Christ promised to return before all of His hearers have died. Why did He Not Return in the First Century as promised? Starting with the dispensational explanation of the delay, this article analyses the 490 years-prophecy of Daniel 9 to develop an understanding of the delay in Christ’s Return.
With respect to Christ’s promises that He would return soon, the dispensational view is that Jesus, drawing from what the prophets had written, believed that his Kingdom would be established soon after his death and resurrection. But the Kingdom was not established at that time, but was deferred to an unknown future time, for God delayed Christ’s coming.
This website agrees that Christ’s return was delayed, but it does not agree that the covenant with Israel will be resumed at the end of time. Rather, it is here argued as follows:
- That the 490 years decreed for Israel came to an end a few years after His death.
- That Daniel’s prophecies place Christ’s return soon after the end of the 490 years.
- That the promise that Christ’s return would be soon was conditional on Israel’s acceptance of their Messiah soon after His death. For that purpose, after Christ’s death, God sent messengers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to Israel.
- That, if the Jews accepted their Messiah, they would have executed the great commission and Christ would have returned while some of His generation was still alive.
- That Christ’s return was delayed because Israel rejected this message and its Messiah.
- That God will delay Christ’s return until He has a people that is ready to remain standing through the end-time trials.
If the above is correct, then the question arises why Jesus taught that He will return soon, and why He did not teach that He might return soon. Was Jesus mistaken? He is “from … the days of eternity”; but He said himself He can do nothing of Himself; He does nothing on His own initiative. This we are not able to understand. Therefore, we cannot explain why Jesus did not know that His return would be delayed for 2000 years or more.
- That the Church Age was not foreseen by the Old Testament;
- That the covenant with Israel has been interrupted by the Church Age; and
- That the last seven of the 490 years “decreed for” Israel (Dan. 9:24) are being been delayed until the End of the Age, after which God will usher in the eternal kingdom.
With respect to Christ’s promises that He would return soon, the dispensational view is as follows (abbreviated from the truthortradition website):
Over time, God made many changes to the way in which He relates to mankind. There have been changes in sacrifices, the time and place of worship, dietary restrictions, financial giving, etc.
Jesus Christ told his disciples in Matthew 16:28 and in Matthew 24:34 that some of them would not die before they would see him come to establish his Kingdom. These statements refer to the literal, future Kingdom of which He spoke so often. Jesus, drawing from what the prophets had written, believed that his Kingdom would be established soon after his death and resurrection.
His disciples also believed in the imminence of this Kingdom. When they were assembled with him before his ascension, they asked him if he would now finally establish his Kingdom (Acts 1:6-11).
The Kingdom was not established at that time, but was deferred to an unknown future time. Jesus only spoke what God revealed to him, and God had hidden the time from His own son. God has delayed Christ’s coming.
My comments: The words “deferred” and “delayed” implies that God changed His plans. It is not clear from the above summary when God changed His plans, and whether that was before or after Christ spoke.
This view cannot be supported from Matthew alone, but is based on the dispensational interpretation of Daniel 9 and perhaps also other prophecies. (Please see Critique of the Dispensational interpretation of Daniel 9.)
Christ’s instructions in Matthew 10, which include one of His soon-coming promises (v23), was about going to Israel only; not about going to the whole world.
The dispensational interpretation of Daniel 9 assumes that the period of Jewish preference was interrupted at the Cross, to be continued seven years before Christ’s return . As argued in the article Jerusalem Phase of the Early Church, this was not the case. God continued to work with Israel exclusively for a few years after the Cross. See more detail below.
Nevertheless, there is an important principle in the dispensational interpretation, namely that something changed in God’s plan when Israel refused to accept this final opportunity. It was not God’s intention to delay the restitution of all things by thousands of years.
The soon return of Christ was conditional. If the Jews accepted their Messiah, Christ would have returned while some of His generation was still alive.
The solution proposed by this website, for Christ’s promises that He would return soon, is as follows:
Firstly, the 490 years decreed for Israel came to an end a few years after His death. These 490 years therefore did not come to an end at Christ’s death. Neither are some of the 490 years postponed until the end of time, as dispensationalism proposes.
Secondly, according to Daniel’s prophecies, Christ’s return would have been soon after the end of the 490 years.
Thirdly, the promise of Christ’s soon return was conditional on Israel’s acceptance of their Messiah. Christ’s return was delayed because Israel rejected the Messiah; both prior to and subsequent to Christ’s death.
Fourthly, God will delay Christ’s return until He has a people that is ready to remain standing through the end-time trials.
These points will now be justified in more detail:
First, the 490 years decreed for Israel came to an end a few years after His death.
Daniel 9 prophesied when the Messiah will arrive. Daniel 9:24 reads:
“Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people (Israel) and your holy city (Jerusalem),
to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin,
to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness,
to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place”.
The “seventy weeks decreed for your people” (Israel) is generally understood as seventy weeks of years, which is 490 years. The view of this website is as follows (See Summary interpretation of the 70 weeks decreed for Israel in Daniel 9):
The last week (the last seven years) commenced when Jesus was baptized.
