“There are two days in my calendar: this day and that day,” quipped Martin Luther in reference to Christ’s second coming. We have come a long way since Luther’s statement, with most believers erring dramatically in one of two directions.
Second coming sensationalists are the most egregious, and widely lamented, offenders. They predict the timing of Jesus’ return; but, of course, they do so in vain. Jesus stated no man knows the day or hour of his return. The most infamous prognosticator in recent years has been Harold Camping, who on multiple occasions has predicted the specific date of Jesus’ return, thus embarrassing himself—and the name of Christ—before a watching world.
As irresponsible as Camping and his ilk are, one can argue the greater danger facing the church is not hyper-expectancy about Jesus’ return, but a slumbering church that acts as though Jesus isn’t returning at all. This seems especially to be the case in the year 2013. Twenty years ago, sermons and literature on the second coming were plentiful, but such interest seems to have gone the way of the el Camino car or the waterbed, an out of style fad from a previous generation.
This ought not be the case, for evangelicals are a second coming people. Though we hold differing positions on both the millennium and on the tribulation, we are unified on the literal and soon-coming return of Christ. For Christians, though, the most important questions to ask are not if Jesus will return—that is settled—and not when he will return, that is unknowable. The most helpful question to ask is: “So what?”
Jesus’ second coming is not an abstract doctrine with no bearing on the Christian life. Rather, the New Testament refers to Jesus’ return with applicability. The Bible is replete with references to Jesus’ second coming. These passages come not as an eschatological data dump, but as a forthcoming event that is to shape a Christian’s life. The Pauline corpus speaks with special relevance. Paul frequently references, and even elaborates on, the timing and circumstances of Christ’s return. In studying Paul’s many references to the second coming, one finds that the Apostle gives special emphasis not only to Jesus’ return, but to the church’s posture as the bride in waiting. What Jesus will do and when he will do it are not unimportant considerations, but they are not the most urgent. The most pressing consideration for believers is how we should live in light of his impending return.
An Expectant Hope
In Titus 2:13, Paul describes Jesus’ second coming as the church’s “blessed hope.” For most Christians throughout church history, expecting the second coming was more than the hope of moving from a good life to a more perfect eternal state. Rather, it was a yearning for deliverance from pestilence and war, a yearning for deliverance from death and destruction, and a yearning for deliverance from poverty and persecution, or even deliverance from martyrdom.
In the Western world, Christianity in the 21st century finds most believers enjoying life in relative comfort. Religious freedom, modern medicine, bourgeois lifestyle, and other modern-day conveniences have proven to bring not only earthly comfort but also spiritual complacency. This comfort often diminishes our yearning for Jesus’ return.
This complacency is frequently found in the local church as well. Many congregations act as though Christ’s return would interrupt their building program or contravene their long-range strategic plan. Too many young adults seem content for material pursuit, while senior adults are too busy enjoying retirement to long for Christ’s return. I sense that for many Christians today, heaven is too distant, eternity too abstract, and Jesus’ return too theoretical. In complete contrast, we need to live life on a first-century footing, yearning for something so beautiful and eternally satisfying—to see Jesus and be made like him—that it eclipses and transcends all other longings and expectations.
A Sanctified Life
In expounding upon Jesus’ return, Paul frequently references the church’s need to prepare individual’s lives to see Jesus. In fact, Paul calls the church to live as “sons of light and sons of the day, not as of the night or of darkness” (I Thessalonians 5:5), in anticipation of Jesus’ return. Truth be known, if our longing is not right, our living will not be right either.
Few things focus one’s life like impending judgment. This is why Jonathan Edwards resolved “never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trumpet” (Resolutions of a Saintly Scholar). Therefore, it is urgent that we recover a robust and expectant eschatology. As we do, we will find that a healthy anticipation of Jesus’ return infuses the Christian life with focus and urgency, proving to accelerate growth in the spiritual disciplines.
Cause and effect can be difficult to disentangle, but in the New Testament there is a clear correlation between anticipating Christ’s return and living a more sanctified Christian life. Expecting to meet Jesus occurs with a sober intention to purify one’s life, and the call to purify one’s life occurs in concert with anticipating Jesus’ return. This is why one preacher famously said we should live as though “Christ died yesterday, rose from the grave today, and is coming back tomorrow.”
A Renewed Witness
The more Christians contemplate Jesus’ return—and the final judgment associated with it—the more we will be renewed in our evangelistic witness. This is rooted in the gospel and the Great Commission itself. The lost urgently need to hear of Christ before they meet him. After all, as Peter reminds us, God has delayed Christ’s return and final judgment to allow time for a greater harvest of souls. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
The second coming of Jesus and the renewal of our personal witness is precisely where the inerrancy of Scripture and the exclusivity of the gospel intersect. To embrace the total truthfulness of God’s Word—including the soon-coming return of Christ and the corresponding truth that all must repent and believe in Jesus to be saved—should propel us into a renewed fervor for the Great Commission. The Christian who confesses Jesus is coming and that salvation is found only in his name must be dynamic, not static, in his witness.
The church’s attention to Jesus’ return seems to be seasonal, with interest rising and falling based upon a host of issues, most especially current geo-political events. The need of the hour is not for more end-times speculation or an unhealthy preoccupation with the sequence of eschatological events. Such interests should give way to an eschatological anticipation that impacts how we live the Christian life until he returns.
Perhaps there should be a touch of Harold Camping in us all: hoping, yearning, and even expecting Jesus’ return. Until he comes, we find ourselves with the saints of the ages, longing for the day when the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and praying with the saints of the ages, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of SBC Life.