Don’t you wish that Jesus would return? That all the wretchedness and wickedness that we see around us would end, and that God would usher in a time when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9)?
The New Testament authors lived in expectation of the Second Coming that would deliver them “from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). They exhorted Christians to prepare themselves spiritually and to be morally alert, knowing that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2), unexpectedly, without warning beforehand.
Jesus answers the disciples
When Jesus lived, just like today, people were anxious to know when the end would come, so they could “get ready” for it. Jesus’ reply implied that they should stop speculating and always be ready, without being prompted by prior indicators. Look at the accounts in Matthew 24 and Luke 21, where Jesus explains to the disciples that the temple would be destroyed (this happened in a.d. 70). What was Jesus saying? Was he telling us to look for the signs of the times?
“Tell us…what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” the disciples asked Jesus (Matthew 24:3). Believers have had the same question ever since. How will we know when our Master will return? We feel a need to know. But Jesus points us to a different need — the need to be ready regardless of history’s times and seasons.
The answer Jesus gave conjures up (in the biblically literate mind) images of the figurative, frightening four horsemen of the Apocalypse (see Revelation 6:1-8) that have ignited the imagination of prophetic and fantasy writers for centuries. False religion, war, famine, deadly disease — sounds like our age right here and now? Yes, and it was meant to sound that way. It was meant to sound like every age.
Some have said that what Jesus meant is that when we see an intensifying of war, famine, and these other things, it means the end is near. Stimulated by this idea of things getting really bad before Christ returns, fundamentalists have tried, in their zeal for truth, to flesh out what they view as end-time references in prophetic scriptures, especially in the book of Revelation.
But what was Jesus saying? He does not discuss the idea of intensification. He seems, rather, to be discussing the constant condition of humanity. There have been – and always will be until he comes again – many deceivers who come in Christ’s name, as well as “wars and rumors of wars…famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:5-7). Has there been, since Christ came, a generation spared these things? These prophetic words of our Lord find fulfillment in every age of history.
Yet today, as in the past, people look at world events. Some, even some leading Christian opinion makers, claim prophecy is unfolding and the end is near. All of us want the end to be near, and we desire our Savior’s return. However, Jesus said, in guiding our response to what some call the signs of the times: “See to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (verse 6).
Don’t be afraid – be ready
Regrettably, sensational end-time scenario preaching in public campaigns or through television, radio and magazines is often used in the cause of evangelism to frighten people into believing in Jesus Christ. “Shape up or burn up” is an option given. If you don’t give your life to Jesus, you will be a victim in the violence to come. We forget how Jesus himself evangelized — how he brought good news. He evangelized above all through kindness and mercy — look at the examples in the Gospels and see for yourself.
Paul explains: “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” (Romans 2:4). It is God’s goodness (expressed to others through us) that brings people to Jesus. We can be sobered by the concept of divine judgment, but we should not evangelize through threats.
Jesus pointed to the need to make sure we are spiritually ready for his return whenever it will be. That was his emphasis. That is more important than trying to establish something beyond the scope of human knowledge — “no one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (verse 36). Being better informed than the angels instead of being better prepared for his coming is where some people focus. Jesus concentrated on our being prepared.
In reinforcing this point to his disciples, Jesus used various illustrations and analogies. For example, “as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (verse 37). At the time of Noah there were no signs of imminent disaster. No discussion of wars and rumors of wars and famine and disease. No threatening clouds on the horizon, just sudden rain. Relatively peaceful prosperity and moral depravity appeared to have gone hand-in-hand. 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” (Matthew 24:39).
What should we learn from the reference to Noah? To look at the weather patterns and watch for signs that might inform us of a date that the angels are ignorant of? No, it rather reminds us to “be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap” (Luke 21:34).
Jesus also presented the parable of the 10 virgins to hammer this idea home. I understand this better after having lived in Africa for several years. Once I was to perform a wedding at noon, and even by 3 p.m. the bride had not arrived — she had delayed her coming! Some of the attendants fell asleep while waiting. At one point I noticed the bridegroom himself beginning to nod off.
What was the message of Jesus’ story? Lest you fall asleep, have your lamps filled with oil so that your light can shine. Be led by the Holy Spirit. Be generous, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, be Jesus in your community (Matthew 25:31-46). If we do so, that is like giving people food in due season, when they need it. “It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns” (Matthew 24:46).
We know that Christ lives in us (Galatians 2:20), that his kingdom has begun in us and in his church, that there is a gospel work to be done now wherever we live, and that “in this hope we are saved” (Romans 8:24) – in the hope of the return of our Lord.
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise” (2 Peter 3:9). “So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him” (2 Peter 3:14).