By Daniel Knezacek
The idea that Jesus Christ could return at any time, without warning, is often referred to as the "doctrine of imminence". Often passages which state “no man knows the day nor the hour” are used to back up this idea:
But of that day and that hour
knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the
Son, but the Father. (Mark 13:32)
Watch therefore, for ye know neither
the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. (Matthew
Other times Jesus' statement that He would "come as a thief", are also used to promote the idea of an imminent return of Christ.
For yourselves know perfectly that
the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. (I
But the day of the Lord will come as
a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a
great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth
also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (II Peter
Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. (Revelation 3:3)
Very clearly the context of these
passages is that Jesus will come like a thief. He will come without
warning to those who are not watching. This is the key difference
between the true doctrine of imminence, and a close counterfeit.
Many today tell us “There is nothing to watch for, so don't
bother watching”. They continue to tell us “There will be
no signs of the return of Christ, therefore it is pointless to watch
for His return. You are better off getting busy working for the
Lord. Go out and make a difference in the world, by working for the
betterment of mankind.” This kind of comment is common in the
majority of Churches today, and the emphasis shifts from doctrine, to
works. From the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Social Gospel.
These Christians appear to have more in common with Martha than they do with her sister Mary:
Now it came to pass, as they went,
that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named
Martha received him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called
Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. 40
But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and
said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve
alone? bid her therefore that she help me. 41 And Jesus answered and
said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about
many things: 42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that
good part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38)
These same people who insist that we spend our time serving our fellow men, actually get angry with us if we emphasize the doctrines of the Word of God, over doing things! Hmm, Just like Martha!
Context, in the study of the Holy Word of God, does not merely mean “the verse before, and the verse after”, but actually means “the entire Word of God”. Amazingly, these people, who downplay prophecy, are actually focusing on one phrase (I come as a thief) and neglecting the rest of the passage. Jesus actually commanded us to watch for his return! Disobeying a direct commandment of the Lord is sin! In fact Jesus told us to watch, BECAUSE he is coming as a thief!
There are, however, other statements in scripture that indicate that the sudden return of the Lord is not all that is meant by the doctrine of imminence. A thief does more than one thing. A thief actually comes to take something, and he does it suddenly and without warning. Let's look at some other relevant passages:
2 For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. 3 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. 4 But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. 5 Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. 6 Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. (1 Thes. 5:2-6)
Here we have a comparison between those
who watch and those who do not. Those who are not watching for the
return of Jesus Christ are compared to a person who is asleep, and/or
drunken, much like the “Holy Laughter” of the Toronto Airport
Vineyard! In verse 4 we have a clear statement that the return of
Christ will NOT catch true Christians unawares! Those who are too
busy playing with their toys, making a living, or burdened down with
the cares of this world, will not see the signs that Jesus told us to
That's right! Jesus actually told us that there would be signs preceding His return. This is why He told us to watch. There actually is something to watch for! If signs will precede the rapture of the Church, then imminence is not intended until those signs occur.
When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. (Acts 1:6-7)
Here we have a passage that is
sometimes quoted by prophecy haters to show us that we ought to focus
on adding numbers to the Church, and serving mankind, and not concern
ourselves with prophecy. What they don't mention, however, is that Jesus had already given lengthy talks
about prophecy to, including Luke 21, Matthew 24, and other passages, to these very same disciples!
Something else that is strongly implied in this passage is that God
the Father has determined a time for the restoration of Israel, the
return of Christ, and the millennial reign. It was not for that
particular generation to know what that time would be. They, like
us, were commanded to watch.
Were there any signs of the end in that
generation? Some thought that the destruction of Jerusalem and the
Temple, around 70 AD, was a sign of the end. It was indeed a sign,
but not of the end. There is one wall of that Temple complex still standing.
Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. (Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33)
But he answered and said, It is
written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every
word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (Matthew
And Jesus answered him, saying, It
is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every
word of God. (Luke 4:4)
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. (Matthew 5:18) The “jot” and the “tittle” is simply an indication that God cares about the smallest detail of that which He has written.
Throughout His ministry Jesus repeatedly emphasized the exact, literal, word for word fulfilment of Scripture. Jesus was not given to generalizations. At the beginning of Matthew 24 and Luke 21, Jesus was speaking of the entire Temple complex with His disciples, and stated that the time would come when there would not be one stone upon another. Their question was “when Lord”, and His answer was to give them signs of the end of the age. In other words, the fulfilment of this prophecy would occur at the end of the age.
And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down (Matt. 24:1-2)
The Temple was destroyed in 70AD, or perhaps a few years earlier. Does this mean that Jesus was actually mistaken, since He had said that the time when one stone would not be upon another, would occur at the end of the age? Jesus was never mistaken about anything. Jesus' prophecy of an end times sign actually still stands. There is one wall of the Temple complex still standing. I can assure you, that fact has not escaped Him! Jesus is not concerned that we should give Him the benefit of the doubt. He is quite capable of fulfilling every prophecy to the letter! (the jot and tittle!)
So, when is the rapture? When the prophetic signs are fulfilled, and not before! I can't give you a day, nor an hour, and even those who see the signs will not know the exact moment of the rapture until it occurs, but they will see the signs and know it is imminent.
Continuing on in the same passage, Jesus gives them several signs of the End Times in verses 4 through 7. These signs include many claiming to be Christ, wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines, pestilence, and earthquakes. In verse 8 Jesus states that these things are only the beginning of sorrows. Luke 21 is a parallel passage with Matthew 24. In both passages Jesus goes on to describe events of the Tribulation period, but Luke 21:28 gives us hope that the Church will not see all the horrors that Jesus has just described.
And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.
