By Tom Cabeen
Part One can be read here.
Are We Living in the “Last Days?”
In addition to believing that Jesus was reigning, there is also no doubt that the first Christians believed they were living in the “last days.” Peter, on the occasion of the remarkable events of the first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, quoted Joel’s prophecy as proof of that fact:
“This is what was said through the prophet Joel, ‘“And in the last days,” God says, “I shall pour out some of my spirit upon every sort of flesh.” —Acts 2:16,17
The expression “last days” here translates the Greek term eschatais hemerais, an expression used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and widely understood by Jews to refer to the Messianic era. (Isa 2:2; Hosea 3:5; Micah 4:1) The introduction of the inspired letter to the Hebrews reflects this perspective:
“God, who long ago spoke on many occasions and in many ways to our forefathers by means of the prophets, has at the end of these days spoken to us by means of a Son.”
—Heb 1:1, 2
The expression “at the end of these days” in the New World Translation here translates the same Greek words used by Peter at Pentecost (eschatais hemerais: see Kingdom Interlinear), but the expression is translated differently here, so its implications are not immediately apparent to any but the most diligent student.
Early Christians did not understand the expression “last days” in the same sense as we might say on a fine day just before we feel the first cool breezes of fall: “These are the last days of summer.” Jews generally believed that human history was divided into two great epochs: the “former days” or period before the Messiah appeared and the “latter days” or period after His appearance. Since Jesus’ disciples accepted him as their Messiah, they believed that his appearance marked the beginning of the “latter days,” or Messianic era, in contrast with the “former days” before he appeared, and they supported that view by references to the Hebrew Scriptures.
The first Jewish Christians had to change their initial perspective on the nature of their Messiah and his rulership. They expected a political savior who would deliver them from subjection to Rome. Instead, Jesus delivered them from sin, death and the devil. His kingdom was quite real, but was no part of this world. They became part of it by accepting and obeying him as ruler. (Col 1:13) Jesus also revealed to them that he would leave and return again at an unexpected time. Many early disciples evidently thought the second coming would occur in their lifetime. But as more and more of those who had known Jesus personally, including the apostles, began to die (many as martyrs), and persecution against them intensified, they began to understand that the Messianic era was not to be a time of physical abundance and material blessing (as many Jewish teachers taught), but would instead be an extended time of tribulation, especially for Christians. Thus, it was appropriate for Paul to warn Timothy: “Know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here.” (2 Tim 3:1) After describing the kind of people that would typify these difficult days, he told Timothy to “turn away” (“be turning yourself away” Kingdom Interlinear) from these people. Clearly he was not warning Timothy to keep away from people who would live centuries in the future. He and Timothy were, in Paul’s view, living in the last days, that is, the Messianic or Christian era.
What about the “signs” which Jesus’ predicted?
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24 (and parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21, sometimes called the “Olivet Discourse” or the “Eschatological Sermon,” from the Greek word for “final things”) describes a series of events which would happen at the time of Jesus’ parousia and serve as a sign that it had begun. The purpose of this document is not to present a detailed verse-by-verse consideration of these passages, but a few comments are appropriate.
First, a brief explanation of the Watchtower understanding of the Greek word parousia in Matt. 24:3. The term is usually rendered “coming” or “arrival,” but is translated “presence” in the New World Translation. Late in the nineteenth century, some disappointed Second Adventists, men who had been influenced by William Miller, Nelson Barbour and his associate B.W. Keith in particular, who had expected Jesus to return in 1874, noticed that parousia was translated “presence” in the Emphatic Diaglott, a Greek/English interlinear translation prepared by Benjamin Wilson. Apparently impressed by the chronology enough that they did not want to give up that date, some of them came up with the idea that perhaps Jesus really did return in 1874 just as they had predicted, but invisibly.
Russell incorporated their ideas into his own version of the “time of the end”. He saw Jesus’ parousia as a special 40-year period of invisible “presence” during which Russell’s followers, (then called International Bible Students; now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) would be in a special relationship with him. Russell saw the events described in Matt 24:3-14 as proof that Jesus had already returned, invisibly.
If Jesus’ parousia was actually to be invisible, some “sign” might indeed be needed to show that it had begun, but it would be strange for Jesus to choose things which were to be in almost constant evidence during the entire Christian era as a “sign” of some special period at its end. The difficulty that arises when one uses those things as signs is shown by the fact that Russell pointed to the very same “signs” as proof that Jesus’ parousia started in 1874 that Witnesses point to today, events mentioned in Matthew 24:6-14 (war, pestilence, famine, earthquakes, and others) to “prove” that Jesus returned invisibly in 1914 and put them in charge of all his kingdom interests on earth.
