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What is Preterism?

What is Preterism?

Preterism is the belief that all prophecy has been fulfilled. Those who hold to that view believe that the prophecies in the New Testament concerning the Day of the Lord and the Coming of Jesus were fulfilled in the fall of the temple in A.D. 70. This view emphasizes the “time statements” in Scripture, such as the one in James 5:8-9.

You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.

James 5:8–9

The basic question is as follows: was James wrong when he said the coming of the Lord was at hand? There are a few ways to answer this question:

  1. Yes. James was wrong, and the Bible is not to be trusted. It is simply a book from man, and this is another proof that God doesn’t exist (or that Jesus isn’t the Messiah).
  2. Yes. James was wrong, but this is just another proof that the biblical writers were not perfect. Anytime a New Testament writer stresses the imminence of the coming of the Lord, it is just the human part of the Bible shining through.
  3. No. James was not wrong because “at hand” doesn’t literally mean at hand. God was speaking through James according to how He views time. After all, one day is with the Lord one thousand years and a thousand years one day.
  4. No. James was not wrong, but James is writing to an audience of the restored nation of Israel some time in our future.
  5. No. James was not wrong. He was talking about the fall of Jerusalem, but not the real coming of the Lord.
  6. No. James was not wrong. The second coming took place at the fall of Jerusalem.

These may not be all the solutions, but it represents most of the ones I encounter. The three that probably seem the most appealing to my audience are numbers 3, 5, and 6. So, we’ll cover each of these in the course of this article. What’s interesting about these three positions is that I have held each of them at various times in my ministry.

At Hand Doesn’t Mean At Hand

In January of 2015, I began preaching at the Piedmont Church of Christ, my home congregation. I inherited a class on James from the previous preacher, and I was set to teach through James 5 in my first adult Bible class. To help me out, my Granddaddy lent me several of his volumes from his personal library. Among these were the Gospel Advocate Commentary Series. When I saw that Guy N. Woods, one of my favorite preachers, wrote the commentary on James, I knew it was going to be good. So, I followed it closely until I came to James 5.

The return of Christ is so real, so certain, so sure of fulfillment, that he is always regarded as near at hand. This is as true for us today as it was of those of the apostolic age, in view of the fact that he may come at any moment. It is, however, quite certain that James did not mean that there was evidence that the Lord would appear in the lifetime of those living, inasmuch as Jesus himself taught that no one knows the time of his return except the Father…

Woods, Guy N.

I parroted this to my class on a Wednesday night because I honestly didn’t know the solution to this problem. After all, Jesus obviously didn’t come “at hand” in the time of James, and since the Bible is inspired, this must be the interpretation!

Well, thankfully my mother was in the class, and she offered another solution. James really did mean that the coming of the Lord was at hand, but he was talking about the fall of Jerusalem.

She offered this explanation because she knew that God knows how to tell time. He tells His people when something is far off, such as in the book of Daniel, and He communicates to His people when something is near, such as with the coming of the kingdom.

In Daniel 12, Daniel was told specifically that the things he writing were for the future.

He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time.”

Daniel 12:9; cf. Revelation 22:10

John the Baptist, on the other hand, came preaching that the coming of the Lord was at hand, and Jesus reinforced this by saying that the kingdom would come before some of His disciples would die.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Matthew 3:2

And Jesus was saying to them, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

Mark 9:1

My mom knew that if she forfeited the meaning of “at hand” in James 5:8-9, then she would no longer have an argument against the dispensationalists who taught that “at hand doesn’t mean at hand.”

Jesus confirmed that the kingdom would come before some would die, but did He do the same thing for His second coming? Absolutely! Notice this word of encouragement He gave to His disciples:

But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.

Matthew 10:23

Just as Mark 9:1 helps explain what “at hand” means in Matthew 3:2, Matthew 10:23, and passages like it, help interpret James 5:8-9. James said it was at hand because Jesus had promised He would come while some of His disciples were alive.

James 5:8-9 isn’t the Real Coming of the Lord

With my mom’s help, I began teaching that James 5:8-9 does say and mean that the coming of the Lord was at hand, but it wasn’t the real or actual coming of the Lord. It was a coming, not the second coming. After all, at the real coming of the Lord, the world would be destroyed, bodies come out of the graves, and everyone will stand in judgment. These things obviously haven’t happened, so James can’t be talking about the real coming of the Lord, right?

This conclusion worked well for me for a time. It helped me explain some of these difficult and troubling passages, but eventually I had to face the realization that these various doctrines (end of the world, resurrection, and judgment) may not mean what I always thought they did.

Let’s take the “end of the world” as an example.

In Matthew 24:3 in the King James Version, the apostles ask,

Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

Matthew 24:3

Jesus then spends the following 34 verses answering the question “when shall these things be?” Then, he uses the remainder of His time in Matthew 24 and Matthew 25 to talk about His coming and the end of time. I even had an arrow in my Bible that divided those two sections. On the arrow that pointed from 1-34, I had a label that said “fall of Jerusalem.” On the arrow that pointed past that, I labeled it “end of the world.” But is this conclusion valid?

One of the first problems with this interpretation of Matthew 24, is that verse three doesn’t actually say anything about the end of the planet. A quick glance at other Bible versions tell a different story.

And when he is sitting on the mount of the Olives, the disciples came near to him by himself, saying, ‘Tell us, when shall these be? and what is the sign of thy presence, and of the full end of the age?’

Matthew 24:3; Young’s Literal Translation

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Matthew 24:3; English Standard Version

As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”

Matthew 24:3

The second issue with this is the assumption that Jesus was covering two different subjects – the fall of Jerusalem and the second coming. This is usually argued because of verse 36.

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.

Matthew 24:36

“That day and hour” is usually differentiated from “the tribulation of those days” that would take place within that generation (Matthew 24:29, 34). The argument goes that since Jesus didn’t know the day or the hour, He must not be able to definitely say it would happen within that generation. Furthermore, how could He give any signs if He didn’t know when it would be? Since no man knows the day or the hour, there must not be any signs accompanying the real second coming. So, when James says that the coming of the Lord was at hand, He can’t be talking about the actual second coming.

Here’s the issue with the above: Jesus didn’t know the day or the hour of the fall of Jerusalem either! In fact, He didn’t even know the season.

But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath.

Matthew 24:20

Just because someone knows the general time does not mean they know the specific time. Anyone who has had a baby knows this! The idea that James 5:8-9 can’t be the real coming of the Lord because they didn’t know the day or the hour doesn’t make sense. Jesus gave the signs so they could determine when it would be close; He didn’t tell them exactly when it would be.

Notice how James’ language in James 5 mirrors Jesus in Matthew 24.

You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.

James 5:8–9

Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

Matthew 24:32–34

James must have seen the signs Jesus spoke of to reach his conclusion!

For more information on whether or not Matthew 24 is divided, I made a worksheet so you can check it for yourself. Also see my article “What Did James See?”

The Second Coming Took Place at the Fall of Jerusalem

The other conclusion one might reach, and the one I ultimately came to, is that the second coming of Jesus took place at the fall of Jerusalem. One passage that appears the most plain to me is Luke 21.

But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled.

Luke 21:20–22

What things does Jesus have in mind here? First, for those who may not be familiar with Luke 21, it is Luke’s account of Jesus’ speech He gives in Matthew 24 and Mark 13. We’ll use Matthew 24 to help us determine what Jesus means by “all things which are written.”

In Matthew 24:15-21, Jesus says,

Therefore when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house. Whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath. For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will.

Matthew 24:15–21

Since Jesus says that His teaching comes from Daniel, let’s go to Daniel to see what he says. This passage must be what Jesus has in mind when He says that “all things written will be fulfilled” (Luke 21:22).

Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.

Daniel 12:1–2

From the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days.

Daniel 12:11

Daniel 12 covers two major points Jesus makes in Matthew 24: a time of great tribulation and the abomination of desolation. But notice what Daniel also talks about in verse 2! The resurrection of the just and the unjust. In fact, this is the only passage in the Old Testament which speaks of the general resurrection in this way. Jesus saw no difference between His coming at the fall of Jerusalem and His real second coming. They are one in the same! For more on Daniel 12 and Matthew 24, see my PowerPoint!

What makes this even more interesting is that practically every New Testament author has this expectation!

For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and WILL THEN REPAY EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.

Matthew 16:27–28

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.

1 Thessalonians 4:15

but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead… The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.

1 Peter 4:5–7

And he said to me, “These words are faithful and true”; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place. “And behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book.”

Revelation 22:6–7

So, what is preterism? Preterism is the solution to these passages, among many others, which affirm that Jesus was to come soon. Preterism attempts to honor the expectations of Jesus, His apostles, and the disciples.

So, What Now?

One of the first questions that comes to mind is, “If the coming of the Lord happened in the first century like Jesus said it would, what does that mean for us?”

One of the big misunderstandings about the coming of the Lord is that it is just an end. It is not just an end but a marvelous beginning! Notice what John writes in Revelation 22.

Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

Revelation 22:1–2

After the judgement of chapter 20 and after the New Heavens and Earth come down, the nations still need healing. That is our job today. We teach and live the gospel in such a way to bring healing to all those around us. As John says in verses 14-15, there will still be people who need Jesus.

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.

Revelation 22:14–15

There are many in the world who need this tree of life John talks about. They need the washing Jesus offers and the healing his gospel brings. That is what is happening now! God is continuing to show the surpassing riches of His grace towards us.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2:4–7

We are to take this kindness and share it with everyone around us.

Preterism isn’t just about something that happened back there. It is about how God continues to work, love, and save us. He isn’t off in the clouds somewhere waiting for the day where He will come and make everything better. He is here now! He is among His people begging them to take part in the ongoing healing of the nations. For those that accept Him, He makes his abode with them.

Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.”

John 14:23

That’s what we have now! And we have just barely begun to comprehend all the blessings we have because of the promises Jesus kept. That’s preterism!

Note: I know this article presents more questions than answers. It is just a conversation starter and brief introduction to this view of the coming of Christ.

4 thoughts on “What is Preterism?”

  1. You told me all the things I know; but you organized them in a way that was good. I appreciate the work you do in completing these musings each day, l’ve even created a pp sermon from one.I noted source. Thanks again.

  2. Amen, Daniel!!! You make explanations of scripture easier for people to understand. Thank you. When a person accepts the fact that preterism is an option (my husband and I had never even thought about it as one), and you study that possibility…it answers so many questions one has about confusing scriptures. For us, it was like a light bulb came on, and so many questions were answered! It was such a huge blessing. Thank you again for having such an open heart and mind in your search for truth. God is working great things through you, and I pray that He continues to shower great blessings on you and your precious family!

  3. Daniel, this essay on “What Is Preterism?” is a classic example of How to Study the Bible. You asked questions to draw your audience into a greater understanding of your subject. You also built upon your primary question with Scripture. Your gathering of the Scriptures in CONTEXT added more and more evidence to explain your subject like a pyramid. Your subject deals with “audience relevance.” Your citation of Scriptures is developed like a brick mason building a wall. I thank God for your excellent presentation of “What Is Preterism?”; please continue to write and to preach and teach God’s Word.

  4. Thank you for this clear explanation of Preterism. It makes my heart sing to know that we are in the New Jerusalem now and forever more and not just waiting for it.
    I love your reminder that we continue to offer healing to the nations through the gospel and that He is here now for those who accept Him!!!

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