I grew up with some very mixed-up ideas about the Second Coming. I hope I have a clearer understanding of the subject than I had then. Of course, I still have lots of unanswered questions about the great event. But the question I ask myself more than any other is this: ‘how much do I look forward to the return of Christ? How much do I want him to come again?’
The New Testament takes it for granted that believers will long for the return of Christ. The Christians in Thessalonica had only been believers a short time when Paul wrote his first letter to them. But already people throughout Greece were commenting on what had happened to them, ‘..they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ESV).
Pagan people were talking about these Christians, their strange behaviour, their strange beliefs. And one of the things that struck them most forcibly was that these Christians were all waiting for God’s Son from heaven. I wonder whether our unbelieving friends would say that about us?
When Paul wrote to the Philippian believers, he could say, ‘our citizenship is in heaven and from there, we are waiting for a Saviour…’ (Philippians 3:20).
When he wrote to Timothy he could simply describe Christians as ‘all those who have loved his appearing’ (2 Timothy 4:8). In his letter to Titus, he pictures believers ‘waiting for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2:13).
As he came to the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, he used a one word Aramaic prayer: ‘Maranatha!’ – ‘Our Lord, come!’ The Corinthian church was in Greece, but Paul knew that all the members of the church would understand that Aramaic word. Why? Because it was a prayer they used constantly. New Testament believers prayed for the coming of Christ.
Peter in his first letter (1 Peter 1:3-7) takes it for granted that his readers, however painful their trials on earth, are still rejoicing at the thought of all the blessings that will be theirs when Christ returns, when their faith ‘will be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the appearing of Jesus Christ’. These scattered believers would always be ‘strangers in the world’ (v.1) looking forward to the better world that would be ushered in by the return of Jesus.
And in his second letter, Peter talks of Christians ‘..waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God… according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11-13 ESV).
And how does the Bible end? Almost the last words are these: ‘He who bears witness to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon”. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22:20).
That is normal New Testament Christianity. The Christians we read about in the New Testament were waiting for Christ’s return. They loved the thought of Christ’s return, they rejoiced in Christ’s return, they prayed for Christ’s return.
I wonder how many normal Christians you know – Christians who are normal by New Testament standards, who evidently have this this heart-felt desire for the return of Christ? I don’t find it in myself. I don’t see it in many others.
Yes, I still meet some believers (though not as many as I used to) who are fascinated by the signs of the times – the things that may or may not happen before Christ returns. They want to talk about the place of Israel in the end-times, the role of the European Union, the identity of the antiChrist and so on. They’re gripped by these things. But I meet very few believers who seem gripped by the thought of Christ himself descending from the skies. It’s very rarely that I meet a believer who’s excited by the things that the return of Christ will bring:- the final defeat of evil; the resurrection of the dead; the Day of Judgment; the wedding of Christ and his people; the everlasting joy that we will experience in the new heaven and new earth. It’s very rarely I hear a believer pray, ‘Come Lord Jesus!’
So why are normal believers so rare? Let me suggest some reasons.
First, we may be reacting against the cranky obsession with prophecy that has marked many believers in the past – including some of us. We’ve been put off by the silliness of so much Christian talk about the end-times. Again and again Christians have announced that Jesus would come in their lifetime: that this would be the last generation. I remember a confident young man explaining why the three families in the church he attended all had girls but no boys. It was because these girls would never need to look for husbands. Christ would return before they had grown to adulthood! Some Christians have been reckless enough to give specific dates which they’ve calculated from the Bible. Some have pointed to particular events and used them as signs that we’re into the final run-up. I was told as a child that Jesus must return within forty years of the re-establishing of the State of Israel. Well, 1988 came and went. Some have pointed to specific politicians and world leaders and said ‘this man is the Antichrist, so we know that ours is the last generation’. And then the leader has died or fallen from power, and they’re left with egg on their faces.
We’re embarrassed that these people call themselves evangelical Christians and then misuse the Bible so grossly. We see how often their emphasis on prophecy leads them into bizarre decisions and unbalanced living. And we decide we want nothing to do with it. We think that the best way to avoid crankiness is to push out of our minds the thought that Christ could return soon. We tell ourselves that it’s best just to get on with the work that needs to be done today, and forget the second coming.
Overreaction is always a danger in the Christian life. We see some believers going to extremes so we swing to the opposite extreme. And then we assume that we’ve now got the balance right. The fact is that according to the New Testament no Christian can fulfil his duties effectively here in this world without the motivation of Christ’s second coming. A Christian who goes through his life without looking for Christ’s return is an unbalanced Christian.
Secondly, we in the UK live in an extraordinarily wealthy and comfortable society. There’s never been a generation in history that’s had such an easy, pain-free life. Many of us live through much of our life without experiencing any great physical or emotional trauma. Few of us experience the extended physical pain that was part of life before the introduction of modern anaesthetics. Few of us know what real hunger means. Few of us bury one child after another. And few of us face life-threatening persecution. It’s many years since UK believers have had to face the sort of persecution that believers in many parts of the world take for granted. So why should we long for this world to come to an end? Why should we long for Christ to return? Many of us have already got just about everything we want: we’re satisfied! The good things we’ve already got here seem more real to us than any amount of joys that may be on offer in another world.
