THE AUDIENCE RELEVANCE PRINCIPLE
The writers of the New Testament addressed their letters to contemporary audiences in their day. On the flip side, the recipients of the letters would have understood that those letters were addressed to them. This is known as the audience relevance principle. Consider a modern day example of this principle. When missionaries write personal support letters to different churches, we all inherently recognize that those letters are only useful for the purpose of raising financial support while the missionaries who wrote those letters are still alive. On the flip side, those letters only have financial relevance for the churches that received them while the missionaries who wrote them are alive. This goes to show that the use of pronouns like “we” and “you” are understood to be referring to the writers and direct recipients of those letters.
If we, today, were to read a letter of support from Jim Eliot, a missionary killed by the Waodani Indians in Ecuador in 1956, we would not then raise money on Sunday to send to him personally since he is deceased. We use common sense in such circumstances. Yet, when it comes to reading the Bible, we tend to forget common sense when we read words like “we” and “you.” Because we enter the Scriptures with the presupposition that the words on the pages are written to us, we frequently fail to interpret the meaning of the texts correctly. It is interesting that when we read the portion of one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians regarding financial support for the church in Jerusalem, we don’t take up an offering on Sunday to give Paul money to send to Jerusalem. Notice the pronouns in this passage:
1 Corinthians 16:1-3
“1Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. 2On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come. 3When I arrive, whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem.”
Yet, one passage earlier, when Paul talks about the coming of Christ and the resurrection, the “you” and the “we” words are usually thought to be directly written to us today:
1 Corinthians 15:51
“Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.”
How is it possible that Paul can tell the Corinthians that “we” shall not all sleep if every one of them, including Paul, is now dead? The first thing to come to grips with when reading the New Testament is that the writers wrote actual letters to actual churches in the first century. This may seem an obvious thing to say, but you will soon see why it is important to bring the audience relevance principle to the forefront of your mind when studying the Scriptures.
THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS
This principle applies equally to the words of Jesus in the Gospels. Let’s take an audience relevance principle test drive. Read Matthew 10:16-23, keeping the audience relevance principle in mind:
“16Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. 17But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; 18and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. 20For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. 22You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved. 23But 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.”
In this passage, Jesus is talking to His twelve disciples. The things that He said would happen to them, in verses 17 and 18, did not happen until after His ascension. Since Jesus is telling His disciples about things that would happen to them, how is it possible that Jesus could say, “you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” if we are still waiting for the Son of Man to come? This statement from Jesus makes it abundantly clear that He is not talking to us. Jesus explicitly tells them that He would come before they finished going through the cities of Israel. It is unmistakable that Jesus is teaching that He would come before all of them died because they would be going through the cities of Israel when the Son of Man would come.
Unfortunately, many people, blinded by a traditional view of the future coming of Christ, give the following interpretation of this text:
“These words cannot be understood in the sense which some have given to them as relating to the first mission, but embrace the whole course of their apostleship. But the difficulty lies in ascertaining what is meant by the coming of the Son of man … I look upon the consolation here given as addressed peculiarly to the apostles. Christ is said to come, when matters are desperate, and he grants relief. The commission which they received was almost boundless: it was to spread the doctrine of the Gospel through the whole world. Christ promises that he will come before they have travelled [sic] through the whole of Judea: that is, by the power of his Spirit, he will shed around his reign such luster, that the apostles will be enabled to discern that glory and majesty which they had hitherto been unable to discover” [William Pringle, trans., Calvin’s Commentaries: Vol. XVI: Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 457-58].
John Calvin, along with everyone else with the futurist presupposition, not knowing how to explain this statement of Christ to his apostles, come up with interpretations that force the text into a particular mold instead of taking the straightforward meaning of the text. Where does Jesus remotely imply, much less, state, that He would come over and over again when matters are desperate?
How many comings of Jesus are there?
Further, if we take Calvin’s correct understanding that the words of Jesus are “peculiarly to the apostles,” then this supposed promise to come over and over again could only apply to them anyway. What is striking here is that the phrase, “coming of the Son of Man,” as well as all other references to the coming of Christ in Scripture, is only interpreted in a similar way as Calvin by futurists in places that demand a first century coming of Christ. Interestingly, in texts that demand a first century coming of Christ, Jesus can come over and over again, but in texts that don’t contain an immediate time statement, He can only come again once. There is only one way to interpret this text honestly. The coming of the Son of Man occurred in the first century, before His apostles finished going through the cities of Israel.
Let’s continue our test drive:
“27“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. 28“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.”
So where are we now?
- Matthew 10:23 teaches that Jesus would come before his disciples finished going through the cities of Israel.
- Matthew 16:27-28 is talking about the same event (notice the exact same “Son of Man coming” language).
- The coming of Jesus in His kingdom would be the time when He would repay every man according to his deeds.
- There were some people standing there with Jesus that would still be alive at the coming of Jesus in His kingdom to reward every man according to his deeds.
- Unless some of those people standing there with Jesus are still alive today as you read this, then the coming of Jesus in His kingdom, in the glory of His father with His angels, to repay every man according to what he has done, has already happened.
Some people, in an attempt to square texts like these with the traditional view of the second coming of Jesus, state that the fulfillment of Matthew 16:27-28 is the transfiguration event in Matthew 17. There are many problems that arise with such an attempt, but when all is said and done, Matthew 25:31 makes that attempt impossible:
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.”
