What would Jesus and Paul say about the current End Times mania? What would they think of all the people correlating Bible prophecies and current events, or writing about pre-tribulation rapture?
Jesus and Paul would not have recognized this whole approach to biblical prophecy. They would have been very surprised to hear that they were, in fact, talking about events at the end of the 20th century or the beginning of the 21st century.
It's true that both Jesus and Paul believed they were living in the times when the Kingdom of God was breaking into human history. Both of them operated within an eschatological worldview, and almost everything they say has an eschatological undercurrent or overtone. The discussions about current fulfillment of numerous prophecies, the inbreaking Kingdom of God, about the future destruction of the Temple, about the future of Israel, about the death and resurrection of Jesus, about the future resurrection of believers, about the building up of the eschatological community of God which will involve Jews and Gentiles-all of these themes arise in the teachings of both Jesus and Paul precisely because they both believe they are already living in the End Times.
But this does not mean Jesus and Paul believed that the eschatological age would conclude shortly. Indeed, there were many things that needed to happen before that could transpire.
For them, the end of the eschatological age meant the ushering in of the new heaven and the new earth, not the end of the space-time continuum. No New Testament writer thought that God intended to bring the world or the space-time continuum to a dead halt, to be replaced by life in a disembodied condition in heaven. Heaven, even in the Book of Revelation, is viewed as an interim destination, not a final destination. It is just a way station along the way to the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth that will arrive after the return of Christ and his full establishment of the Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
We can be quite confident that the church did not make this saying up, which predicated ignorance on the part of Jesus about the timing of his own return. In other words, this saying must surely go back to the historical Jesus. Jesus clearly says that he doesn't know when the Second Coming will happen.
Consider a motif found in teachings of both Jesus and Paul-the "thief in the night" motif. In Mt. 24.43/Lk. 12.39, Jesus warns that one must always be vigilant in preparing for the coming of the Son of Man, because he will break into human history like a "thief in the night"--at an unknown and unexpected hour. There is certainty that He is coming, but the timing of the coming is unknown. Paul picks up this idea and carries it further in 1 Thess. 5.2, as do other New Testament authors (cf. Rev. 3.3; 16.15; 2 Pet. 3.10). In every case the metaphor is taken to refer to the coming Day of the Lord at an unexpected hour.
It's the certainty of the return, coupled with the indeterminacy of the timing (it could be sooner, it could be later) that generates the need to be constantly prepared and vigilant. The earliest followers of Jesus could not say and did not believe that Jesus would definitely return within their lifetimes, but they also could not rule out that possibility either. Likewise, Christians today cannot pinpoint the day and the hour-and shouldn't try to.
Neither Jesus nor Paul would have been pleased with the current "Left Behind" craze. Let's look at the notion of the pre-tribulation rapture. Don't both Jesus and Paul, and even John of Patmos (the author of Revelation), speak of this concept? The answer is no. Indeed, no Christian interpreters seem to have come up with such an idea before the 19th century. Here is a good rule of thumb-if no Christian commentator understood the NT to refer to a pre-tribulation rapture during the first 1800 years of church history, there must be a good reason why not.
This discussion precedes the famous passage in Mt. 24.40-41, which also has as its immediate contextual setting a discussion about a previous judgment on the earth, the flood, in which some were "taken away," indeed all were swept away except those who entered the ark. Notice the language of Mt. 24.39-"the flood came and took them all away." The language of being taken away refers to those who were judged, not those who were rescued. The same applies to the saying that follows: "Two will be in the field; one will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding with a handmill, one will be taken and the other left." It is perfectly clear from the context that "being taken" means being taken away by or for judgment. It says nothing about being raptured into heaven. Indeed, it is those left behind who are the fortunate ones, because they were not taken away to face the judgment!