May 15, 1994

THE SECOND COMING

“So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Matthew 24:44

Thoughts of the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world seem to stir people up in many different ways.

Maniacs like David Koresh and Jim Jones pretended to have messianic powers, they whipped their followers into a frenzy by pretending to have the authority to bring the world to an end, but the world ended only for themselves and their deluded followers who perished in Jonestown and Waco.

Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church, Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant, and others would-be messiahs, have not led their followers to such violence (at least not yet) but they claim godlike powers, they exercise absolute control over their people, and they claim to have a vital role in moving the world to its last and decisive stage.

But false messiahs and strange cults aren’t the only ones speculating about the Second Coming.  Some people who firmly believe in Jesus Christ and in many of the historic teachings of the Christian church want to pinpoint a date for Jesus’ return or to show how current political events match biblical prophecies.

Every so often a date-setter comes along.  He claims to have uncovered clues in the Bible that everyone else overlooked.  For the first time, he says, it has become clear when the Lord is coming back.  So far, every date-setter has turned out to be wrong, but that doesn’t stop others from setting yet another date.  Hardly have one date setter’s failed predictions been reported in the news, hardly have his books been removed from the bookstore shelves, and already someone else is offering a new prediction.  Once again, the new date-setter claims to see clues that everyone else overlooked, clues which show when Jesus is really coming back.  Then he turns out to be wrong, and those who believed him are disappointed.  But before long, still, another person comes along with still another prediction.  And so it goes.  Even deeply sincere Christians (who ought to know better) can’t always shake the urge to set a date for the Second Coming.

And then there are those who don’t fix a precise date, but who offer instead a blow-by-blow description of the precise sequence of events associated with the Second Coming.  The Bible is treated as a jigsaw puzzle, with prophetic pieces scattered throughout its pages.  In the hands of an expert, these pieces can be interlocked to form a clear picture.  Pluck a sentence from Ezekiel, a number from Daniel, a paragraph from Revelation, a phrase from one of Jesus’ sermons, a word from Thessalonians–take a variety of pieces from very different parts of the Bible, fit them all together, and you supposedly have a clear picture of how everything will be at the end.

These writers specialize in matching the symbols of prophetic visions to exact political events in the world today.  Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth, which he wrote back in the 70s, sold millions upon millions of copies, and Lindsey has been joined by countless other books and videos which fit much the same pattern.  Somehow, the various heads and horns of symbolic beasts, and obscure entities like Gog and Magog and Rosh mentioned in mysterious visions, are alleged to clearly fit today’s news or to predict just as clearly tomorrow’s headlines.  The nation of Israel is a big part of all the speculation, but many other nations fit into the puzzle as well. One piece represents Russia, another China, still another points to Saddam Hussein and Iraq, something else matches the European Economic Community or the United Nations, and so forth.

It just so happens that many of the “experts” in prophecy are Americans, and by some strange coincidence, any country that is at odds with the United States at the time a particular prophecy book is being written ends up being identified as an evil power prophesied for the last times.

Of course, whenever the political situation takes an unexpected turn, new books need to be written and new videos need to be produced.  With the end of the cold war, and with the prospect of peace between Jews and Arabs, some modern prophets of Armageddon seem almost disappointed.  The scenario and timetable they predicted hasn’t come out quite the way they thought it would.  However, their disappointment won’t last long.  As soon as the next political crisis comes along, they will again be scurrying to match the latest headlines with a new and revised version of biblical predictions.

This constant stream of revised and updated prophecy books may be good for the religious publishing industry, but it often leaves Christians trying to match political events with biblical symbols rather than trying to live right now as citizens of the Kingdom of God.  And as each new scenario is discredited by changes in the world situation, it leaves those who aren’t Christians more skeptical than ever about the Second Coming.

Maybe you’re a person who tends to scoff at the idea of the Second Coming.  If so, I hope you’ll think again.  Just because there are false messiahs who form deceptive and dangerous cults is no proof that there’s not a real Messiah.  Just because date-setters make inaccurate predictions of when Christ will return doesn’t mean he isn’t coming back at the time appointed by God.  And just because the jigsaw puzzle approach to prophecy and current events leads to all sorts of mistakes doesn’t mean this world isn’t going to end according to God’s plan.

God tells us about the Second Coming, not so we can calculate exactly when and how it’s all going to happen, but so that we will get ready.  Our response shouldn’t be speculation.  It should be preparation.  Jesus said, “So you also must be ready because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

The Second Coming of Christ is an event so astonishing that some people can’t imagine it will really happen.  At the opposite extreme, there are people who spend so much time imagining it that their imaginations run wild:  they read every new event in the world around them as a sign that the end is at hand.  Some are even gullible enough to swallow the claims of false messiahs.  In order to avoid these errors and focus our thoughts on the Second Coming in a way that leads to preparation rather than just speculation, we need to keep three main facts in mind:  the Second Coming will be public, it will be sudden, and it will be final.