New Testament believers faced pain in so many ways. And especially they faced constant persecution. So when they were told that Jesus would come again and rescue them from this world, it seemed to them the best news that they’d ever heard! If we were told that Christ was to return next week, how excited, how joyful would we feel? Have we invested too heavily in this world and all it has to offer?
Thirdly, I wonder if we’re intimidated by the godless society around us and the way it ridicules any talk of Christ’s coming and the end of the world. The Christian preaching the coming of Christ is a figure for cartoonists to point fun at. He’s wearing a sandwich board with the slogan ‘The end is nigh’ or ‘Prepare to meet thy God’. He’s probably got a long beard like Moses and is wearing sandals. Perhaps we feel that if we talk about the return of Christ, we’re giving the sceptics an opportunity to sneer.
Or worse, we fear that if we focus on the return of Christ, we’ll give the impression that we’re part of a sinister and fanatical cult. After all, most of the cults major on end-time prophecies. Every Jehovah’s Witness who arrives on our doorstep wants to talk about Armageddon and Paradise on Earth. Look up Jim Jones on the internet. He manipulated his followers with prophecies about the end of the world and then persuaded them all to commit suicide.
Godless people around us view any talk of Christ’s return as weird, crazy, fanatical. And they tell us that it’s this world that matters. We’re told constantly that if we want to win people’s respect we’ve got to show them that Christianity is relevant in the here and now. The world will tolerate us if we get involved in helping the poor, building hospitals, improving society. But talk about the world to come, and the world will close its ears.
I wonder if we’ve been affected by that propaganda. It’s clear that Peter wasn’t. It’s clear from his second letter that worldly-minded people were already ridiculing the idea that Jesus would come again (2 Peter 3:3-4). But it didn’t stop him from urging believers to take this glorious truth seriously.
Paul didn’t hesitate to speak to the self-satisfied intellectuals of Athens about the return of Christ. ‘God has appointed a day when he will judge the world in righteousness by the man he has ordained…’ (Acts 17:31). Well some of the clever people laughed. But that didn’t stop Paul preaching that Christ will return. The doctrine was just too important for him to stop making it known.
Fourthly, I suspect that many of us have a very nebulous doctrine of the world to come. The reason we are supposed to look forward to the coming of Christ isn’t just for its own sake; it’s because of the wonderful new world that will begin when Christ comes. But most Christians have only got the vaguest idea of what that world will be like. They can’t look forward to it because they can’t imagine it. An eternity spent playing harps with a huge crowd around the throne? Well they know that that’s a picture, but they’ve no idea what it’s a picture of. They know we’ll have resurrection bodies but what are these bodies for? If we have hands in that world, what will we use our hands for? Here in this world we’ve got bricklaying and gardening and architecture and music-making and computer programming… what’s there to do in that world? I’m afraid for many Christians all they feel about the world to come is that it’s a world where all the pleasures they’ve experienced here – marriage, eating, hobbies, their job – has been taken away, and nothing solid has been put in their place.
I suppose I’ve got to hold preachers – including myself – to blame if that’s so. Perhaps we haven’t spent enough time explaining the wonderful pictures of which the Bible is full. Peter tells us that the two great themes of the Old Testament prophets were ‘the sufferings of Messiah and the glories that would follow’ (1 Peter 1:11). So as a preacher, I should be ransacking Old as well as New Testament, unpacking its visions of the eternal glories. Have I preached in that way to my congregation – and to myself – as I should?
But it can’t just be the fault of the preachers can it? How much time do you spend meditating, say, on those wonderful closing chapters of Revelation, with their picture of the city where the Lamb dwells among his people? How often do you pray that God will open your heart to understand the unimaginable joys that lie ahead? Paul prayed for the Ephesian Christians that the ‘eyes of your hearts might be enlightened, that you might know what is the hope to which he has called you, what the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…’ (Ephesians 1:18). Do you pray that for yourself and for the fellow-believers with whom you worship week by week?
And then fifthly. Isn’t the ultimate problem simply this: that we – I – don’t love Christ as I should? In the end it all comes down to that. If I loved Jesus Christ with all my heart, I would be longing to see him. I wouldn’t be fascinated by sensational events that may or may not lead to the big day. I wouldn’t ever feel at home in this world, where I’m separated from him. I wouldn’t be put off by the thought of Judgment Day and the secrets of my life that will be exposed then. Even my concern for loved ones who are unconverted would come second to this: ‘I want to see him! I want to be with him!’
Jesus said to his first disciples, ‘I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be always…’ (John 14:3). Whatever else the Second Coming means, it means that we shall be with Him! And for the Christian who loves him, that is the greatest joy we can imagine.
So the question I really need to ask myself is not, ‘Why don’t I long more for the Second Coming?’ It’s ‘Why don’t I love Christ more?’ Perhaps we all need to ask ourselves that question.
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk