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Times and seasons in the sayings of Jesus

November 16, 2011

In Revelation 19:10, the angel said to John, “For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” What do his sayings recorded in the Gospel accounts reveal about the times and seasons? Do they support the idea that prophetic times, and units of time, should always be understood literally? Some sayings of Jesus concerning time are examined below.

One of the most striking things Jesus said that relates to time was his reference to “this generation,” which, he said, will not pass away, till everything that he foretold has been fulfilled. [Matthew 24:34; Luke 21:32] The generation to which he came would remain, as long as any member of it remained alive. Since Jesus himself rose from the grave, and remains alive, his generation has not passed away. His generation is unique, because it includes Jesus, and so it never passes away. It endures even after the sun fades and moon disappears. But the unbeliever denies the resurrection of Jesus. Most critical scholars, together with preterists, insist that his generation is limited to the first century, and has indeed passed away.

The saying of Jesus, “Before Abraham was, I am” indicates Jesus viewed his own existence as transcending time.

John 8:57-59
Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?
Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.
Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

During the temptation of Jesus, the devil showed him the kingdoms of the world “in a moment of time” implying that the kingdoms offered to Jesus span other kingdoms than those that then existed. “And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” [Luke 4:5-8] The “high mountain” alludes to the spiritual or figurative nature of the vision; the mountain is not a literal one, as some ignorantly claim, supposing that the author must have believed the earth to be flat.

Jesus spoke of “to day, and to morrow, and the third day,” referring to the time remaining for his ministry.

Luke 13:31-33
The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.
And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.
Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.

Here, Jesus uses “day” figuratively, not literally. Also, note that Jerusalem must mean the heavenly city, not the earthly one, as many prophets and saints, and Jesus himself, were killed outside the earthly city.

Jesus called the Pharisees and the Sadducees hypocrites, for not discerning “the signs of the times.” [Matthew 16:1-4]

Jesus said that “the hour is coming, and now is,” when people would worship God “in spirit and in truth.” [John 4:23-24] In this saying, “hour” must be understood as including all the time since his ministry; obviously it is not a literal hour.

The “times and seasons” were not revealed to the disciples, at least in the period before the holy Spirit was sent. [Acts 1:6-7]

Jesus contrasted “day” and “night,” using both in a figurative way. He called his own ministry the day, but warned that a time of spiritual darkness, or night, would follow.

John 9:4
I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.

Here, the “day” refers to the enlightenment provided by the Gospel. But Jesus warned, “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.” [Matthew 24:4-5]  As the end of the apostolic age approached, darkness began to enter in, and John said, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” [1 John 2:18]

Jesus said that a man walking in the night stumbles, as “there is no light in him.”

John 11:9-10
Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world.
But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.

Consider the meaning Jesus attached to day, together with Peter’s comment: “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 3:8] Taken together, the meaning of the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 may be understood as if the thousand years was a day, where day is used in the sense that Jesus used it above, when he contrasted it with night. John’s reference to a time when the thousand years comes to an end may correspond to the time Jesus foretold, when he said, “the night cometh, when no man can work.”

Those who were about to be raised from the dead, Jesus referred to as in a state of “sleep.”

Mark 5:39
And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth.

The time span between a believer’s death, and his resurrection, is as if he were to awaken from sleep. Jesus said that those who are his sheep will “never perish.”

John 10:27-28
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

In his parable about the talents, Jesus said: “the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country” … “After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.” [Matthew 25:14, 19] The period between the two advents of Jesus corresponds to “a long time,” represented by a few years in the life of the ruler in the parable.

In the parable of the leaven hidden in three measures of meal, one interpretation says that these measures of meal are the three races of men, that descend from the three sons of Noah; others say they represent three ages: the Old Covenant era, the Church age, and the age yet to come. But a more Scriptural explanation is: (1) the world that then was, before the flood  [2 Peter 3:6]; (2) this world, and (3) the world to come.

Luke 13:20-21
And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.

Jesus spoke of the “world to come,” which he contrasted with “this world.”

Matthew 12:32
And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.

The “world to come” is not a Millennium, but a time of judgment. [See: On the Doctrine of a Millennium by Christopher Wordsworth; The Blessed Hope by David Brown.]

Jesus gave many indications that when he comes, many people will be unprepared.

Luke 12:39
But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.

The use of “thousand” in the gospels includes the mention of two thousand swine that were drowned after rushing into the sea, after unclean spirits were cast out of a man who had dwelt among the tombs; [Mark 5:13] four thousand & five thousand men who were fed in the miracles of the loaves; [Matthew 14:21; 15:38] armies of ten thousand and twenty thousand, that Jesus referred to in a parable; [Luke 14:31] and ten thousand talents, owed by a servant to his master in another parable, about forgiveness. [Matthew 18:24]

Taken together, the sayings of Jesus relating to prophetic time provide plenty of support for taking a non-literal approach to the thousand years of Revelation 20.