God’s kingdom has already been vindicated, but the revelation of its power, the riches of Christ, and the manifold wisdom of God must continue until its final restoration.
Jesus announced His return as imminent (Matt. 10:23; Mark 1:15; Luke 21:31, 32), and so it was expected by the early believers (Acts 3:19–21; Rom. 13:11). On the other hand, He also left the disciples a worldwide mission (Matt. 24:14; Mark 13:10; Acts 1:8), which required time. Two thousand years later, it seems that the church is still quite far from finishing it.
This apparent contradiction has intrigued a number of scholars, and several solutions have been offered throughout the years. One such solution, which greatly affects the interpretation of Luke and Acts, goes as far as to suggest that the disciples’ mission was fabricated by Luke with no other purpose than to solve the issue of the delayed Parousia. The idea is that the adjournment of the eschatological hope had become such a major source of anxiety for the church that Luke decided to provide a definitive answer for it: He abandoned altogether the belief in Jesus’ soon return and, by envisioning the church’s world mission, pushed the final consummation into the distant future. In so doing, he devised a third phase in sacred history, one that was not originally within Jesus’ eschatological horizons: the period of the church—the other two being the Old Testament period and the ministry of Jesus. Though this particular reconstruction has been severely criticized, the difficulty to reconcile the promise of an imminent return with the church’s mission remains.
Though Luke, however, did admit a delayed fulfillment of the church’s expectation associated with the preaching of the gospel, he did not do away with the idea of an imminent end, and that the tension between both concepts goes back to Jesus Himself. It seems to have been deliberately conceived to keep the church healthy and functional.
The Restoration of Israel
As a sequel to Luke, Acts begins by recounting Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, in which He continued to instruct them on the same subject He had mostly occupied Himself with during His ministry—the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). It is shortly after this information that Luke records the disciples’ question to Jesus: “‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’” (vs. 6, NASB). When taken at face value, this question would seem to have arisen out of Jesus’ teaching mentioned in verse 3, but it seems preferable to consider it as the very situation that prompted the actions described in that verse. In other words, verse 3—together with verses 4 and 5—would represent only Luke’s introductory review of what Jesus taught in response to the disciples’ inquiry about the kingdom and its restoration mentioned in vs. 6. The double references to the ascension (vss. 2, 9) and to the coming of the Spirit (vss. 4, 5, 8) lend strong support to this view.
It is difficult to see how even on the ascension day the disciples would still ask such a misguided question. The most natural context for their query in verse 6, therefore, would seem to be the resurrection of Jesus, rather than the ascension or the circumstances that happened 40 days later. In this case, verses 6 through 11 would just be another example of Luke’s several resumptive block narratives with loose chronological connection with the events mentioned nearby (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–35).
At any rate, the disciples’ question indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God’s kingdom and, by extension, of Jesus and His work. This is even clearer in the Emmaus episode recorded in the gospel (Luke 24:13–32). Simply put, the kingdom of God—or of heaven—is God’s sovereign rule in the universe. The preaching of Jesus must be seen in the context of salvation history and His approaching death on the cross. From such perspective, Jesus came not only to rescue the descendants of Adam from the condemnation of sin but also to vindicate God, and so to restore His moral dominion over the created world (John 12:31; 14:30; 1 Cor. 15:25–27; Rev. 12:7–10). This is why Jesus’ favorite message from the outset of His ministry was, “‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17, ESV).1 That this emphasis had already been anticipated by John the Baptist (3:2) reinforces the salvation-history meaning of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom.
