The Attitude of the Early Church |

Hunt, Dave

An excerpt from Whatever Happened to Heaven? 

“And when the chief shepherd shall appear,’’ wrote Peter, “ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away’’ (1 Peter:5:4). Referring to the same event, Paul wrote: “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory’’ (Colossians:3:4). When would this great event occur?

Paul cultivated among all of the believers in his day the eager expectancy that this appearing would take place very soon. In so doing he attempted, like his Lord, to wean them from this earth to live as those who were already citizens of heaven. To the Philippians he wrote: “For our conversation [citizenship] is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (Philippians:3:20). And to Titus: “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ’’ (Titus:2:13). One does not “look’’ for someone who cannot possibly appear for many weeks, much less for many years. Such an expression would only be used concerning someone who might appear at any time.

Encouraging that same expectant attitude, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews wrote: “Unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation’’ (Hebrews:9:28). Nowhere does the Bible teach a “partial rapture’’ of a select few Christians who have attained to an unusual status of spirituality. Therefore, this verse is not stating that only those who “look for him’’ will be raptured. It is simply declaring that looking for Christ’s return is the normal attitude expected of every Christian—an attitude that would be ludicrous if Christ could not return until after thousands of years of “millennium’’ or even until after the Great Tribulation.

There are those who argue that it is foolish to think of Christ returning today, since the apostles vainly expected that great event in their time. On the contrary, they did not—yet they urged the Christians of their day to remain expectant. The Apostle Paul unquestionably knew that this longed-for event would not occur during his own lifetime, which would be cut short by Roman execution. Peter also had the same conviction, as his writings prove. The apostles knew that they were “appointed to death . . . a spectacle unto the world’’ (1 Corinthians:4:9). Only the Apostle John, of whom the Lord had said, “If I will that he tarry till I come . . .” (John:21:22), was the lone exception among them. He was spared martyrdom, yet died without seeing that promised coming.

During his final imprisonment, Paul wrote to advise Timothy that he would be martyred before Christ returned: “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand’’ (2 Timothy:4:6). He had known when and how his end would come much earlier. To their shock and deep sorrow, Paul, after urgently calling the Ephesian elders to meet him at Miletus, had informed them:

And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. . . . Take heed therefore. . . . For I know this, that after my departing [martyrdom] shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. (Acts:20:25-30)

Although he knew that he would not be alive on earth when Christ returned, Paul repeatedly encouraged those of his generation to expect that great event in their time. The apostles would not have cultivated this attitude in the early church—indeed, such encouragement by them and by Jesus himself would have been cruel—if Christ could not actually have come until certain events had occurred. For Paul to encourage his contemporaries to expect Christ at any time, if in fact He could not return until after the Great Tribulation or Armageddon or the millennium, would have been inexcusable deception.

There are those who argue that it doesn’t matter whether we think Christ might return before, in the middle, or at the end of the Great Tribulation, or even after the millennium. That is another question, which we will address later. At the moment, all we wish to establish is this one fact: For the early church, the imminent return of Christ was their daily expectancy and hope. And it was a hope that they would not and dared not abandon, because Christ had commanded them to watch and wait and to be ready.

…Christ commanded His followers that in discipling others they were to teach them “to observe [obey] all things whatsoever I have commanded you’’ (Matthew:28:20). In order to fulfill the Great Commission, however, it is necessary to teach all Christians to watch and wait for Christ’s imminent return, for He repeatedly commanded His disciples to do so. . . . Consider the following:

Let your loins be girded about and your lights burning, and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately.

Blessed are those servants whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching. . . .

And if he shall come in the second watch or come in the third watch and find them so, blessed are those servants. . . .

Be ye therefore ready also, for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not.

Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. (Luke:12:35-40, Matthew:25:13)

Such language, together with the undeniably expectant posture of the early church, cannot be reconciled with the growing attitude toward the Second Coming prevalent among so many Christians today. . . . Yet the New Testament makes it very clear that the early church was in a continual attitude of loving His appearing and looking and watching for His return. Neither Christ nor the apostles who encouraged this attitude of watchfulness must have understood what some claim to have lately discovered from their study of Scripture.

In urging Timothy to “keep this commandment, without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ’’ (1 Timothy:6:13,14), Paul was clearly implying that Christ’s “appearing’’ could occur in Timothy’s lifetime. And the expectancy of this event undoubtedly contributed to the purifying heavenly orientation of those first-century Christians that is so lacking in the church today. Moreover, it cannot be denied that Paul considered it a mark of genuine Christianity for his readers in the early church to expect the Lord’s return in their lifetime. In writing to the Thessalonians, for example, Paul cited as evidence that these former pagans had truly become Christians, not only that they had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,’’ but also that they had begun “to wait for his Son from heaven . . .” (1 Thessalonians:1:9,10). That makes no sense if Scripture had already decreed that our Lord could not possibly return until after some predetermined future event.

“O joy, O delight, should we go without dying!’’ This line from an old hymn expresses a hope unknown outside Christianity. One need not die in order to enter heaven! Cynics, not only outside but now also within the church, remind us that Christians have sung such hymns and clung to this dream in vain century after century. No one disputes the fact that Christ has not yet come nor that the delay has been a great disappointment to waiting millions of Christians down through the centuries. What is disputed is the claim that they waited and watched in vain.

Obedience to Christ’s command to “be ready’’ at any moment for His sudden return cannot be in vain, for it has its own reward. That attitude has helped watchful Christians to faithfully seek their heavenly home and reward rather than the things of this world. Since life at best is very brief, those who steadfastly kept their affection on things above were in heaven very soon even without the rapture and surely had no regrets at having laid up treasure in heaven instead of in this world. Moreover, the very hope of His imminent return had a purifying effect upon their lives. It also gave an urgency to the Great Commission that can hardly be shared by those who believe there are yet centuries or even decades left for its fulfillment.

It is actually those who hoped to take dominion over earth’s cultures and institutions, in the process of a gradual takeover of the world by Christians, who hoped in vain. No one in the past 2,000 years ever saw that dream come true. And not only did they not achieve what they hoped for, but it caused them to become earthly minded instead of heavenly minded. Quite possibly they also lost at least some of their heavenly reward as a result.

The fact that our Lord commanded and His apostles urged the believers in that day to watch and wait for His imminent return is proof enough that it must have been possible then (and therefore now) without the necessity of any prior event occurring. It is not enough, however, to establish this fact as a matter of logic or doctrine. Loving our Lord and longing for His coming must become the basic motivating factor in our lives if we are to return to New Testament Christianity.