The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

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.

Romans 8:19-23

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.

Luke 21:34-35

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]

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Who should be baptized?

There’s an ancient saying you may have heard, and it expresses an important principle we seek to emphasize in our church:

In essentials—unity
In non-essentials—liberty
In all things—love

This is a healthy principle for any church to follow, but it’s especially appropriate for a church such as ours. Church without Walls is the only English-speaking church in our area. Because of this, we have people attending who come from very different church backgrounds. We don’t want to compromise our commitment to the historic, biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. But we also don’t want to exclude sincere followers of Christ by being overly narrow and dogmatic regarding secondary issues. We want to major in the majors, and minor in the minors. So we don’t form official church positions on non-essential doctrines unless it’s necessary for us to function together as a church body.

I deeply appreciate groups such as the Evangelical Free Church of America who strive to keep their association open to “believers only, but all believers.” Within this fellowship of churches you can find congregations that have differing views on predestination, eternal security, speaking in tongues, the rapture, baptism, etc. It’s not that they view these issues as unimportant; they study and discuss these scriptural teachings often and in depth. But they don’t see these as essential issues over which Christians should divide, nor do they refuse to fellowship with believers of differing views.

We too strive to be as open as we can. Everyone is welcome to attend our church services, and we want any sincere follower of Christ to feel they can be part of our church family. But an individual congregation must sometimes be more definitive about these issues than an association of churches. For instance, a church may welcome Christians who believe in speaking in tongues and those who do not. But each church is going to have to decide how they will handle the issue of speaking in tongues during the church service. They don’t have the freedom to not have a clear stance. When faced with such challenges, we have resolved to not automatically fall back on any particular church tradition; we listen carefully to all traditions, but seek the clear teaching of Scripture as our supreme authority and guide.

The issue of baptism has unfortunately been a divisive one in the history of the Christian church. All church traditions believe in the importance of baptism. (Some are dogmatic about the specific mode of baptism, although our church is not. See What is baptism? for more information.) All church traditions also believe in baptizing new believers in Christ. On this, there is no debate. But some churches baptize infants, and some do not. From time to time, we’re asked, “Will you baptize our baby?” When we explain that, no, we don’t baptize infants, but that we can have a special time when the parents and church dedicate themselves to the care and growth of the child, occasionally the response is a confused, “Why don’t you baptize infants?”

The purpose of this post is not to criticize churches who do baptize infants. It’s not to convince them they’re wrong, or to call into question those Christians who were baptized as babies. This is simply to explain why we don’t baptize infants. Why do churches such as ours not follow this long-standing church tradition?

We don’t find it taught in Scripture
There is no place in the Bible that directly teaches the baptism of infants. If the normal means of people entering the church community is to be baptized when they’re babies, it’s very surprising to see no mention at all of this in Scripture. Think about the incredibly important place the baptism of a child holds in certain church traditions, and then compare this to the silence of the Bible on the subject. Something doesn’t seem to fit, and throughout history many have questioned whether this practice comes from clear biblical teaching or from church traditions.

In the section below, I list passages describing baptism, some of which describe the baptism of whole households. Now, some assume these households would have included infants who, therefore, would have been baptized. The problem is the text doesn’t tell us this. Does every household include babies? Think about all the households around you. How many have infants? We need to be careful not to fall into circular reasoning. We can’t speculate that the households who were baptized in these passages included infants, and then try to use these passages to establish that infants were baptized!

So we don’t find any clear teaching or examples of baptizing infants in Scripture. But there’s an even more important reason why we don’t see the baptizing of babies in these passages.

Baptism always follows faith
Last week, we explored the significance of baptism in first century, Jewish culture (What is baptism?). We learned that baptism was a common way of publicly declaring one’s conversion to a new faith. Even with just this basic understanding, we see that infant baptism doesn’t fit the concept. Converting is something one must do for oneself; you can’t convert for someone else. An infant can’t convert.

Consistently in the Scriptures, the people who are baptized are the ones who believe:

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.

Acts 2:41

But now the people believed Philip’s message of Good News concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. As a result, many men and women were baptized.

Acts 8:12

Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. . . . Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. . . . and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.

Acts 16:30-34

Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, and everyone in his household believed in the Lord. Many others in Corinth also heard Paul, became believers, and were baptized.

Acts 18:8

Now, again, all Christian traditions practice the baptizing of new believers. But what we need to see is that it’s not just that believers are baptized in Scripture, but that these are the only people we see being baptized in Scripture. Over and over again, baptism is tied to belief. So not only is this the common sense understanding of the practice from its historical context, but it’s also the consistent biblical teaching. For these reasons, we practice what is known as “believer’s baptism”—we only baptize people who can testify to their personal faith in Christ.

The church is made up of believers
The biblical teaching of believer’s baptism is closely connected with the biblical teaching of a believers’ church. The differing traditions not only have a different understanding of baptism, but of the church community. Some Christian traditions see much more continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament. They feel there is little difference between the Old Covenant people of God and the New Covenant people of God. (To read more on the differences between these covenants, see Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament Law.)