3½ years later, in the middle of the last seven years, He was killed, making an end to “sacrifice and grain offering” (v27) and making “atonement for iniquity” (v24).
Consequently, the last 3½ of the 490 years allocated to Israel were immediately after the Cross. This is confirmed by history. Even after Israel rejected and crucified Christ, God did not reject Israel. God ordered His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. After they received the Holy Spirit, the church grew exponentially (e.g. Acts 4:1-13; 5:17-18; 5:40; 7:54-60), but they preached to Jews only and in Jerusalem only. It was only a numbers of years later, after Israel rejected to Holy Spirit by persecuting His Spirit-filled messengers, signaling their refusal to accept the final opportunity which God gave them, namely to accept their Messiah and take the message to the world, that the apostles were led to take the message outside Jerusalem and outside the Jewish nation. (See Jerusalem Phase of the Early Church for more information.)
The special focus on Israel therefore did not end when Jesus died on the Cross. The full 490 years came to an end a few years after the Cross.
Different from dispensationalism, this website does not understand the Bible to predict a renewal of the covenant with Israel at the end of the age.
Second, according to Daniel’s prophecies Christ’s return would have been soon after the end of the 490 years.
We often read Daniel from our perspective, and then we find parallels to the events of the past 2000 years, but if we put ourselves in Jesus’ sandals, as a first century Jew, then we would have concluded that the end of all things is imminent:
In Daniel 2 the “head of that statue” (v32) represents Babylon. “Its breast and its arms of silver” (v32) represents Mede-Persia. “Its belly and its thighs of bronze” (v32) represents Greece. “Its legs of iron” represent Rome. What remains? Only “its feet of iron and clay” (v34), which is “a divided kingdom” (v41). If the image is seen as a chart of history, the head, breast and thighs are gone, and the legs have been in progress for a century or more. Only the short feet remain. In other words, when a first century Jew reads Daniel 2, he would conclude that soon “God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed” (v44).
Daniel 7 expands on the prophecy in Daniel 2, using wild animals as symbols of the same four empires. Rome is represented by a beast that is “dreadful and terrifying and extremely strong” (v7). The “feet of iron and clay” in Daniel 2 are now explained as eleven kingdoms that arise out of Rome (v24). The eleventh and final of these eleven kingdoms will “speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One … they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time” (v25). Literally interpreted “a time, times, and half a time” is 3½ years; a relatively short time. Daniel’s time prophecies, literally interpreted, do not envisage long periods. During the reign of the evil eleventh horn “the court sat” (v10) and “one like a Son of Man” (v13) will be “presented before” “the Ancient of Days”. The “Son of Man” receives an “everlasting dominion” (v14), but that final king will be “annihilated and destroyed forever” (v26). The point again is that a first century Jew, reading these prophecies, would have concluded that history would soon end. For more information on these prophecies, see Daniel’s Evil Horn – Summary.
Two characters are mentioned in the Daniel 9 prophecy:
Firstly “until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks” (v25). In other words, the “Messiah the Prince”, interpreted as Jesus, will appear seven years before the end of the 490 years.
The second character is “the prince who is to come”. He “will destroy the city” (v26). Since the 490 years is decreed for the City (v24), it will only be destroyed after the end of the 490 years. This “prince” will therefore do his dreadful work after the 490 years.
The prophecy ends the words, “until a complete destruction … is poured out on the one who makes desolate” (v27). This seems to say that the destroyer-prince (“the one who makes desolate”) will finally be completely destroyed (v27). All this, according to verse 24, will “finish the transgression, … make an end of sin”. This seems like “the End of the Age” (Dan 12:13). The point is that Daniel 9 seems to point to the end of the age soon after the end of the 490 years, and as argued above, the 490 years came to an end a few years after Christ’s death. For more detail, please see the articles on Daniel 9.
It is therefore agreed with Dispensationalism that Daniel’s prophecies did not foresee the Church Age, but the view that Israel, as a literal nation, will have a specific end-time role, is not accepted here.
Third, the promise of Christ’s soon return was conditional on Israel’s acceptance of the Messiah, and was delayed because Israel rejected the Messiah; both prior to and subsequent to Christ’s death.
One day, while Jesus was nearing Jerusalem, He wept over it, and said:
“If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44)
This means that the destruction of Jerusalem was conditional. If Israel accepted their Messiah, the city would not have been destroyed, but it would rather have had “peace”. This is confirmed by another statement made by Christ:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” (Mt. 23:37-38)
After Christ’s followers received the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, Peter, in his sermon to the Jews, said:
“Repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time.” (Acts 3:19-21)
From this we learn the following:
- Jesus must remain in heaven “until the period of restoration of all things”.
- Israel still was afforded the opportunity to repent. For the first few years after Christ’s death the gospel was preached only to Jews, and with more power than ever before, because the Holy Spirit was poured out.
