decided that the most “faithful” one (meaning the one with the most correct interpretation of the Bible) was the small group of Charles Russell’s followers, later to be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a result, Watchtower publications teach, shortly after 1914 Jesus committed all the interests of his kingdom into their hands, and they became his only approved channel of communication between God and mankind.
If this teaching is true, something very significant changed in 1914. Things must be different since 1914 than they were for the rest of the Christian era. If this is true, that would add some evidence to the idea that, as they claim, the Watchtower Society, with its origins in the nineteenth century, is the only denomination which God approves. On the other hand, if the weight of scriptural and historical evidence points away from this conclusion, any group which proclaims this idea, including the Watchtower Society, is suspect. If we hold the idea that we are now living in a special time, we may have to reevaluate our views.
Since its origin, fundamental teachings of the Watchtower Society have been based on and intimately tied to the idea that serious Bible students could determine with reasonable accuracy when Christ would return, either through chronological calculations or observation of unique world events which would serve as a sign of Christ’s imminent return or advent (or both). Generically, Christians who believe that to be possible have been called “Adventists”.
First, let us examine the chronology which, according to their claims, establishes that 1914 marked the end of one special time period and the beginning of another.
Is Watchtower Chronology Sound?
Charles T. Russell borrowed his chronology and methodology from the Second Adventists, after William Miller’s failed attempt at predicting Christ’s return in 1843, based on the same methodology. The calculations are based largely on interpretations of passages in Daniel 4 and Luke 21:24. In brief, Witnesses teach that the “Gentile Times” is a special period of 2,520 years during which God’s kingdom, David’s dynasty, had no king. It supposedly began when Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and ended in 1914. Considering the importance of the conclusions it supports, the chronology is based on a rather tenuous series of assumptions:
First, that the dream Nebuchadnezzar had about becoming a beast for “seven times” (recorded in Daniel 2) does not refer primarily to him (as stated directly in the text), but rather that he, a pagan king, not even a worshiper of Israel’s God, actually represents God’s kingdom.
Second, that God’s kingdom or rulership over mankind somehow “ended” when Zerubbabel, a direct descendent of David, was removed from the throne of Jerusalem when it was destroyed by Babylon, and that the kingdom would “begin” again some twenty-five centuries later when Jesus, a descendent of David, began to rule in 1914. The Jews expected a descendent of David to rule as king forever, but the concept of God’s kingdom “ending” and “beginning” is never suggested in the Jewish sacred writings, and in fact directly contradicts Daniel 4:17, which is specifically connected to Nebuchadnezzar’s beastly experience!
Third, based on the first assumption, each “time” must represent a special “prophetic” year of 360 days, although no actual earthly year, solar or lunar, has 360 days. [The Aramaic word Daniel used for “time” just means a period of time, not always a year. (The word for 1 “year” is different, as used, for example, in Daniel 1:1). The word used in Daniel 4 is `idd¹n, which, according to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, means “ time, period, span , year, era. … Two basic meanings are equally a “point” in time or a “span” of time.” In this context, a “time” could easily mean a week, a month or a season. Possibly, Nebuchadnezzar only acted like a beast for seven months or seasons, not seven years.] Seven of these 360-day prophetic years would add up to a total of 2,520 “prophetic” days. To make this assumption even more shaky, each of these “prophetic” days in turn must represent a solar year of approximately 365¼ days. Absolutely nothing in Scripture, Jewish tradition, or the writings of early Christians even suggests that we make this complicated series of assumptions and calculations.
Fourth, that this period of 2,520 solar years are identical to what Jesus referred to when he used the expression translated “the appointed times of the nations” or “the times of the Gentiles” in Luke 21:24 (“Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled…”), even though Jesus was specifically discussing the future destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, not its past destruction by Babylon, and despite the fact that there is not a single word in Scripture, Jewish tradition or Christian writings that indicates that the “Gentile times” refer to any time period during which God’s eternal kingdom would be inactive.