In Old Testament times, Israel’s election and setting aside as a holy nation did not necessarily conflict with the notion of a divine, spiritual kingdom because of the strong focus on monotheism and the universality of God’s rule (2 Kings 19:19; Isa 37:20). The first serious challenge to Israel’s theocracy came with the establishment of the royal line, first with Saul and then with David and his heirs. It was not until the Babylonian captivity and the several foreign occupations of Judah following it that apocalyptic ideas linking together the reign of God and the restoration of the monarchy began to emerge. By the time of Jesus, the hope of political deliverance by the messianic king had become widely prevalent among the Jews (Mark 10:35–37; Luke 9:46; John 6:14, 15). In fact, this became “the pathology of Judaism,” as John Bright puts it.2
This explains the disciples’ bewilderment at Jesus’ death. Despite their strong commitment to Him as the promised Messiah (Luke 5:11, 28; John 1:41, 45), they did not expect Him to die, but to stand up as a military leader—One who would drive the Romans out of the land, reinstate David’s dynasty, and restore Israel to its past glory. Such conviction, buttressed by Jesus’ promise that they would sit on thrones and judge the 12 tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28), even made them yearn for particular privileges in the restored kingdom (Mark 10:35–37; Luke 9:46). When He died, all their political and personal dreams were completely shattered.
However, when He was resurrected, these dreams came back to life and seem to have been raised to an unprecedented level. It was natural for them to conceive the Resurrection as a strong indication that the long-awaited messianic kingdom would finally be established; hence, they asked whether this was the time when Jesus would do it. His evasive answer is often taken as an indirect denial that the kingdom would come “‘at this time,’” (Acts 1:6) and so as an expression of the delay of the Parousia. In fact, it seems to be exactly the opposite: Jesus left the issue of time unsettled, thus creating an open expectation, rather than pushing the final consummation into the distant future. He did not reject the premise behind the disciples’ question of an imminent kingdom; neither did He accept it. He only reminded them that the time of God’s actions belongs to God Himself and, as such, is inaccessible to humans (vs. 7).
It was in such a context that He must have explained to them once again the real nature of His messianic mission (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47) and of God’s kingdom (Acts 1:3). They were familiar with the prophecies, but their minds had been formatted to think of the Messiah as an earthly ruler. Now, however, they were able to have a fresh understanding of what the prophets meant, for they could see it under the new light shed from the empty tomb (Acts 2:22–24, 32, 36).
The Mission of the Church
According to Luke’s narrative, what came next in Jesus’ final interactions with the disciples were His instructions as to the ultimate purpose of their calling (Acts 1:8). In the dynamics of Acts 1, the emphasis behind such instructions is clear: Instead of indulging in chronological speculations about the messianic kingdom (vss. 6, 7), the disciples were to bear witness to Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to “‘the end of the earth’” (vs. 8), an expression taken from Isaiah 49:6 that simply means the whole world.
Two points here deserve clarification. The first is the origin of the disciples’ mission. To argue that such a mission represented Luke’s creative attempt to cope with the delayed Parousia is to ignore the biblical concept of redemptive history and the part Israel itself was to play in it.
When God called Abraham, He set in operation a plan so that His saving blessings could eventually reach all the nations (Gen. 12:2, 3; 18:18). His covenant with the patriarch has properly been defined as “the sovereign administration of grace and promise” through which He elected Israel for Himself and conferred on them a series of privileges, such as the multiplication of their seed, the gift of the land, and His own protective presence to enable them to be a channel of His blessings to the entire world.3 Jesus Himself recognized this (Matt. 8:11), so when He spoke of the worldwide proclamation of the gospel, He was not introducing a new concept, but only anticipating the ultimate fulfillment of the purpose of Abraham’s call.
