Questions From Readers
▪ Did first-century Christians believe that the end of this wicked system would come within their lifetime?
Jesus’ followers in the first century were very eager for the end to come. As we will see, some of them did conclude that the end was imminent, coming right away. Their view needed to be corrected. But it certainly is not bad for Christians, then or now, to believe sincerely that the foretold end must be treated as close and to live daily with that awareness.
In answering his disciples’ question about “the sign” of his presence, Jesus warned them: “Keep on the watch, therefore, because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:3, 42) Such alertness should affect their actions, for Christ added: “Pay attention to yourselves that your hearts never become weighed down with overeating and heavy drinking and anxieties of life, and suddenly that day be instantly upon you . . . Keep awake, then, all the time making supplication that you may succeed in escaping all these things that are destined to occur, and in standing before the Son of man.”—Luke 21:34-36.
Note that Jesus gave this advice just after outlining events that would make up “the sign.” So the apostles were alerted to the fact that certain things had to develop historically before the end. Nonetheless, a few weeks later, they asked the resurrected Jesus: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” He replied: “It does not belong to you to get knowledge of the times or seasons which the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction.”—Acts 1:6, 7.
We can see from this that Jesus’ closest followers were so anxious for the end to come quickly that they overlooked what he had recently told them about physical evidences that had to develop during his presence prior to that end.
We find another indication of their eagerness in the apostle Paul’s letters to Thessalonian Christians. About 50 C.E. he wrote: “As for the times and the seasons, brothers, you need nothing to be written to you. For you yourselves know quite well that Jehovah’s day is coming exactly as a thief in the night. So, then, let us not sleep on as the rest do, but let us stay awake and keep our senses.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1, 2, 6) Some of those spirit-anointed Christians took that to mean that Jesus’ presence (with Jehovah’s day for executing the wicked) was coming right then, immediately.
But not so. In fact, Paul wrote them in a second letter: “Respecting the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we request of you not to be quickly shaken from your reason nor to be excited either through an inspired expression or through a verbal message or through a letter as though from us, to the effect that the day of Jehovah is here. Let no one seduce you in any manner, because it will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness gets revealed.”—2 Thessalonians 2:1-3.
This did not mean that they could be casual about Jesus’ presence and the end of the system. With each passing year, Jesus’ warning became ever more poignant: “Keep on the watch, therefore, because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Thus, about five years after writing Second Thessalonians, Paul wrote: “It is already the hour for you to awake from sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than at the time when we became believers. The night is well along; the day has drawn near. Let us therefore put off the works belonging to darkness and let us put on the weapons of the light.” (Romans 13:11, 12) After five more years, Paul advised Hebrew Christians: “You have need of endurance, in order that, after you have done the will of God, you may receive the fulfillment of the promise. For yet ‘a very little while,’ and ‘he who is coming will arrive and will not delay.’” (Hebrews 10:36, 37) Then, in the penultimate verse of Revelation, the apostle John wrote: “He that bears witness of these things says, ‘Yes; I am coming quickly.’ Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.”—Revelation 22:20.
Unquestionably, a Christian back then was not being unreasonable to feel that the end could come in his lifetime. And if through accident or natural processes, he should die before the end, he would have lived with the valid sense of urgency that Jesus and the inspired Scriptures generated.
All of this is even more applicable to us, at the late hour in which we live. Paraphrasing Paul’s words, we cannot deny that ‘now our salvation is nearer than at the time when the early Christians became believers and even than when we ourselves became believers. The night is well along; the day certainly has drawn near.’
We have been able to see in history starting with World War I the physical evidence piling mountain high, evidence that proves that we are in the conclusion of the system of things. Rather than be preoccupied with guessing just when the end will occur, we should be occupied with the preaching of the good news, which can save our lives and the lives of many others.—1 Timothy 4:16.
We have ample reasons to expect that this preaching will be completed in our time. Does that mean before the turn of a new month, a new year, a new decade, a new century? No human knows, for Jesus said that ‘even the angels of the heavens’ did not know that. (Matthew 24:36) Furthermore, we do not need to know as we continue doing what the Lord commands us to concentrate on doing. What is most important is that God’s will and work be done and that we have the fullest share in that. Thus we “may succeed in escaping all these things that are destined to occur, and in standing before the Son of man.”—Luke 21:36.