The Old Covenant people of God included all the physical descendants of Israel. The sign of becoming part of this covenant people was circumcision. Every male infant was circumcised, and therefore became part of the covenant community. But while every physical descendant was part of the covenant community, not every Israelite was in true covenant relationship with God. Paul says in Romans 9:6 that “not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people.” So we have the entire covenant people—of whom all the male children bear the sign of the covenant; but we also have a remnant, a people within a people, the true covenant believers and followers of God.

Now, we can see baptism as, in some ways, analogous to circumcision. It’s a physical sign that someone is entering the New Covenant people of God. But then some assume that the New Covenant community of God works the same way as the Old Covenant community. They believe there are large numbers of people who are part of the New Covenant community, but that only a remnant within this covenant people are truly saved—a church within the church.

The problem with this is, again, we don’t see it anywhere in Scripture. We don’t see anywhere in the Bible where the New Testament church includes unbelievers. The Old Covenant was established with a specific nation, Israel, but the New Covenant is not. Where people were physically born into the nation of Israel, we don’t find in Scripture where anyone can be physically born into the New Covenant community of God’s people. Quite the contrary, to become part of the New Covenant community of Christ requires a new spiritual birth. We can’t find in the New Testament any distinction between members of the church and members of the body of Christ. The New Covenant community of God is the church, and the church is made up only of believers.

With no animosity intended toward other sincere believers, we must conclude that this idea of infant baptism comes from a confusion of the New Covenant with the Old. It rests more on tradition than it does the clear teaching of Scripture.

It’s interesting that throughout the Old Testament (and even a few times in the New) people are distinguished as either the “circumcised” or the “uncircumcised”—meaning those who were part of the Old Covenant people of God or those who were not. Corresponding to this, church traditions that baptize infants have historically distinguished between the “baptized” (those in the covenant community) and the “unbaptized” (those who are not). But Scripture never distinguishes people as the baptized or unbaptized. Not even once. Instead, over and over again in the New Testament, people are described as either believers or unbelievers.

We see baptism as beautifully symbolizing the spiritual reality of our salvation. We also understand it to be a public declaration to everyone of our faith in God. It is a sign that one has entered the covenant community of God—the church; but one must be spiritually reborn to be part of this covenant community. This covenant community includes only those who have thus been regenerated. So baptism is only appropriate for people who place their faith in Christ and commit to following him. Baptism is for believers.

I love Keith Green’s old saying: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” In a similar sense, I would say

If you baptize someone who hasn’t placed their faith in Christ,
all you have is a soggy unbeliever.

“But what if I was baptized as an infant?” Churches who baptize infants also take their children through some form of confirmation. The culmination of this process is usually a time when they stand before the congregation, publicly declaring to all their faith in Christ. For some this is merely a religious ritual, a traditional rite of passage; but for others this is deeply meaningful, a profound, public expression of faith and commitment. Some Christians eventually feel the need to be baptized because they have never truly made a personal, public declaration of their faith, while others don’t feel this need because they have made such a public declaration. “Let each be convinced in their own mind.”

Baptism is meant for those who place their faith in Christ, but is it necessary for salvation? We’ll tackle this question next week.

Baptism series:

What is baptism?

Who should be baptized? [see above]

Do we have to be baptized to be saved?

Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?

UnknownMost bloggers establish some ground-rules for those who want to participate in the discussion. And that’s a good idea, especially considering the tone of much of what’s online today. Some of the rules are obvious to most of us (I hope). If you use any vulgar or obscene language, or if you insult other commenters, your comments will be deleted. But, as Christians, I think we’re called to a higher standard than just not being obscene or insulting.

John F. Kennedy once observed that “too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Unfortunately, this is all too true today, even among evangelical Christians. It’s human nature to polarize and divide over issues. We see this polarization running rampant in our political system and, sadly, we frequently see it at work in the church as well.

As those who worship the one who not only exemplifies truth but, in some profound way, is truth, we should be expected to carefully examine each issue, to ensure that we truly understand differing viewpoints, and to know the underlying reasons for any disagreements. However, people―Christians included―have a tendency to listen to only one perspective. Many receive all of their information from “their side” and rarely give their opponents a fair chance to explain their views. Those who are politically liberal tend to listen to liberals. And usually the only time they hear conservative viewpoints is when they hear other liberals describe what “those conservatives” believe. Of course, if you’re not liberal, don’t get smug just yet . . . because most conservatives do the very same thing.

This way of “being informed” creeps into the body of Christ and affects how we handle controversial issues. We often end up talking past each other without making any impact because we don’t really understand where the other side is coming from. We haven’t learned some important lessons taught in the book of Proverbs: “The first to speak in court sounds right―until the cross-examination begins” (Proverbs 18:17), and “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish” (Proverbs 18:13).