The second point relates to the orientation of the disciples’ mission, which involved a significant shift in relation to God’s original plan for Israel. In Old Testament times, Israel was expected to go out and witness about God among all the nations (Isa. 42:6) as much as to attract the nations to God, as evidenced by Solomon’s temple dedicatory prayer of 1 Kings 8:41 to 43 and Psalm 66:5: “Come and see what God has done.” And, because of the theocratic nature of Israel’s government and corporate character, this centripetal witnessing was the most emblematic aspect of Israel’s mission, the one that best summarizes its purpose as a chosen nation (Ps. 22:27; Isa. 2:2–4; Zeph. 3:9, 10). That Jesus also evoked such centripetal movement (Luke 13:29) only underscores that this was indeed God’s big project for Israel, which in turn explains the primary scope of His own mission. Now, however, a different strategy was required. Because they had renounced theocracy and failed to recognize the Messiah, Israel would no longer be the agent through which God’s salvation would be conveyed to the world. The messengers would be those who accepted Jesus, irrespective of their ethnicity. And, though Jerusalem was still the center, the disciples were not expected to stay and establish roots there, but to move out to the uttermost ends of the earth.
The Early Church’s Sense of Urgency
Going back to Jesus’ dialogue with the disciples in Acts 1:6 and 7, by not explicitly contradicting the assumption of nearness embedded in the question, Jesus could be understood as reaffirming it, the only conditions being the coming of the Spirit and the preaching of the gospel to the world (vs. 8). The angels’ promise right after the ascension, assuring the disciples of Jesus’ visible return (vs. 11), could also be easily taken as an implicit support of the idea that the time would indeed be rather short. This would be in agreement with previous statements of Jesus that the eschatological consummation was close at hand, which to some extent goes against the interests of the delay hypothesis.
There is no question, though, that the mission Jesus left with the disciples would require time, and after two thousand years, the church has not yet been fully able to carry it out. This seems to call for a reflection on both how the mission of the church is defined and what it means to finish it. The point, however, is that, from the disciples’ standpoint, their mission would look a bit different, and it is here that the Book of Acts, or the first developments of the early church, becomes significant. Acquainted as they were with the main evangelistic pattern in the Old Testament, according to which the nations would flock to Jerusalem to hear the word of God, it is not difficult to conclude that, for the disciples, the conditions of Acts 1:8 had already been met at Pentecost, no matter how narrow such understanding was. On a single day, they received the Spirit and shared the gospel with the whole world, that is, with “Jews . . . from every nation under heaven” who were then “dwelling in Jerusalem” (2:5). They had not left Jerusalem, but in a sense the world had come to them, as further demonstrated by the appended list of nationalities (vss. 9–11). That those who were baptized were all Jews and proselytes was not a problem either, as according to contemporary Jewish theology, salvation could take place only within the limits of the Abrahamic covenant, in which circumcision and adherence to the law played a central role. The disciples would hardly have conceived their worldwide mission as something that went beyond Diaspora Jews, as further episodes in Acts clearly demonstrate. So, with Pentecost the only thing still remaining was Jesus’ return.
There are at least four evidences that the post-Pentecost church lived on a daily expectation of the Parousia. The first is the sermon Peter preached at Pentecost. The Old Testament speaks of the Spirit as the endtime gift (Isa. 32:15; Eze. 11:19; Joel 2:28, 29). In his sermon, Peter resorted to Joel’s prophecy to explain the outpouring of the Spirit, and in so doing he introduced a significant twist: Instead of Joel’s introductory “afterward” (2:28), a common prophetic formula that points quite generally to the future, he said, “‘In the last days’” (Acts 2:17), probably under the influence of Isaiah 2:2, thus indicating that the final act in the great drama of salvation had just begun. What would come next was “‘the great and glorious day of the Lord’” (vs. 20, NIV). Such was the expectation that characterized the early church, which could also have a sociological component. As the relations between Jews and Romans deteriorated, Jewish nationalism and consequently the Jews’ apocalyptic fervor increased significantly, and it would have been difficult for the church to remain immune to it, especially on account of the recent events of Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit.