Fifth, that Jerusalem was actually destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies in 607 BC. The date for Jerusalem’s destruction is one of the most accurately fixed of ancient history. More, significantly, the historical sources that establish the date for Babylon’s fall in 539 BC, (which date the Watchtower Society does accept and, in fact, which it uses as the starting point for its 1914 calculations) are exactly the same sources that establish 587/6 BC as the date for Jerusalem’s destruction! Several independent lines of evidence (historical, astronomical, archeological, etc.) point to the date of 587/86 BC, not 607 BC, as the date of Jerusalem’s destruction. There is not a single line of historical evidence which supports the 607 BC date. (See The Gentile Times Reconsidered, Carl Olof Jonsson, Commentary Press, 1998 for a detailed discussion of this topic.)
Sixth, that all the plain passages in the Greek Scriptures that clearly state that Jesus began ruling in the first century, such as Matthew 28:18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” don’t really mean what they say. Below is a more extended discussion of the implications of this assumption.
Each of the six assumptions listed above are interrelated. All must be true before the Watchtower conclusion could be accepted with any degree of confidence. Again, the veracity of all of them together are absolutely critical to the Watchtower teaching that we are living in the time of the end and that the Watchtower Society has been chosen by Jesus Christ as Jehovah’s organization and, as such, His official channel of communication with his faithful people on earth in 1914. If any one of them is wrong, the final conclusion is invalid and the Watchtower claim is demonstrated to be false.
It is worth noting that Russell, using the same methodology, “proved” that he was living in a special time period, which would end in 1914 with Christ’s return to judge the nations. He also admitted that if any one of the assumptions upon which he based his conclusions were wrong, it would prove his entire approach would be completely invalid. That did, in fact, happen. In time, not only did every one of his assumptions get rejected, Russell’s ending date for the time of the end (1914) is now the starting date for the same period, according to current Watchtower teaching.
When Did Jesus Begin to Reign?
If the Watchtower chronology is invalid and Jesus did not begin reigning in 1914, is he reigning now? If so, when did that reign start? Watchtower publications interpret Hebrews 1:13 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”) as follows:
“In 33 C.E., [Jesus] died, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven. … At that time, however, Jesus did not act as King and Judge over the nations. He was seated next to God, awaiting the time to act as King of God’s Kingdom. Paul wrote of him: “With reference to which one of the angels has he ever said: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I place your enemies as a stool for your feet’?” (Hebrews 1:13) Jehovah’s Witnesses have published much evidence that Jesus’ period of waiting expired in 1914, when he became ruler of God’s Kingdom in the invisible heavens.” —The Watchtower, 10/15/95, pg 21, par. 14-16
Hebrews 10: 12, 13 says: “But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.” If this were the only reference to Psalm 110 in the Christian Scriptures, and there was nothing else to indicate otherwise, this verse might indeed be interpreted to mean that the word “waits” in this passage refers to a period of non-rulership, which is exactly how the Watchtower Society interprets it:
“Even after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven, he had to wait at his Father’s right hand until the time came for him to rule as King over mankind. (Hebrews 10:12, 13)” —The Watchtower, 6/15/94, pg 6
But is this how the apostles and early Christians understood the expression “sit at my right hand”? No! Among many ancient peoples, the imagery of a king sitting on the throne of his God was a common way to express that the king ruled with the approval and support of his God, and this is consistent with how early Christians understood this phrase. (See The Gentile Times Reconsidered, 3rd Ed. , Carl Olof Jonsson, Commentary Press, 1998, pg 264-270.)