First of all, the Lord’s return will be public.  There won’t be anything subtle or secret about it.  The Lord Jesus was very emphatic about this, because he didn’t want anybody to be fooled by the phony messiahs and false prophets that were bound to come along.  In Matthew 24 Jesus says, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it” (Matthew 24:23).  The Second Coming will not be the appearance of some new guru in a secret or exotic location.  “So,” warns Jesus, “if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out;  or, “Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.  For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:26-27).

When Jesus comes again, it will be openly and in great power, for all to see.  If a person pops up here or there with messianic claims, whether people like David Koresh or Rev. Moon or Mrs. Prophet or someone with even greater charisma and personal powers, don’t believe them.

When the true Messiah comes again, it won’t be a secret revelation but a public coronation.  Every eye will see him and every knee will bow.  Jesus describes it this way:

“At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn.  They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.  And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” (Mark 13:26-27).

One of the most common words in the Bible for the Second Coming is epiphaneia, which means “the appearing.”  When Christ comes again, he will be inescapably, overwhelmingly visible to all, and this means we should reject the deadly claims of anybody who pops up in this place or that claiming to be a messiah.

At another level, the fact that the Second Coming is public also renders unlikely the notion that some Christians have of a secret rapture.  This is the idea that the followers of Jesus will simply disappear from earth and be caught up to Christ, who will take them to heaven with him and leave everyone else behind with hardly a clue of what happened to all those Christians who vanished.  Maybe you’ve seen a bumper sticker that says, “This car will be driverless in case of the rapture.”

However, according to the Bible, it won’t be much of a secret when the people of God are caught up to meet their Lord.  In 1 Thessalonians 4, the apostle Paul writes:

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will be with the Lord forever.  (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)

This is the only passage in the Bible where the word for “rapture” actually appears in the Latin Vulgate.  In the English version I just read, it is translated “caught up.”  Notice again that this so-called rapture is preceded by a loud command, the archangel’s thunderous voice, and the trumpet call of God.  That doesn’t sound very secretive to me!

The notion of a secret rapture of believers which happens some time before Christ returns to earth openly for all to see–this whole approach is relatively new to the Christian church.  John Nelson Darby formulated it in the 1800’s as part of a new approach to the Bible, sometimes called “dispensationalism.” In the 1900’s the notes in C. I. Scofield’s Reference Bible spread this approach to many Americans, as well as to Christians in other countries who are influenced by American dispensationalism.  But before Darby and Scofield, few churches taught a secret rapture, and few Christians believed it.

Now, I’m not knocking my fellow Christians who happen to believe in a secret rapture.  Many are sincere, wonderful people, genuine Christians whose faith and love may well outshine my own, and I hesitate even to mention this point of disagreement.  But still, I think their idea of the rapture is mistaken.

Through many centuries of proclaiming the Bible’s message, Christian churches taught that Christ would come just once, publicly, for all to see, that he would then raise the dead, and that he would confirm his verdict of eternal life for his people and eternal punishment for those who rejected him.  This has been the teaching of the historic Christian faith, and it still seems the best way to understand what the Bible is saying.

The Second Coming will be public.  That’s one thing to keep in mind.  The second is that the Lord’s return will be sudden.  He will come unexpectedly, without warning.

People who don’t believe in the Second Coming will be going about business as usual, and suddenly it will be all over.  In Matthew 24 Jesus says,

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.

Many people saw Noah building the ark but refused to believe a great flood was coming.  In the same way, many people have heard about the return of Christ but refuse to believe it’s going to happen.  They carry on their lives as they see fit.  They may even work side by side with Christians, but they don’t see any sense in following Christ themselves.

And then, suddenly, the trumpet will sound and the Lord will appear.  Two men will be working in the same area.  At first glance they look very much the same, but one will be taken into joy and fellowship with Christ, while the other will be left and abandoned to eternal sorrow.  Two women will be working side by side.  One will be taken into joy and fellowship with Christ, while the other will be left and abandoned to eternal sorrow (Matthew 24:40-41).

The Lord’s coming will be sudden, and only those who are already prepared will share eternity with him.  Jesus says,

Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  But understand this:  If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matthew 24:42-44).

The coming of Christ will catch everyone by surprise.  The unbelievers will be shocked that it happened at all, and even the followers of Christ will be surprised, because although they sought to be prepared and faithful at all times, they still didn’t know when it would actually happen.