Second, there was a complete detachment from material goods and a readiness to share belongings with one another (2:45; 4:34–37). Sensing that time was short, an immediate pooling of resources seemed adequate, all the more so in light of Jesus’ teaching on human avarice (Matt. 6:19–21) and divine providence (vss. 25–34), so they began to sell their properties and live from a common purse according to their individual needs. “There was no need to take thought for the morrow since there would not be one.”4 The third evidence is the fact that, though most of the disciples were Galileans, they established themselves in Jerusalem soon after the ascension of Jesus and remained centered on the temple, which, according to the prophet Malachi, would be the focal point of the imminent consummation (3:1). To some extent, Jesus’ enigmatic statement about destroying and rebuilding the temple (Mark 14:58), which evokes the new temple of Ezekiel’s vision (40:1–43:5), could have fueled hope of a new religious order to be installed by the Messiah. It was only some years later that the apostles understood that Jesus was referring to His resurrection (John 2:22). The final evidence of their belief in the imminence of Jesus’ return was the daily celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:46). As the antitype of the Passover, the most important annual feast of the Jewish calendar, the Lord’s Supper points back to the Cross, where Jesus as our Passover Lamb was crucified. But, a statement from Jesus also connected it to the future, to the messianic banquet to take place at His return (Matt. 26:29). In observing this service together on a daily basis, the early believers found a meaningful way to express their faith that Jesus would come back soon.
Not all of this, however, proved to be a blessing to the church. The pooling of goods, though an expression of genuine piety and effective in helping the poor, soon became a problem, as the episode of Ananias and Sapphira shows (Acts 5:1–11). It also contributed to reduce the financial resources of the Judean church, a situation that worsened under the severe famine that affected the region between AD 46–49 (11:27–30).5 This made them dependent on the generosity of Gentile believers and virtually unable to sponsor world evangelism, thus shifting an undue burden to the Gentile churches. Such communal life also does not seem to have lasted long and, except for Christian benevolence, is not supported by any of the New Testament letters. On the contrary, when faced with a slight movement in that direction in one of his churches, Paul’s reaction against it was rather strong (1 Thess. 4:11, 12; 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6–12). Though the underlying premise of having everything in common was laudable, it was untimely and short-lived. Detachment from material things will arguably be inevitable at the time of the Second Coming (Matt. 24:15–22), but for the early church with a mission to fulfil it represented a step backward. While waiting for Jesus’ return, we are not to give away our possessions, but to employ them wisely and unselfishly for the advancement of God’s kingdom (vss. 45–51; 25:14–30).
But there was also another problem. Persuaded that their mission had been accomplished at Pentecost, the apostles settled down in Jerusalem and stayed there. They continued to bear witness to Jesus (2:47; 3:11–26), but none of them moved more than a few dozen miles away. And, when they did, it was not to lay the grounds for new evangelistic work, but to check on what others were doing (8:14–25) or to shepherd those who had already been reached (9:32–43).
Even the episode of Cornelius was initiated by God, not by Peter (Acts 10:3–16), highlighting the limited evangelistic vision of the infant church. Here, despite not telling the whole story, Luke’s account should take precedence over extra-biblical traditions on the apostles’ (Peter, in particular) alleged missionary endeavors in the early days of the church. It was only in the context of the persecution led by unconverted Paul that some believers—all Hellenistic Jews—crossed the Jewish borders and embraced world mission (8:4–8, 26–35. In Acts, all Gentile-oriented missionary efforts that are intentional and carefully planned are associated with Syrian Antioch, not with Jerusalem, and with Paul, not with any of the Twelve (13:1–3; 15:36, 40). It was mostly because of Paul, himself a Hellenistic Jew, and, in his own words, an “untimely born” apostle (1 Cor. 15:8), that Christianity truly became a world religion.
The Nearness and the Mission
The post-resurrected Jesus left the disciples two eschatological legacies that were equally important: the expectation of His soon return and a worldwide mission. Expectation conveys sense of urgency. Mission presupposes time. Without the former, there would be no preparation for the Second Coming or motivation for mission. Without the latter, there would be fanaticism and idle contemplation. This explains, at least in part, what happened to the early church. Though they did not indulge in idleness, leaving all their social and religious responsibilities aside (Acts 2:42, 43, 46, 47), to some degree they lost their initial missionary impetus and consequently the sense of time when they established a pooling and common charitable use of all resources while waiting for Jesus to come. The morrow vanished from their sight, and this was not without serious consequences.