The manner in which we sometimes express our disagreements also greatly concerns me. When researching differing viewpoints online, there are times when I’m dismayed by the unloving and unchristian animosity displayed toward opponents who are brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t debate, and debate vigorously. But who are we to impugn the motives and intentions of fellow believers? Can we see the heart? Are we qualified to judge it? Sometimes the interaction becomes so mean-spirited and vitriolic that I have to check and make sure that it’s actually spewing from a “Christian” site. Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

So how should we handle controversy in the church? Here are a few suggestions (and expectations for this blog):

1. Begin with an attitude of love

From what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13, we can have all of our doctrinal t’s crossed and i’s dotted, but if we don’t have love it doesn’t amount to much of anything. This doesn’t mean that truth is optional. Speaking the truth is imperative, but we must speak the truth “in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Remember when the lawyer asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest? Jesus gave him two commandments, both having to do with love. Love God; love each other. He said that all of the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus also said that the defining characteristic of his people would be the love they have for one another (John 13:35). If we were truly loving toward each other in our debates, do you think this might eliminate much of the hostility? If the world saw a church where Christians consistently showed love for each other―even when they strongly disagreed―could that maybe have an impact on people looking for a faith that’s real? one that really makes a difference in people’s lives?

2. Watch out for pride

Ego creeps in so easily! It begins to be all about my views, our side, what we believe. Us vs them. Once we’re looking at an issue this way, it becomes very difficult to fairly listen to the “other side.” We see this in politics all the time. We lionize our leaders and demonize theirs. We try to justify whatever our party does, no matter how despicable, and when the opposing party does something commendable we pick it apart. Why? Because we have to be right; we have to win! It becomes a matter of pride. Before we look at the actual issue, we need to acknowledge: it’s not about me. It’s not about what will make me look good. It’s not about helping my side win. Instead, our focus needs to be: What is true? (Whether I like it or not.) We need to sacrifice our egos. Are you willing to admit it when you’re wrong?

(Notice that before we’ve examined any specific issue, we’ve examined our own attitudes. If we entered into discussion and debate with right hearts―before God and toward each other―it would alleviate most of the rancor in our disagreements.)

3. Seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

What this doesn’t mean is checking out an issue until I’ve amassed enough catchy points to win the argument! Remember, it’s not about winning arguments. It’s not about defending my position. It’s about actually understanding an issue and discovering what is really true. Seeking the truth also doesn’t mean listening only to my side’s explanations of the views of our opponents. It means having the courtesy to truly listen to opposing viewpoints and fairly consider them. It’s not compromising the truth to give another person a fair hearing. You don’t have to be convinced . . . but are you willing to be? Remember the old saying: If you never have to change your mind, you’re probably not using it! Are you so focused on the truth that you’re willing to change even a long-held position? Which is more important to you: truly being right, or having everyone think you’re right?

4. Be fair with your opponent

If it’s not all about winning, this shouldn’t be such a problem. But too often it is. If you’ve read many books on Calvinism, you’ve probably found descriptions of what Arminians believe that no Arminian would ever recognize as their own! And Calvinists can make the same complaint. If we are explaining the position of our opponents, they should be able to listen to us and say, “Well put! That’s how I would explain it too.” We need to be scrupulously fair in the way we describe the beliefs of others. Do you like to be misrepresented? Do you enjoy it when you’re falsely accused of motives you don’t have and beliefs you don’t hold? Then let’s make sure we don’t do that to others. Express your opponents’ views accurately and fairly.

5. Try to persuade instead of winning arguments

If you’re truly convinced that your brother or sister is wrong, if you’re concerned that this error is potentially harmful to them, and if you have a loving attitude toward this person, how will you interact with them? By bombastically hitting them with every argument within reach and overpowering them with your array of facts and bulletproof logic? By hounding them until they’re forced to concede that they’re wrong? Is this really the way to change someone’s heart and mind? Perhaps we might be more effective if we adopt a more scriptural style of interaction:

A servant of the Lord must not quarrel, but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change these people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth.

2 Timothy 2:24-25

6. Distinguish between essential truths and non-essential viewpoints

We must not compromise the essential truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But there are a number of secondary issues that we routinely fight about that are not worthy of dividing over. The manner of Christ’s return is a wonderful, blessed hope and a fascinating topic for discussion. But it’s a little silly for us to be so dogmatic over something of which we are still so ignorant. Some issues require a firm, unyielding stand; others invite ongoing consideration, discussion and illumination. We should seek the wisdom to appropriately distinguish between them.

7. Realize that you won’t convince everyone . . . and that’s okay

It’s not our responsibility to change people’s hearts. We communicate the truth, the Holy Spirit works in their hearts, and they eventually either respond or resist. When people don’t come around to our way of thinking right away, it doesn’t mean that we’ve failed or that they are automatically rejecting God. We can’t control this process or the timing. Even if some Christians don’t agree with you, they’re still your brothers and sisters, and you still need to treat them with love and respect. And we just might be the ones who need to reconsider our viewpoints! Keep these passages in mind:

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
Romans 12:18

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters:
You must all be quick to listen,
slow to speak,
and slow to get angry.
Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.
James 1:19-20

I think that sums it up quite well.