The word parousia, in its most common meaning, meant someone’s bodily presence, but it can also refer to the visit of a royal person, which is consistent with Jesus’ own description of his second coming:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matt 25:31, 32)
“The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”—1 Thess 4:16
In Jesus’ day, many Jews believed that immediately prior to Messiah’s coming there would be a series of calamities. These “woes of the Messiah,” included wars, insurrections, pestilence, famine, earthquakes, and signs or portents from heaven. It is not unlikely that Jesus’ disciples had heard of these predictions. Since these events clearly did not appear before Jesus’ birth or baptism, when they heard him predict the destruction of the temple, they may have been asking, “Is this what we have been told to expect; the woes of the Messiah? Is the destruction of the temple part of that great time of calamity we expect to precede your coming in glory?”
If that was the intent of their question, Jesus’ answer was that disasters would definitely come, but they would not be a sign of his return. Jesus started his prophecy by warning them not to be misled, adding that when wars and rumors of wars happened, “see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matt 24:6)
Other catastrophes would also make their appearance. Even these would only be “the beginning of birth pains.” Rather than confirm that these things would be the immediate precursor to his return and their deliverance, Jesus warned them of increasing persecution and hatred by persons of all the nations, of a great rise in wickedness, and said that they would need endurance. His words did not point toward imminent deliverance, but an extended period of tribulation. The events Jesus mentioned in Matthew 24:3-14 have occurred often throughout the centuries since the days of the apostles. Periodically during those centuries, some Christians have tried to prove that Jesus’ return was imminent by pointing out the prevalence of war, earthquakes, famine, pestilence, and the like, and have been disappointed every single time. [An excellent consideration of this entire subject is found in Doomsday Delusions, © 1995 by C. Marvin Pate and Calvin B. Haines, Jr., InterVarsity Press.] Indeed, Jesus’ words have been undergoing fulfillment for nearly two thousand years, and “the end is still to come.”
Jesus’ words may have been the disciples’ first inkling that the Messianic era would not be the time of great political peace and material prosperity they may have been led to expect by some Jewish teachers. Since evidently they associated the destruction he spoke of with his return, they only asked one question, but Jesus reply encompassed two separate events: first, the destruction of the Jewish temple and second, Jesus’ return or parousia, both of which they may have thought would occur at the same time.
Jesus gave them specific instructions about what to do at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. But at the same time, he warned them that events they might have considered to be “signs” of his parousia were not true signs at all, but false signs, expected by some Jews in connection with the glorious arrival of Messiah, but not relevant to Jesus’ second coming. It is very significant that, rather than giving them a sign which would appear some significant period of time, even years, in advance of his second coming, he instead repeatedly urged them to keep alert, on the watch. He compared his return to the visit of a thief in the night. Thieves do not usually provide any advance notice before they strike. —Matt 24:43, 44
To summarize, there are serious problems with the Watchtower view. First, the idea that one can predict by any means when Christ would return is in direct contradiction to Jesus own clearly stated warning that he would return at a time that his disciples did not think it to be. The idea of any kind of sign which would give advance warning of Jesus’ return completely contradicts what He clearly said on numerous occasions, that his parousia would be both sudden and unexpected:
“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” (Mark 13:33)
If we take him at his word, Jesus’ words on the Mount of Olives do not provide a way to predict either an invisible presence or his imminent second coming.
Second, the concept of Jesus’ parousia as an invisible event cannot be reconciled with His words: “Look! I am with you always, until the conclusion of the system of things” (Matt 28:19 ) which clearly show that Jesus would always be invisibly present with his disciples. It also directly contradicts Rev 1:7, which says “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him,” which clearly states that Jesus’ parousia would be anything but invisible.
Thirdly, if we remain true to the original and most direct sense of Scripture, we must conclude that Jesus began ruling in the first century, and that all Christians who lived from the first century until now have been living in the last days ( the Messianic era).
Both biblical and historical evidence show that Jesus Christ began to reign in the first century, and that his reign has continued until now, “in the midst of his enemies.” That being so, we must also conclude that the situation that has existed among persons claiming to be Christians is what Jesus expected, and that the way things have developed is in harmony with his sovereign will as king over heaven and earth. Any group which started during the centuries following the apostolic age, then, can make no serious claim to being Jesus’ true church.
We have absolutely no reason to conclude that Jesus abandoned his followers to his enemy the devil at the end of the apostolic period, as Russell believed and taught. There is also no basis to conclude that near the end of the first century, things somehow got out of Jesus’ control and the whole body of Christ became corrupt and worthless. We must conclude that there have been true followers of Christ all down through the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, and that Christians, during the entire Christian era, would face the same types of difficulties. Each would be required to be faithful and obedient to his Lord in the situation in which each found himself or herself.
For further reading:
Historical Idealism and Jehovah’s Witnesses (an evaluation of the claim that Watchtower publications predicted Christ’s return in 1914)