At this point, the elapsed time since the ascension of Jesus makes it relevant, if not necessary, to address both the issue of nearness and the concept of mission. As already mentioned, Jesus said He would come back soon, and the New Testament writers never grew tired of repeating this promise, even when the first generation of believers had already mostly passed away.
Since two thousand years have elapsed and Jesus has not yet come, how do we explain this emphasis? At least three factors must be taken into account. The first is that the new age of salvation inaugurated by Jesus’ death (and resurrection) is indeed an eschatological time—“‘“the last days,”’” as Peter quoted at Pentecost (Acts 2:17). The Cross represented the most crucial event in redemptive history, the one that guaranteed God eternal victory in the cosmic conflict against evil. It was “the turning point of the ages,” as G. K. Beale says.6 If Jesus’ earthly ministry provided a revelation of God’s kingdom and the Parousia will feature the definitive restoration of God’s kingdom, Jesus’ death signified the ultimate vindication of God’s kingdom, the moment when the ruler of this world was cast out and the kingdom was reconquered, so Jesus could say after His resurrection: “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’” (Matt. 28:18).
The second factor concerning the nearness concept is the transience and uncertainty of life. No one really knows how long he or she will live, and 80 or even 90 years do not seem long enough, especially in view of eternity. As Moses said, “The years of our life … are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10). This is why, when it comes to salvation, the only time we can really count on is the present (Acts 22:16). The past is gone, and the future may never come. Procrastination may be a tragic mistake of eternal proportions, hence the importance assigned by Jesus to readiness and vigilance in relation to His return (Matt. 24:38–44). This brings us to the concept of individual eschatology, in which the time of the eschaton merges with one’s own life experience, instead of being solely conditioned to a historical succession of events.
According to this concept, which is part of John’s realized eschatology, the final judgment takes place at the moment of one’s response to Jesus’ radical call to belief (John 3:18, 19). The future eschatological judgment remains, but essential to the gospel message is the fact that the sentence on that judgment will depend entirely on our decision about Jesus here and now. This also means that, since there is no further opportunity for repentance, death precipitates the end on a personal level. When one dies, the next thing will be the second coming of Jesus. That is, for every person, Christ’s return is as imminent as his or her death, which may come at any time.
And the third factor is that, with God, “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). This is not a philosophical speculation about the being of God, as if His perception of time is so utterly different from ours that the very notion of delay becomes meaningless. It is rather an affirmation of the contrast that exists between human transience and divine everlastingness. Because of our limited perspective, we tend to tie our expectations to our own brief lifetime, instead of seeing them from the standpoint of the eternal God, who surveys all of history. God is free from such impatience. The hope of an imminent end, therefore, is not to be abandoned, but to be set against the consideration that the delay, however lengthy to us, may not be so significant within the entire scope of God’s actions in history.
In addition, as the following verse indicates (2 Peter 3:9), the delay does have some positive aspects. On one hand, since God “is not slow to fulfill His promise” (italics supplied), the delay underscores His sovereignty in the sense that He is in full control of the course of history. On the other hand, it is an expression of God’s saving purposes because in His divine forbearance, God may hold back His interventions in history to give sinners further opportunity to repent (Hab. 2:3). Thus, while still longing for Jesus’ soon return, we must trust God’s decisions, and let Him execute His plans according to His sovereign and gracious will.
