Time Frame References in the New Testament

In addition to the verses from Revelation, the New Testament is replete with time frame references. Here is a partial list:

James 5:8 “You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”

1 Peter 4:7 “The end of all things is near.”

1 John 2:18 “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.”

These verses disturbed me as a new Christian, as did futurist interpretations of these texts, which attempted to explain away their plain meaning. James, Peter, and John, among other apostles, told their first century readers–those whom their books were addressed to–that the Lord’s coming was near.

More distressing to me, however, were the words of Jesus Christ of Nazareth:

Matt 10:23 “I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

Matt 26:64 “Yes, it is as you {the high priest} say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: in the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Matt 16:28 “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Matt 24:34 “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

The force of Matt 24:34 is staggering, for it is the conclusion to a specific set of questions posed by Jesus’s disciples as he sat upon the Mount of Olives:

“As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen {destruction of the temple from Matt 24:2}, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Matt 24: 3

In the text between Matt 24:3 and Matt 24:34, Jesus mentions the disciples through the pronoun you no less than ten times:

“Watch out that no one deceives you” 24:4

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed” 24:6

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations” 24:9

“So when you see standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation” 24:15

“At that time, if anyone says to you ‘Look, here is the Christ!'” 24:23

“See, I have told you ahead of time.” 24:25

“So if anyone tells you” 24:26

“Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” 24:33

In response to the disciples’ question, the first words out of Jesus’s mouth are Watch out that no one deceives you. You, as in you disciples. Not Christians living 2000 years in the future. Not people fleeing from a 200 million man Chinese army crossing the Euphrates. Not people starving without a computer chip on their hand or forehead.

There is then an unbroken strand of you, the disciples who asked the questions throughout the whole narrative. It can only refer to the disciples who asked the question. This is important enough to bear repeating. Read the text closely; there is no break in the narrative, no literary cue, no temporal transition from the disciples’ question to the pronoun you through Matt 24:34. Thus, the only feasible interpretation of this text is that whatever Jesus meant, he meant for the disciples he answered in the time frame he gave directly in response to their question.

Consider as an example Acts 2:22-23 (bold mine): “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Is there any right thinking or interpretation by which we could apply this Scripture by way of analogy to ourselves in real time and history as a genuine event that occurred 2000 years after Peter’s speech? Of course not, but the same holds for Matt 24.

I mention Matt 24 in a study of the book of Revelation for this reason: we should accept the time frame references in both, as well as the entirety of the NT, as they were written, come what may.

If Jesus was a false prophet, then we should get on with our lives. However, we know from history that that generation certainly did not pass away before all those things happened. It is the astounding and evidential fulfillment of the prophecy of Matt 24 that I’ll consider next week, which will lead to the study of the text of Revelation.

The Plain Language Ploy

The plain language ploy occurs when an interpreter treats plain language as if it were not clear, as if the author really meant something else. Always beware this type of Biblical interpretation; it is frequently wrong, and often deceptive. If the author meant to say something else, he would have written something else.

To be fair, a good example of this ploy is common in my own Reformed Theology. After all, if the New Testament writer in plain language says that God wants all men to be saved, we better have a doctrine that says God wants all men to be saved. To not do so–to say that the author really meant something else–is to commit the plain language ploy.*

But, we are looking at the book of Revelation currently, and temptation for the PLP is strong with this book. The first verse establishes a time frame reference, in very plain language: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.

Any futurist interpretation of this book requires the PLP from the very first verse, but it’s not limited to the first verse. It requires a staggering amount of PLP; consider just how many time references are in the book:

1:3 “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it, and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”

2:16 “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”

3:11 “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have so that no one will take your crown.”

22:6 “The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servant the things that must soon take place.”

22:7 “Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.”

22:10 “Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.”

22:12 “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”

22:20 “He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus.”

At this point, I’d invite those who believe in a futurist interpretation of Revelation to stop thinking about the meaning of Revelation and first consider the following:

–Imagine you have never heard of the rapture, never seen a Left behind movie, never attended a church camp where they scared you with a Revelation movie. Imagine you have never been exposed to any Christian Theology whatsoever: no Trinity, no resurrection, no Scripture, no “Now but not yet” element of prophecy, zilch, nada, zero. If you were to come across the book of Revelation without any of this background knowledge, what would you conclude about the time references?

I’m a fairly presumptuous person, so let me answer: if someone with no background knowledge to influence them were to read this text, they would conclude it’s a letter written to seven Asian churches whose Savior is coming soon. Soon as in soon, because, without a pre-existing eschatological doctrine to conform to, there would be no inclination toward the PLP. The text would simply say what it says.