How did Jesus describe the beginning of these things? Go back to Matthew 24:8 “All these are the beginning of sorrows.” What had he just described shortly before saying this? Many false teachers claiming to be Christ, wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines, pestilence, and earthquakes.
Many scholars have noted that since the time Jesus spoke those words, there has been very little peace on earth. Is it possible that Jesus was actually saying a sign of His coming would be war, just like there has always been war? I don't think so. This is not really a sign. I think Jesus was actually referring to a series of prophesied wars, which can be found in a careful study of the Old Testament. As you study the Psalm 83, and Ezekiel 38 and 39 wars you can see a logical progression that sets the stage for the events of the Great Tribulation period.
Those who see the prophesied wars, and think it is "just another Middle East war", will miss the significance. Those who saw the recreation of the nation of Israel, but because of their theology, didn't realize that it was a sign, will also not understand when these other wars occur.
I have heard some scholars state that they believe this statement is meant for those believers living during the Tribulation period itself. This cannot be so, for anyone who lifts up their head during the Tribulation period will surely have it cut off! (Rev. 13:7, 20:4) No. Luke 21:28 is meant for church-age believers, shortly before the beginning of the Tribulation. The signs spoken of are signs of imminent rapture!
The problem for many Christians is that
if there are signs before the coming of the Lord, then his second
coming is not imminent until those signs occur. The truth is,
however, that there must be something to watch for, if we are
commanded to “watch”, and the doctrine of imminence actually means something else.
We are told in Scripture that we should live as if Christ might come for us today. This does not mean that He will necessarily rapture the Church today, but that He might come for you today. The best illustration of this point is Luke 12:16-21,
16 And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: 17 And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? 18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. 20 But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? 21 So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.
Here we can see this principle in stark reality. You and I don't even know if we will be alive tonight! This is why we should live as if we could be in the Lord's presence tomorrow. This is the biblical doctrine of imminence. These passages we have already looked at do indeed have a relationship to this doctrine. We are to watch for His return for us, anticipating that it could be any moment. At the same time, He did indeed give an indication that He would be away a long time, and there would be signs before His return.
In Revelation 16:15 we are given another indication that there is more than meets the eye to this doctrine: “Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.”
In this chapter, just before He makes this statement, we are told of judgments where men receive grievous sores, the seas become like blood, the sun is darkened, and yet hotter, and people are scorched with its heat. The people of the kingdom of the Beast gnaw their tongues in pain, and then in the midst of all these signs, Jesus is still saying “I come as a thief”?
There is no way that the context of this passage would allow us to interpret this coming as “coming without warning”, or “coming without signs”. Such a thought is ludicrous. No, Jesus is not coming secretly. He is coming like a thief, to take something away from the people of the earth. He is coming to take sovereignty over the earth, and He is coming to take life, and liberty, from His enemies! One hundred percent of the armies of the earth, who fight against Jesus at His return, will die! There will be no mercy! Every man in the Antichrist's army will have the mark of the Beast, and will die. Furthermore every civilian who has the same mark will die. It is only believers in Jesus Christ, who will be allowed to enter into the kingdom.
The people of the earth will view Jesus as a thief, coming to take something of theirs away, and they will arm themselves to fight Him! The people of the earth, like children who view their parent's home as their own, view the planet as their own possession. They will no doubt, view Jesus as a hostile alien, coming to take over "their world"!
In view of this
passage, then, we can not say that the expression “come as a thief”
always means “coming without warning”. The fullest meaning of
this expression contains something more.
Jesus stated that He would be away a long time:
After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. (Matthew 25:19)
Hosea indicates that the Lord would be
away at least two "days".
Hosea 5:15 I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early.
6:1 Come, and let us return unto the
LORD: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he
will bind us up. 2 After two days will he revive us: in
the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.
The two days here is an obvious reference to Psalm 90:4 “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”
Peter also told us that the return of the Lord is related to Psalm 90:4
3 Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, 4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.... 8 But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (2 Peter 3:3)
When did the Lord leave and return to His place? The actual day was forty days after the resurrection, when Jesus ascended up into Heaven. The timing of the two days began at that day and not at His birth, nor even at the crucifixion. No one knows the actual date of the crucifixion. Estimates range from 18 AD to about 36 AD. Our calendar may be out by as much as fifteen years. Consequently we cannot know for certain the return of Christ, but must watch for the signs.
“Their affliction” in the Hosea passage, is a reference to the Tribulation period, and the “us” is Israel, not the Church. It might be possible that the rapture of the Church could still occur right near the end of the Church age, but since the Tribulation is seven years long, and the return for Israel will be in the third “day”, the rapture would have to be within seven years of the end of the second “day” or later.
What am I saying? The bulk of
the evidence is that there will be signs of imminent rapture, and the
rapture itself is at a set time, and that time is related to the fact
that with the Lord, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years
as one day. The actual time is in the Father's hands. There is no
way any man can know when the rapture will occur. Even those who see
the Psalm 83, and Ezekiel 38, and 39 wars will still not know the
actual day, nor the hour! They will only know that it is close!
Those who see those wars, and pass them off as “just another war”
will miss the signs, and not be ready when the Lord comes!
The true doctrine of imminence is found in Jesus story of a rich man who laid aside a lot of wealth for his retirement, only to find that he died before he was ready. The story is found in Luke 16:12-21. Your and my meeting with God is imminent, and always has been. This is the true biblical doctrine of imminence. The return of Jesus Christ, for either the rapture of the Church, or the rescue of Israel, will be preceded by signs, and thus cannot be imminent until those signs occur!
There are other signs spoken of in Scripture, for more information about them why not obtain a copy of The Spirit of Prophecy?
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
© Daniel Knezacek July 2011
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