Pre-Millennialists are often taxed by Preterists for their reluctance to adhere to what are called “timing texts.” According to Preterists, these texts all imply the imminency of Jesus Christ’s second coming, the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment. Perhaps one reason why most Pre-Millennialists disregard the issue is because everyone knows that there was no second coming of Christ in A.D. 70. Nevertheless, a close study of the timing texts will be beneficial to the reader, inasmuch as they help to prove one thing and one thing only: that the second coming was imminent in the first century.
Yes, I say WAS imminent. In other words, the Lord’s coming was “at hand” in the first century, when the inspired apostles issued the Gospel call, to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles. But does God ever postpone His judgments? And if so, why? In this brief study I’d like to look at the “sign of the prophet Jonas,” which helps to prove my position that the then-imminent coming of Christ preached during the first century was put off, due to the repentance of the Gentiles.
Let us remember that Christ promised the Jews that no sign would be given them except the sign of the prophet Jonas. “This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of Man be to this generation” (Luke 11: 29-30).
In order to learn the nature of this “sign,” we ought to go back to the Book of Jonah. The book contains the prophetic types that unlock Christ’s words, revealing what would happen during the first century. Jonah, after emerging from the belly of the whale (which in his prayer he equates with hell) entered into Ninveh and cried: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3: 4). This was warning of an imminent judgment upon the people of Nineveh.
But look at how the city responded to his preaching. The people believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth (Jonah 3: 5 ff.). They repented, and when the Lord saw their repentance, judgment was deferred. “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them; and He did it not” (Jonah 3: 10). Because of the repentance of the people, mercy overruled judgment.
Now, we all recognize that Jonah was a type of Christ. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12: 40). Christ’s resurrection, then, was the antitype of Jonah’s deliverance from the belly of the whale. And what happened next? After our Lord arose, “He showed Himself alive after His passion, by many infallible proofs, being seen of them [the apostles] forty days, and speaking of things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1: 3).
This forty days of oral instruction corresponds to the forty days of probation given the city of Nineveh. And according to prophetical usage (Numbers 14: 34; Ezekiel 4: 6), a year was given for each day– issuing in a forty year period of grace extended to “that generation.” For the first fifteen years after our Lord’s ascension, the sign of Jonas the prophet (i.e., the resurrection of Christ) was preached exclusively to Jews and proselytes. “Unto you first,” said Peter, “God, having raised up His Son Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities” (Acts 3: 26).
Then, after Peter had used his keys to grant Gentiles access into the Kingdom, the sign of Jonas was preached under the ministry of Paul, for an additional sixteen years. The Gospel was preached to both Jews and Gentiles alike; though during this period, Jews were still given the priority of hearing the message (Acts 13: 5, 14, 42-43; 14: 1; 17: 1, 10, 17; 18: 4, 7, 19, 26; 19: 9). When they rejected the good news, the Gospel was then offered to the Gentiles (Acts 13: 46; 18: 6; 28: 25-28).
What was the substance of this message? According to Acts 17: 18, it was “Jesus, and the resurrection.” According to Acts 19: 21, it was “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, it was the sign of the prophet Jonas! It was a message which spoke of the necessity of repentance, the salvation wrought by Christ through the resurrection, and an impending judgment of the habitable world (see Acts 17: 31, Greek text).
According to the prophetic type contained in the Book of Jonah, we find that every element of Jonah’s ministry thus far has a first-century antitype. And most Preterists will generally recognize this. But when they get to the issue of repentance and postponement of judgment, they stop, and can proceed no farther. They are unable to find an antitype, inasmuch as they believe the Second Coming, resurrection, and judgment happened in A.D. 70! But yet, as the facts stand, only Jerusalem was destroyed at the end of the forty years of probation (A.D. 30-70).
Why? The answer is quite simple. Because the Jews rejected the sign of Jonas, whereas the Gentiles repented and accepted it. Therefore, the second coming of Christ, which would have occurred in the first century had the nations failed to repent, was postponed, along with the resurrection and judgment. This was the antitype of Nineveh’s repentance. When the Jews had finally rejected the sign of Jonas in 62 A.D., Paul said: “Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles, and that they will hear it” (Acts 28: 28, italics mine).
A little later, Paul praised God, writing that the Gospel preached in all the world, “bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you” (Col. 1: 6). And where was this fruit coming from? Certainly not from the Jews, who forbade the apostles to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved (1 Thess. 2: 16). The fruit was being borne by the Gentiles. And because the Gentiles repented, and the Gospel prevailed over the hearts of so many, God could not bring the world into judgment. Hence, He postponed the second coming in accordance with His established principles of mercy (see Genesis 18: 23-32).
Remember that when the Son of Man is revealed, the conditions of the world will be “as in the days of Noah” and “as in the days of Lot” (Luke 17: 26-30). Not when the Gospel is bearing fruit among all nations, but after a “falling away“– when few at all believe the Gospel. As Christ Himself asked: “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18: 8). And as Paul, speaking to the Gentiles, affirmed: “That day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and the man of sin be revealed” (2 Thess. 2: 3, italics mine).
It is clear that Preterists have not “rightly divided the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2: 15) concerning the sign of the prophet Jonas. It is up to them now to accept these blessed truths, and to realize that God did not fail to produce the fruits of repentance in the nations that heard the Gospel. The word did not return unto Him void (Isaiah 55: 11). It accomplished the repentance of those to whom it was sent, thus fulfilling the antitype of God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites.
In conclusion: The timing texts used by Preterists only show that the second coming was imminent when the words were first spoken or written. Since these words were issued during the forty year period of probation (A.D. 30-70) there was a possibility that the Gentiles might repent, and that judgment would be put off. I submit that this is precisely what happened, and is why the early church knew nothing about any invisible, hypothetical coming of Christ in the first century.
To say that there was a worldwide judgment in A.D. 70, after the Gospel had been preached with power to the Gentiles (1 Thess. 1: 5), and believed on in the world (1 Tim. 3: 16), is to hold a pessimistic “doom and gloom” Christianity which makes God an unjust exactor of revenge upon those who turn unto Him in faith and repentance. Moreover, it breaks the typology of Jonah’s “sign,” rendering “fulfillment” without any effect whatsoever. Let Preterism once more stand condemned. Maranatha!