|What Makes Us Who We Are (7 of 7)
Waiting for Christís Return
July 25, 1999 / 1 Thess. 4:13-18
Eschatology ó what one believes about the second coming of Christ ó is an important topic in Christian thought. But I am less interested right now in its abstract theological significance than in its practical meaning for the church at the dawn of a new millennium on our calendars. As we get closer to 01-01-00, many Bible-believing Christians are thinking about the end-times.
Humility With Our End-Times Interpretations
A good dose of humility would serve all believers well ó especially those who feel compelled to focus their research, teaching, and writing on the return of the Son of Man. Can we not keep his own conclusion on this topic fixed in our minds? Here are Jesusí words on the matter:
"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. . . . Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come" (Matt. 24:36-39, 42; cf. Mark 13:32-37).
Why canít we be content with that? Noah was told in advance that a flood was coming and given instruction as to how to prepare for it. And he preached about it to others and invited them to be part of the same preparation. After they had ignored 120 years of his preaching, God finally ó in his own appointed time ó brought a flood on the Earth.
Our duty today is to proclaim to the world that Jesus is coming again. In the meanwhile, we are to build up the church and invite people into the kingdom reign of the Son of God. In his own appointed time, God will call the world to Judgment ó without anyone having figured out either the "trigger event(s)" for Christís return or the day on which he will return.
Views of His Coming
There are three basic interpretations Bible-believing Christians give to the nature of Christís second coming. All three views affirm that he will return in bodily form to judge the world, but the details of how things will play out at his return ó particularly the nature of the millennium ó are controversial.
Postmillennialists dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with their upbeat and optimistic view of human history. They envisioned a l,000-year golden age of peace and prosperity for the world that could be brought about through the faithful witness and work of the church. At the end of the joyous millennium, Jesus would return. But cruel turns in human history popped the bubble of postmillennialism, and this view has largely faded from the scene now.
Premillennialism takes a far more pessimistic view of human history. It sees the world getting worse and worse until Jesus returns in the midst of a series of catastrophic events to inaugurate a 1,000-year golden age on Planet Earth. Christians will be snatched out of the world in an event called the Rapture. Unbelievers will be left behind to face a seven-year tribulation period during which the Antichrist rules the world, persecutes the Jewish people, and draws the world into the Battle of Armageddon. That battle will climax in the personal return of Jesus to defeat evil and begin a 1,000-year reign from Jerusalem. At the millenniumís end will come the final Judgment and eternal bliss.
Amillennialists such as me donít look for a literal 1,000-year utopian age here on Earth. I interpret the millennium to be that indeterminate period during which the Lord Jesus reigns over his church and in the lives of individual believers, a period that began with his exaltation at Godís right hand at his ascension and will continue until he returns to judge the world. "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Cor. 15:24-26). On this view, the events of Revelation not still future but occurred during the Roman Empire. The power of its persecuting emperors was personified as the Antichrist, and the Battle of Armageddon was its overthrow in history. The only unfulfilled prophecies of the book are from Revelation 20:11 to the end of the book that envision the Judgment and the final destinies of believers and unbelievers.
With my own ground "staked out" for you, I am quick to add that my ground is not a battlefield. Iím not willing to fight any brother or sister over my reading of the end-times texts. I confess that Iím not particularly passionate about the topic simply because I donít think anybodyís salvation depends on a particular interpretation of the second coming, Christís 1,000-year reign, or the Antichristís identity. Who am I to judge any of my Masterís fellow-servants on one or more of these disputed topics? All of us will be enabled to stand before the Lord Jesus in the Final Day by his blood alone and not by our different theories of eschatology! (cf. Rom. 14:4).
The Meaning of His Return
The biblical significance of the second coming of Christ is threefold. And each of these meanings is more practical than abstract, more prosaic than sensational.
First, knowing that Jesus will come again is a warning to be ready. "Be on guard! Be alert!" he said. "You do not know when that time will come. Itís like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch" (Mark 13:33-34).
On one of his expeditions to the Antarctic, the famous explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was forced to leave some of his men on Elephant Island. He promised to come back for them, but severe weather thwarted his first two attempts at rescue. On a much-delayed third effort, he navigated to the island where the hardy souls had been holed up. He was overjoyed to find them all alive. Every man in the group grabbed his gear as soon as Shackleton appeared and boarded the ship. When they were out of the most treacherous waters, the groupís commander asked how it was that each man had been fully prepared to leave at the instant he arrived. He was told that every morning of their harrowing ordeal had started with their leader rolling up his own sleeping bag and shouting, "Get your things together, boys. The boss may come today."
Second, the pending return of our Lord is motivation for our devotion. "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (1 John 3:2-3).
When Bill Clinton or Al Gore comes to Nashville, elaborate plans swing into motion. Advance teams from Washington come here and work with our police department. A motorcade route is chosen, and security is put into place. Then the streets are cleaned. And the auditorium to be used at Vanderbilt University is made immaculate. People who are going to be involved in the conference or ceremonies get coaching about protocol. If someone that important is coming, you make thorough preparation. If our national leaders merit such thorough preparation, certainly the Lord of the universe deserves far more. John the Baptist was his advance man for Jesusí first trip to Planet Earth. Now you and I are supposed to be getting word out about his certain second coming ó and purifying ourselves for his arrival.
Third, the fact that Jesus is coming again is the ground for confidence in the face of whatever is giving you the greatest challenge today. This was Jesusí word to his bewildered disciples when word of his return to the Father caught them off guard: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Fatherís house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am" (John 14:1-3).
Imagine a frightened little girl trapped in the rubble of an apartment building that has collapsed during an earthquake or a crying little boy trapped in a burning house. Then see a loving father frantically reaching that compromised and dangerous place ó at great peril to himself ó and rescuing his child. Finally see the child grasp his neck, cling tightly to it, and whisper, "Daddy! I knew youíd come for me!" That is the bold confidence to which you are entitled in Christ. God has not abandoned you. Your Savior has not gone and forgotten you. In your darkest moment, know that he will come for you ó and hang on.
The fullness of the Kingdom of God is not yet present, but we know the outcome of the conflict. The Lamb of God has been slain but is alive forevermore. Jesus has conquered death and Hades, and our victory is sure. In that advance news of the end, we have been set free. It is time for us to live as free men and women, rejoicing already in a triumph assured to us by our Redeemer.
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