Among the numerous proof-texts put forth by Preterists, John 16: 16 is generally not mentioned. Although one will often hear them tout the phrase “in a little while,” it is usually in connection with Heb. 10: 37. Of course, Hebrews was written sometime prior to Paul’s first imprisonment, and bears the unmistakeable stamp of the intermediate Acts Dispensation, which ended with Israel’s formal rejection of the offer of the Kingdom (Acts 28: 25-27) made by those who heard Jesus Christ (Heb. 2: 3) and bore witness to His words with “signs and miracles” following (Heb. 2: 4; Mark 16: 20).
But while we might say much about Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews, we are more interested now in looking at some of the timing-indicators used by Christ in John’s Gospel. In particular is the following verse: “A little while, and ye shall not see Me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father” (John 16: 16). A simple reading of the verse by anyone will reveal at once the grave problems of interpretation attending the Preterist view.
Since this is among the final words Christ gave to His disciples before His crucifixion, it is essential we know what the phrase “in a little while” means, and not be led away by the fancies of our own imagination. Preterists who are unware of the difficulties tell us that in the former clause “in a little while” means a few days, but that in the latter clause, it means an extended period of forty years.
Now this is quite contradictory, and it is for this reason that John 16: 16 is seldom quoted by Preterists. But it comforts us to know that the discrepancy does not arise from the text itself, but the minds of those who do not accept the plain literal statements of Scripture as authoritative.
My understanding of the text is that the phrase “in a little while” points to Christ’s ascension, and that in both clauses it denotes a period of time nearly identical. For it really was “a little while” after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection that He ascended up to heaven. And ten days later, when Peter delivered His addresses to the nation of Israel, affirming that Christ was risen, it was stipulated that Christ was ready to return and fulfill ALL THINGS written by the prophets (Acts 3: 19-26). Therefore, His promise “in a little while, ye shall see Me” must have held good upon His ascension into heaven. There is nothing in the text to indicate that “in a little while” means forty days in one instance, and forty years in another! If that is the case, then words are useless for the purposes of revelation.
Well, if you are a Preterist you say that Christ never returned “in a little while;” but that He returned in A.D. 70. But how do you know? The text says “in a little while,” not “in a long while.” All we have to indicate the timing of the Lord’s return is the simple phrase “in a little while.” I believe that translates into “a very short period of time,” no matter what language you speak.
Of course, I agree that Christ never returned in a little while. But neither did He return at the destruction of Jerusalem! There was one essential condition of Christ’s return which we must keep in mind; and that was Jewish national repentance. In Christ’s last public discourse He closed the account-books against the Jewish nation by saying: “Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 23: 39).
This statement is, for all practical purposes, identical to that of Hosea 5: 15: “I will go and return unto my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek My face: in their affliction they will seek Me early” This verse is remarkable, inasmuch as it contains an unmistakable reference to Jesus Christ Who ascended up to heaven after His people rejected Him. Who else could the prophet be speaking of? It was due to this very rejection of His own people that the Roman armies came against Jerusalem and burned up their city, as foretold in the parable of the Marriage Supper (Matt. 22: 7). Therefore, that event can have nothing to do with the fulfillment of Matthew 23: 39 or Hosea 5: 15.
Yes, Christ returned and ascended back to the Father. Then He endued His disciples with the power of the Holy Spirit, that they might bear witness to Him beginning in the very land where He was rejected and crucified (Acts 1: 8; cf. 2: 39; 3: 25-26).
But Peter, after making public proclamation of Christ as the crucified, resurrected, and risen Messiah, said: “Repent ye therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may be sent from the Presence of the Lord; and He shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive, until the times of restitution of all things which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3: 19-21).
This verse is the perfect key to unlocking John 16: 16, as well as Matthew 23: 39 and Hosea 5: 15. Read all these verses together, and then you will see what Christ meant when He said, “in a litte while ye shall see Me again.” It was a bona fide offer to return at once, if His people would only repent, confess their sins, and accept Him as that Prophet that Moses said should come (Deut. 18: 18-19).