Jesus declares that in spite of a number of signs and occurrences leading up to it, the actual event will come as a surprise.  So there’s no use even trying to calculate a date for the Second Coming.  That’s why the apostle Paul says:

Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3)

It’s a mistake for date-setters to think they can pinpoint when Jesus will return.  But it’s a far greater mistake not to believe in the Second Coming at all and be caught unprepared.  At least the date-setters have one thing right:  they take the return of Christ seriously.  Unfortunately, the misguided setting of dates and the ringing of false alarms often makes it harder for others to take it seriously.  The Bible is very clear about the fact that Jesus is coming again, and it is equally clear about the fact that nobody knows when, except God alone (Matthew 24:36).  We need to be prepared, not because we know Jesus is coming a few days from now, or a few weeks or months from now, but because he could return at any time.

Just before Christ ascended to heaven, his disciples asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  And what did Jesus say?  He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”  It is not for you to know!  How could it be any plainer than that?  Jesus told his disciples that instead of trying to figure out times and dates that weren’t for them to know, they should get on with the work of witnessing to Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Right after he told them this, he was taken up before their very eyes and ascended to heaven.

According to the Bible, the disciples were still looking up into the sky when two angels stood beside them and said, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-11).  All this shows that although we can’t pinpoint when he’s coming back, we can be certain that he is coming back, and we need to be prepared.

In Matthew 24 Jesus compares the time between his ascension and return to a situation where a master leaves for a while and puts one of his servants in charge.  When the master comes back, if he finds that the servant has been doing a good job, that servant will be rewarded and be promoted.  “But,” says Jesus,

suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.  The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of.  He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 24:48-51).

The sudden coming of Christ means that the date-setters should keep their predictions to themselves, but even more seriously, it means that skeptics had better stop scoffing and start getting ready and that people who believe in Christ must live faithfully each moment in anticipation of his return.

The Second Coming will be public, it will be sudden, and closely related to this, it will be final.  There will be no second chance.  Before the great flood, God gave the people years and years to repent in response to Noah’s preaching, but then one day, Noah entered the ark, and God shut the door.  It was too late for anyone to change their minds.

The same is true of the Second Coming.  When the Lord delays his coming, it’s not because he is slow, says the apostle Peter.  “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Peter 3:9-10), and when it does, it will be too late for those who weren’t already prepared.

Jesus makes this point very powerfully in a parable he tells about ten girls who were supposed to meet a wedding procession.  Five took lamps but didn’t take any spare oil.  The other five took jars of oil along with their lamps.  The groom didn’t show up for quite a while, but finally, they heard that he was coming.  The five girls with oil quickly trimmed their lamps, but the five foolish ones said to the others, “Give us some of your oil;  our lamps are going out.”  But the girls with the oil needed what they had.  They didn’t have any extra to share.  So the foolish ones scurried off to get the oil they needed, but meanwhile, the bridegroom arrived.  The girls who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet.  And the door was shut.  Later, says Jesus, the others also came.  ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’  But it was too late.  The wedding had started and the door was locked, and the groom said, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’  Therefore,” warns Jesus, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Once Jesus comes back, there will no more chance to get prepared.  The door to his Kingdom will be shut, and there will be no more opportunity to enter.  There won’t be any people left behind on earth who will have another chance to repent during a time of tribulation.  The Lord will sit on his throne and separate those destined for glory from those who are destined for hell (Matthew 25:31-46).  According to the Bible, the Second Coming is final.  At that point, everyone’s destiny is sealed.

If you’re alive at the time of the Lord’s coming, the door will close the moment he appears.  If you die before Jesus comes again, the door is closed for you at the moment of death.  The Bible says that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).  Either way, you need to be ready to meet Christ at all times, and you need to be living each moment in anticipation of his return.

The Second Coming isn’t a topic for speculation and mind games.  We can’t treat the Bible like a crystal ball or a jigsaw puzzle.  The Lord Jesus Christ tells us that he is coming again and that his coming will be public, sudden, and final.  He tells us this, not to make us curious, but to make us ready.  Are you ready?

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, use this message to prepare many listeners to meet you.  Help the gullible who are taken in by false messiahs to turn to you, the one true Savior.  Help the skeptics who scoff at your coming to repent of their foolishness and prepare to meet you.  Through your Holy Spirit, open each mind and warm each heart with a living faith in the Lord who died to bring pardon and who is coming again to make all things new.

Help all of us who are Christians to love you dearly and serve you faithfully, in eager anticipation of your return.  We thank you for your patience which allows so many to repent, and at the same time we pray for the day of your appearing.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come soon.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.