From the earliest days, Christians have asked “When is Christ coming back?” sometimes coming up with specific answers. Get on the internet and do a search on “predictions of Christ’s return” and you’ll see abundant evidence of 2000 years of getting it wrong. Yet all this failure has done nothing to slow down the predictions. As John Wesley Fellow Craig Hill puts it, predictions of the end of the world are “as malleable as Playdough and resilient as cockroaches” (In God’s Time [Eerdmans, 2002], 1). Part of the reason why the prediction game has been played by so many people is that the Bible does speak of “signs of the times,” things that will prefigure and/or precede Jesus’s return. Yet, as Mark recounts, Jesus himself, when asked about his coming and the time of the end, said, “Concerning that day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). In the following verses, he repeatedly urges his disciples to be ready and watchful at all times. In the book of Acts, after his resurrection and before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told the disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (1:7). It isn’t hard to understand why knowing the time of his return might not be a good thing. Given human nature, people might choose to wait until the last moment to “make things right with God.” Thus, playing the “predict the date of Christ’s return” game has several strikes against it. First, every single prediction made throughout history has proven wrong. Second, Christ strongly discouraged it. Third, psychologically and spiritually, it might not be good for us. Most importantly, focusing on the when of Christ’s return has served to distract the church from other more important questions about Jesus’s second coming.
One of those questions is: “What is Christ coming back to do?” Simply stated, he’s coming back to finish what he started, namely, the kingdom of God. Christians live in a time between the first and second comings of Christ. This life between the times has often been described as the “already, not yet” kingdom. God’s kingdom has already broken into our world in Christ’s advent 2000 years ago. When Jesus forgave sins, reconciled people with God and with each other, healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead, these were all tangible demonstrations that God’s kingdom had in fact come. God’s power was unleased on the world through the saving, transformative work of Jesus Christ. After Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jesus returned to the Father, but in Acts 2, during the festival of Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to live and dwell among his people and to empower them to spread the good news of the gospel throughout the world.
God’s kingdom has been present and active ever since. We see it in the ways God is at work in individual lives, in the ministry of the church, and in the events of the world. We see people’s lives radically changed by coming to know Christ. We see God’s kingdom at work in radical acts of mercy and kindness. This is the “already” of the “already, not yet.”
But the “not yet” part stresses that God’s kingdom is not here in its fullness. You don’t have to watch the news for long to realize that evil is alive and well. Bad things happen to good people. Injustice abounds. Sickness and disease still destroy people’s health, sometimes despite our prayers. Dissension, disunity, greed, abuse, racial strife, and a host of other social evils are ongoing indications that all is not as it should be. God’s kingdom is “not yet” here in its fullness. Jesus is coming back to bring God’s kingdom in its fullness and to set things right.
Part of what’s involved in setting things right is judgment. As the Apostles’ Creed states, “He is coming to judge the living and the dead.” This creedal statement is based on numerous passages that speak of Christ’s role as Judge. Jesus’s second coming will be a day of reckoning, where everyone’s works will be exposed and God will judge each person in light of what he or she has done with Christ and for others. For those who have rejected Christ and his kingdom, his coming will be something to fear, a day of wrath. 2 Thessalonians speaks of God’s punishment on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:8). When Christ comes as judge, he will, in the words of Rev 11:18, “destroy the destroyers of the earth.” The devil and all those who follow or serve him will spend eternity separated from God. Even death itself, which Paul describes as the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26), will be defeated.
Yet for those who belong to Christ, the return of Christ will be the completion of their salvation and the fulfillment of every hope and longing. The righteous will be rewarded for their faithfulness. The downtrodden will be lifted up. Every tear will be wiped away. Every wrong will be made right. For the church, it will be the final and full revelation of the Lord in all his glory, where we will see him as he really is (1 John 3:2). From that point onward the children of God “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:17). The righteous will be able to embrace in bodily form the one who died for them and will be able to kiss the wounds that brought salvation and healing. The earth itself will be renewed and creation will be what God intended it to be. A new heaven and new earth will be the home of those who will live in the presence of God forever.
Another important question concerning the second coming is: “How do we live in light of his coming?” In 2 Pet 3:10, Peter notes that all of the works done on earth will be exposed at Christ’s coming. In light of this, he asks, “What sort of people ought you to be?” His answer is crystal clear – lives of holiness and godliness (3:11). To his struggling church in Thessalonica, Paul prays that the Lord make the church members increase in love for one another so that their hearts may be blameless at the coming of the Lord. Many of Jesus’s parables teach the lesson of expectant waiting on, and faithful doing in light of, his return. In Matt 25:1-13, Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins paints a vivid contrast between those wise virgins who are ready to meet the bridegroom and those foolish virgins who aren’t and are subsequently turned away from the wedding feast. Even more challenging are Jesus’s words just a few verses later, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where how one has treated the “least of these” determines one’s destiny when Christ returns. Those who provided food, water, clothing, greeting, or comfort inherit the kingdom while those who did not are told to depart from Christ into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” For all NT writers the expectation of Christ’s second coming isn’t “pie in the sky by and by,” nor some ivory tower abstract teaching, but a life-and-death matter, an ethical imperative to live life in the present in light of Christ’s future coming.
We are called to be “Maranatha people.” Maranatha is an Aramaic expression found in 1 Cor 16:22 that we might translate with the phrase “Our Lord, come.” But “Maranatha” is not just a word. It is an expectation, a longing, a prayer, a posture. Maranatha people take the Lord’s words seriously when he says, “watch and wait,” and “love your neighbor.” Maranatha people desire to live blameless, holy, other-orientated lives, and to be found faithful whenever the Lord returns. Maranatha people are those who, in the words of Peter, “set their hope fully on the grace that will be brought to them at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13) and who will not, in the words of 1 John, “shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28). In the penultimate verse of the Bible we hear the Lord say, “Yes, I’m coming soon,” to which the appropriate response is “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).