Remember, He spoke the words “in a little while” privately after He had already pronounced judgment upon the nation, and laid down the requirement for repentance; so all the texts must harmonize. It was truly “in a little while” that He should return. But as His people rejected the message of the kingdom once more, the city was destroyed and the second advent put off to a future time.
Had the leaders of the nation repented, the 70th week of Daniel would have run its course, Antichrist have risen, the Great Tribulation have followed, and Israel’s salvation been consummated with the return of the Messiah from heaven, and the destruction of the heathen nations (Isaiah 59: 18-20; Zeph. 3: 8, 15; Zech. 12: 7-14; 14: 1-5). Christ clearly references the Great Tribulation in John 16: 20-22, indicating exactly what He meant should be accomplished in connection with His return. It was none other than the new birth of the nation. Compare with Isaiah 66: 7-9.
Christ had to be ready to return upon His ascension into heaven– if His people would only repent. Remember when Stephen was arraigned before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7). That was a crucial turning-point. Upon making his defence to the leaders of the Jewish nation, they rejected His message concerning Jesus Christ. But he, looking steadfastly up to heaven, saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7: 55-56).
Pay attention closely. Stephen saw Christ standing, as if in expectation that His people would accept Him; and ready to return the moment they did. The Holy Ghost was working powerfully that day (Acts 7: 51); yet the leaders again rejected Christ, and Stephen was stoned as a blasphemer (Acts 7: 57-60). This happened in A.D. 35. If the parousia had been a scheduled event, not to take place for another thirty-five years, then why was Jesus seen standing at the right hand of God, as if ready to return in fulfillment of Matthew 26: 64? Oh, how near to Israel His coming was that day! But in rejecting the Lamb of God, they put it away from them once more.
But do you say that Jesus Christ’s offer of returning “in a little while” was not a sincere offer? Then think again. The epistle of James was written around A.D. 45 (according to the best sources). In that epistle, James told Jewish believers, “Behold, the Judge standeth before the door” (James 5: 9). Why would Christ be standing before the door if He had no intention of returning at once, and making good His promise of “in a little while ye shall see me?”
Likewise, in Peter’s second epistle (written around A.D. 60) the apostle affirmed that “holy conversation and godliness” would hasten the coming of the Day of God! (2 Peter 3: 11-12). Yes, these Jewish believers of the Diaspora (see 2 Peter 3: 1; cf. 1 Peter 1: 1) were told that they could hasten the coming of Christ! Peter’s sincerity on this score was an echo of Christ’s own.
When Christ said, “In a little while ye shall see Me,” He meant that He was willing to return right away. Yet there was a condition appended to His return which was never met. And therefore, Christ’s coming never materialized in the first century. With the breakup of Israel’s national structure, the promises concerning the parousia were postponed, and now remain in abeyance; though we are now seeing signs that the end of the age has again drawn nigh.
But perhaps you’ll say to me, that it was God’s Sovereign purpose that Israel should reject Him, and that therefore Christ’s offer to return at once was not a bona fide offer. My answer: While the events that came to pass were certainly brought about according to God’s pre-arranged plan, this does not negate human responsibility. Making God the “efficient cause” of Israel’s rejection is a miserable theology which turns Christ’s Messianic work into a stage-play and a show. It was to “reconcile” the world that Christ died for sins. If God were the efficient cause of sin, then there had been no need for “reconciliation,” for all things would be according to God’s will. But “sin” is contrary to God’s will.
My stance is that Christ’s offer to return at once and redeem Israel was a sincere offer, and conditional upon the repentance of the nation. This alone would justify Christ’s statement of “in a little while ye shall see Me.” This phrase could not mean “forty years,” but a short period of time which would follow His ascension into heaven. These facts explain the urgency of first-century expectations regarding the parousia, and also point out the fallacies of the Preterist argument, which claims that Jesus really did come according to His promise, when everyone knows He didn’t.