In fact, this is the part of the book a person with no background knowledge would understand. She would not understand the dragons, the beasts, the chains, etc. In other words, a person with no background knowledge would understand the plain language, as should we. So, here’s the point: if we are going to take this plain language figuratively, we’d better have a rock solid reason to.

We don’t. As you search around for rationale to support a futurist interpretation, and I encourage you to do so, keep these questions in mind: if Christ, John, and the angel had really not meant soon, quickly, near, at hand, etc., why didn’t they just say so? Why is the time reference repeated at least nine times if it really wasn’t intended? How does it make sense if the time references don’t apply to the seven historical churches in Asia?

However, true enough, we cannot isolate Scripture this way, so perhaps the rest of Scripture–the analogy of faith–requires us to understand these words differently than how they clearly read. Maybe it really does mean soon, but for the last generation–the generation that will be alive at the second coming. Next week we’ll look at the parousia-delay doctrine, the time frame references in the rest of the NT, and what is possibly the greatest fulfilled prophecy in the Bible: I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

*another way this occurs is the well, what the Greek or Hebrew really says is tactic. While there is great value in understanding the original languages, they can also be sources of deceit and misinformation, and must be treated with great care. At any rate, they should never be employed to the extent that people begin to doubt the reliability of translations in their native tongue. Studying with multiple native tongue translations–with a least one word-for-word and one dynamic equivalence translation–is generally good enough for those readers who do not read Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic) to pick up most nuances of the original languages.

Because it’s about the end of the world, right?

Why is the book of Revelation the last book in the Bible? This is a good question to ask at the outset of a study on this book, because a wrong or superstitious answer to this question creates an interpretive tautology: Revelation is at the end of the Bible because it’s about the end of the Bible.

As a point of fact, Revelation is at the end of the Bible for only one reason:

Revelation is located at the end of the Bible because of convention, not content.

The Bible is a collection of independent books written by multiple authors over time. Though it sets forth a consistent and outright crucial theme, it is not meant to be understood in a strict chronological sense in its present Protestant organization from Genesis to Revelation. To do so introduces superstition at best, idolatry at worst.

This is easy to see as a matter of history. For instance, the Hebrew ordering of the Old Testament is Torah, Prophets, Writings, which leads to a much different organization than Protestants are accustomed to, as well as a different number of books given that Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra/Nehemiah are not separated into multiple books.

Without getting sidetracked too far by the details, the Protestant (and Catholic & Orthodox, BTW) ordering of the OT is generally thought to loosely follow the ordering of the Septuagint*, a Greek translation of the OT, which is ordered differently than the Hebrew OT. This led to an OT order as follows: Torah (1st 5), History (Joshua – Esther), Wisdom Literature (Job through Song of Songs), Prophecy (Isaiah through Malachi). We simply think it’s normal because it’s what we’re used to.

The ordering of the New Testament, then, follows this arbitrary** classification:

Torah–Gospels

History–Acts

Wisdom Literature–Epistles

Prophecy–Revelation***

This is good stuff, because it releases us 21st-century Westerners from trying to read the Bible like a modern novel. Especially for those who have never read the Bible, don’t think you need to read it straight through from beginning to end. Genesis is a great place to start, but so is the Gospel of John. This is why Churches don’t have their new Christian classes focus on the book of Leviticus! The important thing is that ultimately you read and study all of the books the way they were meant to be read and studied.

Allrightthen…what does this mean for a study on the book of Revelation? Well, simply it means this: when we read the very first line, we don’t have to read it in the context of Revelation is about the end times because it’s at the end of the Bible. So, here’s the first line:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? Talk about Revelation always centers around time–end times, eschatology, pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib, 1000 year reign, et al–but right out of the box we receive a time reference. Right out of the chute. From the word go. From the starting gun/line. From point A.

We’ll look more closely at that time reference soon.

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* While interesting, despite the details, and they are legion, the salient point here is that the NT in its present form is patterned after the OT in its present form, and the form was not always in its present state. This is a matter of convention; a doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration does not depend on the ordering of the OT and NT, nor does our doctrine of inspiration demand the ordering of the books. In fact, it has nothing to do with it at all, and claiming it does leads to Biblio-idolatry and a host of other ills, both in thought and in practice.

**arbitrary in the sense that it is not directly divinely inspired or following a chronological order. It is not arbitrary in the sense that it was thrown together with no thought or classification.

***In the last post, it was argued that Revelation is an epistle, which it is, but it is one with considerable prophetic (apocalyptic) content.