This is not the only place where this expression from Psalm 110 is quoted in the Christian Greek Scriptures. This passage from the Hebrew Scriptures is the one most often quoted in Christian Scripture. So we can examine a number of its appearances to correctly establish just how it was used and to what arguments it was applied as support. The Watchtower interpretation that “sitting” meant “waiting” is required by their chronology-based belief that Jesus could not begin his reign until 1914, as discussed above. But it is quite clear from many other passages that the early Christians did not understand the passage to mean that. They understood the phrase “sitting at God’s right hand” to mean that Jesus was already ruling as king. One very clear example of this is Paul’s citation of Psalm 110 in his first letter to the Corinthians while discussing the resurrection. Paul actually substitutes the term “rule as king” for “sit at God’s right hand” in the source from which he quotes:
Next, the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has brought to nothing all government and all authority and power. For he must rule as king until [God] has put all enemies under his feet. As the last enemy, death is to be brought to nothing. … But when all things will have been subjected to him, then the Son himself will also subject himself to the One who subjected all things to him, that God may be all things to everyone. —1 Cor 15:24-28 NW (Italics added.)
It is clear from his use of the passage that Paul understood “placing all things under Christ’s feet” to mean rulership. Why should that not be the case, since after his resurrection, Jesus explicitly stated that he had been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” When Jesus was born, the angel Gabriel said that he would be given the throne of David his forefather, and that he would reign forever. So it would be most natural for the apostles to understand his post-resurrection words to mean that he was reigning as their king, even if the way in which he was to rule turned out to be different from what they expected. The psalmist’s statement that he was to reign in the midst of his enemies is consistent with the idea that his rulership expands until, by the end of his reign, all things are under his feet. A great
resurrection occurs at that time; thus death becomes the last enemy to be subject to him. The image is that of a ruler who sits down on his throne, at the right hand of his God, and continues to rule until all things are subject to his power. Afterward, Paul writes, the Son subjects himself to God, the Father.
Many other passages show that the apostles and early disciples viewed Jesus as ruling as king in their day, several of which quote Psalm 110 for support. Here are but a few (all quoted from the New World Translation, 1971 ed.):
Matt 28:18-20: Jesus approached and spoke to them, saying: “All authority has been given me in heaven and on the earth. Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded YOU. And, look! I am with YOU all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.”
Mark 16:19: So, then, the Lord Jesus, after having spoken to them, was taken up to heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.
John 5:26, 27: For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted also to the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to do judging, because Son of man he is.
John 17:1, 2: Jesus spoke these things, and, raising his eyes to heaven, he said: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your son, that your son may glorify you, according as you have given him authority over all flesh, that, as regards the whole [number] whom you have given him, he may give them everlasting life.
Col 2:9, 10: …it is in him that all the fullness of the divine quality dwells bodily. And so YOU are possessed of a fullness by means of him, who is the head of all government and authority.
Acts 17:6, 7: …they dragged Jason and certain brothers to the city rulers, crying out: “These men that have overturned the inhabited earth are present here also, and Jason has received them with hospitality. And all these [men] act in opposition to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus.”
Eph 1:18-23: It is according to the operation of the mightiness of his strength, with which he has operated in the case of the Christ when he raised him up from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above every government and authority and power and lordship and every name named, not only in this system of things, but also in that to come. He also subjected all things under his feet, and made him head over all things to the congregation, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills up all things in all.
Col 1: 12-14: … [The Father] delivered us from the authority of the darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, by means of whom we have our release by ransom, the forgiveness of our sins.
1 Pet 3:21, 22: [Baptism] is also now saving YOU, … (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the request made to God for a good conscience,) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is at God’s right hand, for he went his way to heaven; and angels and authorities and powers were made subject to him.
Viewed in their context, these passages indicate clearly that early Christians believed Jesus was ruling, not waiting. The entire basis of their confidence in salvation and forgiveness of sins was based on their understanding that they had a ruling high priest who could actively plead for them, that the glorified Jesus was in heaven, sitting at God’s right hand, that is, ruling with His Father’s full support, possessing complete authority to act on their behalf.
Part Two can be read here.
For further reading:
Historical Idealism and Jehovah’s Witnesses (an evaluation of the claim that Watchtower publications predicted Christ’s return in 1914)