By popular demand, this week I’m beginning a new series on the return of Christ. Lately, I’ve been receiving more questions on this topic than on any other, so we’re going to explore this a bit for the next few weeks. This kind of subject always makes me think of the old saying:
The main thing
is that the main thing
stays the main thing.
The study of the return of Jesus (and all the details that go along with it) is one very loaded topic. Christians have differing opinions on how this will all fit together, and we’re not shy about arguing for our favorite viewpoint. Sometimes these exchanges can get heated, and Christians have even cut off one another from fellowship because of different expectations concerning the end times. This is tragic. (If you haven’t yet read it, I would encourage you to take a look at Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?) Especially when we consider how much the early disciples missed—or plain got wrong—about the first coming of Christ, I think it’s a little silly for us to think we now suddenly have a crystal clear perception of Christ’s second coming!
Now, that’s not to say we can’t gain real insights from the Scriptures regarding the last days. Not only can we study and learn about the vital truth of Christ’s return, we have an obligation to do so. We don’t want to neglect the precious expectation of Jesus’ arrival, and all the Bible has to teach us about it. But there’s plenty of room for humility and caution in studying and discussing these issues. And I would challenge all of us that fighting and quarreling about the return of the Prince of Peace is not a sign of spiritual maturity! We can discuss our differing viewpoints—and do so vigorously—without becoming divisive or hostile.
This week, we’re going to introduce this subject and lay the foundation for our coming studies. It’s easy for us to get so caught up with all the myriad details and questions regarding the end times that we forget the two most important facts about the return of Christ. Here’s the first one:
Jesus is coming back!
Especially for those of us who have been believers for a long time, we’re so accustomed to the idea that Jesus is returning we forget how profound this is. We don’t worship a mere concept, and the gospel story to which we’re devoted is not just an inspiring fable. We worship God who came to us in the flesh, and who will one day return to us. We are part of a grand story that has a definite beginning, and also a definite conclusion.
Throughout history, we’ve been heading inexorably toward this final culmination when Jesus returns and brings everything to beautiful, perfect completion and harmony. Not only we, but all creation is anticipating being finally free from everything that binds us:
For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.
Do we experience the sweetness of God’s Spirit in this lifetime? Absolutely! But do we also suffer and struggle? Yes, we do. Jesus himself told us, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows [John 16:33].” But when we face our own personal pains, or when we’re overcome by the injustices and horrors of this life, we can know it won’t always be this way. This life is not meandering aimlessly through time. It’s going somewhere, and so are we. To those who one day will see things especially terrifying, Jesus says (in Luke 21:28), “So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!”
This is why we refer to Christ’s return as our blessed hope. And ‘hope’ in the Bible isn’t just a fond desire (as in “Oh, I hope Jesus comes back someday”); it’s a confident anticipation of what we know will come. As sure as we know the sun will come up in the morning, even when the night seems so long, in the same way we know that one day the time will be now, and Jesus will be here.
We’re supposed to be ready!
If you study every place where Jesus teaches about his return, you’ll see him repeatedly emphasize two main points: (1) I’m coming back, so (2) You be ready. How are we supposed to be ready? Why, by knowing exactly how Israel fits into prophecy, who the 144,000 are, and what the mark of the beast looks like . . . right? No, I don’t think this is quite what Jesus had in mind when he told us to be ready. We can lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes the more we’re focused on the minute details of Christ’s return, the less we’re actually ready for him to come back.
Now, don’t be discouraged. We will delve into some of the intriguing questions tied to Jesus’ return. Next week, we’ll look at three main viewpoints that Christians have historically held regarding the return of Christ. (And some of you will be surprised by what those three viewpoints are.) But for now, I want you to imagine a scenario. Let’s say you’re a business owner. You have to go away on an important business trip, so you leave your crew with these instructions: “I’ve laid out training programs for each of you, and given you each your specific areas of responsibility. You have plenty to do, so keep working on your assignments until I get back, and then I’ll evaluate everything.”
What are you going to find when you come back? It could go either way, right? As soon as the boss is gone, the people might decide to enjoy unrestrained freedom. Do whatever they feel like. Why not? The boss won’t be back for a long time! Let’s have some fun! We can do our work later. And so you walk in to find pizza boxes scattered everywhere, music blaring, a keg right in the middle of your office, and your employees seeing who can jump from one desk to the next without spilling their drink. They’re all having a great time . . . but nobody’s doing what you asked them to do.
Or you could return to a group of people focused on doing their jobs. Sure, they have some fun now and then, and take a coffee break when they need it. They laugh easily, and even enjoy working together. But their main focus is on the mission you gave them. They’re determined to fulfill their purpose, to be who they were hired to be. As a returning business owner, which group would you want to find?
Now let’s look at it from our perspective. Remember when you were old enough for your parents to leave you at home unattended? (I know it may be harder for some us to think back that far!) Sometimes it felt as if they were going to be out all night. But then, inevitably, you’d see the headlights turning into the driveway. The moment of truth! How did we feel? It all depended on what was going on, right? We could casually greet our parents as they walked in, or we could frantically try to clean up in 30 seconds what took us hours to destroy. Going back to our work scenario, which group of employees do we want to be?
Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth.
There’s a story you may have heard about Francis of Assisi. He was said to be planting a tree one day, and someone asked him, “If you knew the Lord was returning today, what would you do?” Francis stopped, thought about it, and replied, “I’d finish planting this tree.” His life was in such balance that, at that moment, he was doing just what he should be doing.
I don’t know if this story is authentic or not, but it gives us a challenging picture. Our lives should be so well-ordered that if we suddenly learn Jesus is returning today, we won’t have to desperately try to accomplish what we should have been doing all along. Because we’re already busy doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re focused on the mission, keeping the main thing the main thing, being who Jesus called us to be. We’re prepared for the very moment everything in our lives has been anticipating: the return of our Lord.
The return of Christ series:
The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing [see above]