First of all, the Savior while here on earth told us that no one on earth knows when the Lord will return: "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only" (Matt. 24:36). Because we do not know, we need to constantly be ready for his return, for "in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh" (Matt. 24:44).
However, Joseph Srnith did make several interesting statements about seeing the Savior. One of them is a favorite of our detractors. They have misquoted it, misreported it, misinterpreted it and misexplained it. Most often they simply do not complete the quote, making it appear that the prophet said something he didn't.
The passage in questions is found in Section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It is reported in abbreviated form, and Joseph acknowledged as he recorded it that he didn't understand the meaning or intent of the revelation. Joseph Smith recorded:
I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following: Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter. (D&C 130:14-15).Many of our detractors end the quote at this point, and then they assume that the statement is a prophecy that the Savior would come in the year 1890 or 1891, since the prophet Joseph was born in 1805. However, if the reader will continue further in that passage, he will see that Joseph Smith himself stated:
I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face (D & C 130:16).We only learn what the prophet did prophesy by reading verse 17: "I believe the coming of the Son of Man will not be any sooner than that time." Without a doubt, that prophecy came true. The Lord did not return to the earth for His Second Coming before that time.
But there are other aspects of fulfillment that should also be considered. We do not know when it was that the Prophet earnestly prayed to know the time of the Lord's coming. The context, (verse 13), shows that it may have taken place in 1832 or earlier. At least twice, as is recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph saw the face of the Son of Man. D&C 76:20-24 and D&C 110:2-10 both record appearances of the Lord Jesus Christ, either of which may constitute fulfillment of the Lord's prophetic promise. He may also have seen the Lord's face at the time of his death in 1844, as he pondered in D&C 130:16.
Joseph made reference to the incident on at least two other oecasions, and indicated that his belief was not that the Lord would come by the time of his 85th birthday, but rather that the Lord would not come before that time, which of course was a correct prophecy.
In the History of the Church, Vol.5, pp.336-37, the words of the prophet are recorded on the subject: "I prophesy in the name of the Lord God, and let it be written--the Son of Man will not come in the clouds of heaven till I am eighty-five years old." Again, Joseph Smith doesn't say the Lord will come then, but that He will not come before that time.
In another place in the History of the Church, Vol.6, p.254, Joseph Smith again prophesied on the subject of Christ's coming:
I also prophesy, in the name of the Lord, that Christ will not come in forty years; and if God ever spoke by my mouth, He will not come in that length of time. Brethren, when you go home, write this down, that it may be remembered.If this prophecy is read carefully, instead it being an "unfulfilled prophecy" as asserted by the detractors, it actually testifies to the truthfulness of the mission and prophetic stature of the Prophet Joseph Smith. No man knows the exact time the Savior will return, and Joseph Smith never claimed to.
Jesus Christ never did reveal to any man the precise time that He would come. Go and read the Scriptures, and you cannot find anything that specifies the exact hour He would come; and all that say so are false teachers.