Once again, we see the same “Son of Man coming” language as we did in Matthew 10:23. We also see the identical scenario as we did in Matthew 16:27-28. Here are the elements that are identical:
1. Son of Man comes
2. In glory
3. With angels
4. To repay every man according to his deeds = will sit on His glorious throne.
The teaching of Matthew 25:31 comes after the transfiguration event. How could Jesus teach the exact same thing about His coming in Matthew 25 if the fulfillment of His teaching about His coming had already happened at the transfiguration? Here we arrive at a dilemma for the traditional view of the future coming of Christ. If Jesus is talking about the same coming throughout all these passages, then the only coming of Christ in glory with His angels to sit on His glorious throne occurred within the lifetime of the people Jesus was talking to while He was on earth. This is a contradiction to the traditional future-coming-of-Christ view. If, however, one wants to argue that Jesus was speaking of different comings in these passages, then a multiple coming-of-Jesus view also contradicts the traditional view.
Many people think that a past coming of Christ view is heresy because it goes against the traditional understanding of Scripture on this matter. But what many people do not realize is that everyone goes against the traditional understanding of Scripture on this matter, depending on whether they take the multiple coming view or the past coming view. The fear of abandoning the traditional view is what keeps most people from embracing the clear teaching of Jesus that His coming occurred within the lifetime of the people He was talking to while He was alive on earth.
THE APOSTLES AND TIME REFERENCES
What about the apostles? Were they as clear as Jesus in teaching the impending coming of Jesus within the lifetime of the people He was talking to while He was on earth? Let’s take a look at just a few of the time texts that the apostles used. The audience relevance principle must be kept in mind as the Scriptures are read. Important words significant to audience relevance and time will be placed in italics:
1 Corinthians 10:11: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”
Philippians 4:5: “Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.”
1 Thessalonians 5:23: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
2 Thessalonians 1:6-7: “6For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire…”
1 Timothy 6:13-14, 18-19: “13I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, 14that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ … 18Instruct them [Timothy’s church] to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for that which is about to come, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”
Of course, Paul has already encouraged Timothy about the life to come in 4:8:
“…godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life about to come.”
Following this paragraph is the whole chapter of 2 Timothy 3. When read with the audience relevance principle in mind, this text can be speaking of no other time period than when Paul and Timothy were alive. When verse 1 begins with the phrase, “But realize this,” remember that Paul is writing to Timothy. Therefore, this must be understood as, “But Timothy, realize this…” All brackets and italics have been added to clarify what is frequently ignored:
“1But [Timothy,] realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, 4treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; [Timothy,] Avoid such men as these. 6For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, 7always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. 8Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men [who you will know, Timothy,] also oppose the truth, men of depraved mind, rejected in regard to the faith. 9But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all, just as Jannes’s and Jambres’s folly was also. 10Now you [Timothy] followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, 11persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me [Paul] at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I [Paul] endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me [Paul]! 12Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14You [Timothy], however, continue in the things you [Timothy] have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you [Timothy] have learned them, 15and that from childhood you [Timothy] have known the sacred writings which are able to give you [Timothy] the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16All [Old Testament] Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
It is abundantly clear that the last days that Paul is referring to are the days that Timothy was living in. And the difficult times were going to come upon Timothy. Furthermore, it is abundantly clear that the particular wicked men that Paul tells Timothy to avoid were going to arise during those difficult times that would come during the last days, in which Timothy was living. Since those were the last days when those particular wicked men would arise, then the days we are living in today are not the last days and we do not face the particular wicked men that Paul had in mind. This becomes resoundingly clear when we read the very next verse: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is about to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:1).
Paul was encouraging Timothy to endure in the faith during this difficult time that was going to come upon him and was instructing him to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (v. 2). How would Timothy be able to endure? By the assurance that the appearing of the Lord and His kingdom was about to come. And why was it important for Timothy to preach the word and to be ready in season and out of season? Because the appearing of the Lord and His kingdom was about to come. And Paul told Timothy what would happen to his church before the Lord came:
“3For the time will come when they [Timothy’s church] will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 5But you [Timothy], be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
If Paul is not telling Timothy that these difficult things would occur in his own lifetime, then what use is it for Paul to encourage Timothy by saying, “But you … ” Paul is contrasting how Timothy should live in a different way than those he is describing in those last days. The reason Timothy is told by Paul to be different than everyone else is because Timothy was to stand in stark contrast to those who would not endure sound doctrine and want their ears tickled. How does Timothy do this if the people Paul is talking about are not the people in Timothy’s life? The inescapable fact is that 2 Timothy 4:1 was fulfilled in Timothy’s generation just as much as every other verse surrounding it.
This is what it means to read the Bible using the audience relevance principle. First Peter 4 works the same way (italics added for emphasis):
“1Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. 3For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. 4In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; 5but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. 7The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.”
What did Peter mean when he wrote, “The end of all things is near?” The Scriptures teach that the second coming of Christ already happened. How is that possible? What does all of this mean for us today? To pursue this further and find answers to your questions, contact Messiah Reformed Church in Fort Myers, Florida by visiting our website at messiahreformed.com.