Concerning the mission of the church and its implications for the Second Coming, some considerations are also in order. First, the call to witness to the entire world is an essential part of God’s redemptive plan. On one hand, the new era of salvation introduced by Jesus does allow God to reclaim humanity for Himself; on the other, such reclamation is important to consolidate Satan’s defeat (Luke 10:17, 18; 11:14–23). “Every . . . conversion involves a power encounter in which the devil is obliged to relax his hold on somebody’s life and the superior power of Christ is demonstrated.”7 Hence, the more converts, the more comprehensive God’s victory over the forces of evil (Rev. 7:9–12). This is why the good news of the kingdom has to be proclaimed to the world. To be active in the mission, therefore, is to be God’s instruments to populate His kingdom and so to minimize Satan’s destructive work.
Second, the final consummation is not necessarily contingent upon the success of the mission. This appears to contradict the previous point, but the issue is that the restoration of God’s kingdom depends entirely on the accomplishments of Jesus, not on what we can do individually or as a church. In fact, it would be presumptuous to say that God needs us. He does not (Job 22:2–4; Acts 17:25). He has unlimited resources to carry out His purposes and to advance His kingdom on earth. Nevertheless, He was pleased to include us in His plans. And beyond the fact that He made this our duty, witnessing to Jesus is such a high privilege that when properly understood will not produce but a deep commitment and passion for it.
Third, the success of the mission should not be measured according to secular criteria of efficiency and productivity. Though there is nothing wrong with quantifying church growth, God seems to reckon the spread of the gospel on a different basis. After two years of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, Luke says that “all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks [had] heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10, NRSV), and Paul himself could tell the Romans that “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum” he had already preached the gospel (Rom. 15:19), or the Colossians that the gospel message was “bearing fruit and growing in the whole world” (Col. 1:6, NRSV). Such statements cannot be taken in absolute terms, which should remind us that God’s notion of success might be different from ours.
In short, neither the time of the Second Coming nor the completion of the church’s mission is to be assessed by human standards. In final analysis, none of them depends on us, which means we should not try to find out who is responsible for the delay, or use guilt as a mechanism of evangelistic engagement, as if Jesus would not come again until the last person on earth is reached by the gospel message. Things are not that simple.
It is important to remember that, by saying that no one knows the day or the hour of His return, Jesus is implicitly affirming that, in His divine sovereignty, God does have a set time for Jesus to come and to bring the present era to an end, and some time prophecies found in the Bible are an eloquent reminder that God’s plan will not fail. So, the idea that we can hasten or delay the Second Coming seems to overstress human role in redemptive history. Though in many ways there is a synergy between human and divine activities, much caution is needed not to lessen the significance of Jesus’ accomplishments on the cross, the scope of divine sovereignty, and the value of apocalyptic prophecy, particularly those associated with time.
The early church was born as an eschatological community with a high sense of urgency. It was also established as a missionary movement with the responsibility to take the gospel to the entire world. Both concepts go back to Jesus Himself and are integral to God’s redemptive plan. There seems to be a tension between them, but it is exactly when this tension is kept in proper balance that the church finds itself the way God wants it to be. These two eschatological legacies are intended to maintain the church stable and operational. If the nearness is emphasized over the mission, there will be radicalism and idleness. We do not know the precise date of Jesus’ return, and it is not yet time to withdraw from the world and wait for the end in some remote place. Jesus’ intercessory prayer for the disciples is as valid today as it was in the first century. We are in the world with a purpose: to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called” us “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
God’s kingdom has already been vindicated, but the revelation of its power, the riches of Christ, and the manifold wisdom of God must continue until its final restoration. In essence, the role of the church is not different from that of ancient Israel.
At the same time, without a real sense of Jesus’ soon return, the only true motivation for mission disappears and the missionary focus is lost, causing the church to become nothing more than a social guild with religious overtones. An enduring commitment to these sacred legacies is vital to the church as it heads toward the end of its history on earth, an end that will actually signal a new beginning, when God’s kingdom in the universe will be fully and definitively restored: “‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever’” (Rev. 11:15).
Wilson Paroschi, PhD, is Professor of New Testament Studies at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES