Summary: Claiming Jesus' return is imminent is not the say as claiming His return is "soon". A preterist look at His prophetic "I am" declaration (which was given the last Sunday of the year, 2012)
Well (no surprise), the Mayan apocalypse didn’t happen, but let’s talk about the real one. I heard a prominent minister say with great conviction--that with all the wickedness in the world, the breakdown of society, natural disasters, and the turmoil in the Middle East--Jesus is undeniably returning soon; it’s a matter of a few years at the most. This wasn’t some self-proclaimed prophet, some fringe lunatic, but a trusted minister. This urgent warning I heard was given…in 1969. All the signs were there, yet we’re still waiting.
I believe in the immanent return of our Savior, but saying He could return at any time is not the same as saying He is returning soon. It seems like every generation we have a dogmatic proclamation of the soon approaching Second Coming. We need to be watching and ready…but also prepared to wait. It may not be “soon”.
However, in our next “I AM” statement Jesus says just that: “I am coming quickly.” One explanation is that God’s sense of timing differs from ours, and that a thousand years to the eternal God are but a day…meanwhile we grow impatient and our faith is tested.
There is another explanation. Jesus did return soon--with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The armies of Rome came and demolished the city. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, over a million people were “hewn down in indiscriminate carnage.” Rome did exactly what Babylon did years before; they came as God’s instrument of judgment. Jesus came to His own people, who rejected His kingly rule, and the destruction He warned about took place.
Our Lord’s sermon in Matthew 24, the Olivet Discourse, appears to be describing an imminent military invasion. Israel’s age was drawing to a close. The earthly Temple was destroyed; it was no longer needed. Christ’s atonement removes the need for Temple sacrifice. The Book of Hebrews describes in great detail how Jesus is the new, true Temple, in which God dwells fully.
This does not mean Jesus is not coming back at the end of time--He is, and all Christians believe this. But some of His warnings have been mistaken for end-times events. Jesus insisted that His generation would see God’s wrath and judgment, and they did. The catastrophic fulfillment of His prophetic warnings took place. His disciples did live to see it. Christ’s return appears in two stages. Another judgment is coming, and it seems there’s something embedded in the human conscience that knows there’s a day of reckoning.
This devastation of 70 A.D. is still mourned annually as the Jewish fast Tisha B'Av. It is not a popular observance among Jews, because it brings to mind the termination of Temple worship. For 3 weeks before this time of mourning there are no celebrations or weddings; then for 9 days after it they’re not to eat meat or drink wine. The synagogue readings are from Lamentations and Isaiah, reflecting despair and warning of more judgment if God’s people continue their unfaithfulness. The synagogue is lit by a single candle and people sit on low stools or on the floor. Since Jews do not wear prayer shawls when they are in mourning, none are worn on Tisha B’Av. But at the end of the service, the worshippers put their shawls on, as if to say “We can still hope and pray for something better.” (Harvey Cox)