- If Israel did repent, their sins would be wiped away, and the Lord would have sent Jesus. Again the principle is that the promise, that Christ’s return would be soon, was dependent on Israel’s acceptance of their Messiah, even after His death. Just imagine what would have happened if the Jewish religious leaders embraced their Messiah at this time! In the power of the Holy Spirit they would have executed the great commission to “go … and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28), and then the end would have come, even in the lifetime of some of His disciples.
But Israel rejected the Holy Spirit by persecuting the Spirit-filled believers, just like it previously rejected Christ. When Israel failed in its glorious purpose of taking the gospel to the world, God had to give that task to another people, namely the Gentile church, through whom the Gospel would be carried to all the world. Israel had become a hindrance to His work, and had to be destroyed.
All of this is based on the general principle of conditionality of God’s promises and threats:
Deuteronomy 28:1 “Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the LORD your God … the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. … 15 But … if you do not obey the LORD your God … all these curses will come upon you and overtake you”
Jeremiah 18:5 “Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, 6 “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. 7 “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. 9 Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; 10 if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it”.
Decades after Pentecost the same Peter, that preached to the Jews to accept the Messiah, explained the delay in Christ’s return as follows:
“In the last days mockers will come with their mocking … saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” … But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:3-8)
Peter here refers to Christ’s return as “the promise of His coming” and explains the delay as patience, namely that the Lord is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance”. The delay is therefore in our best interest. This confirms the previous conclusion that Christ’s return was delayed.
This website therefore agrees with Dispensationalism that Christ’s return was delayed. What this website adds is that God delayed Christ’s return because Israel failed to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, which was poured out after Christ’s ascension to God’s throne.
Fourth, God will delay Christ’s return until He has a people that is ready to remain standing through the end-time trials.
God wants to put an end to sin as soon as possible. He would not allow evil to continue without good reason. It was His intention to evangelize the world through the Jews soon after Christ’s death, but Israel did not accept that opportunity. He is therefore waiting for a people that will ready for the task. In Revelation we read:
“I saw four angels … holding back the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth … And I saw another angel … having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels … saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” (7:1-3)
In other words, God is delaying things until His servants are sealed in order that they may remain standing when “the four winds of the earth” are released. To understand what this means, please refer to the articles on the Seven Seals.
The concept that “His bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7; 21:2, cf. 14:4, 5 15) is discussed in more detail in Return of Christ in the book of Revelation. In brief, He will not return until he has a people that will overcome. Our goal must not only be to be forgiven; we must overcome our sins!
“He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (3:21).
“The Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful” (17:14).
“He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son” (21:7).
How do we overcome? We have no power to overcome our sinful desires. We overcome by being integrated with the supernatural; by being in Christ and by Christ being in us (John 15). We overcome by the power of God. If we really want to overcome, we are able to, for “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Lastly, was Christ wrong?
If the above is correct, then the question arises why Jesus taught that He will return soon, and why He did not teach that He might return soon. Was Jesus mistaken?
On this subject we must say as little as possible, for humans are unable to understand the infinite God, who cannot be defined in terms of space, matter and time. He exists simultaneously in all places and in all times; past, present and future. He exists without cause. All things exist because God exists. Therefore, when we talk about Him, it must be with utmost humility.
We do know that Jesus relied much on Daniel’s prophecies. For instance, He often used the name “Son of Man” from Daniel 7 to refer to Himself. In Matthew 13 He used the phrase “the end of the age” from Daniel 12:13. In the Little Apocalypse He referred to the ”Abomination of Desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet” (Mat. 24:15). One must assume that Jesus understood Daniel’s prophecies, and He would have understood that the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age would follow soon after His death.
Preachers often emphasize Christ’s divinity, but they under-emphasize His humanity. He is also fully human. He is “from … the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2); but He said that He does not know when He will return (Mat. 24:34). The Son created everything and “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Hebr. 1:3; Col. 1:17), but He can do nothing of Himself (John 5:19, 30). “All the fullness of Deity dwells in Christ in bodily form” (Col. 2:9), but He does nothing on His own initiative. He only says and does what the Father tells Him to (John 7:16; 8:28, 30; 14:31). This we are not able to understand. Therefore, we cannot explain why Jesus did not know that His return would be delayed for 2000 years or more.
But we would like to conclude that Christ was not wrong, for the end of the age is always near:
It was near in the Old Testament, hundreds of years before Christ: “Near is the great day of the LORD, Near and coming very quickly” (Zephaniah 1:14). “For the day is near, Even the day of the LORD is near; It will be a day of clouds, A time of doom for the nations” (Ezekiel 30:3).
In the New Testament the Bible writers continued to claim “Salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is near” (Romans 13:11). “The coming of the Lord is near” (James 5:8). “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7). John wrote his gospel, letters and the book of Revelation after the destruction of Jerusalem, and he continued to proclaims that “it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18) and “the time is near” (Rev. 1:3; 22:10).
Today, 2000 years later, we still believe the time is near, and it is near, for the time is always near.