From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a matter of knowledge. The return of Christ is a matter of faith. The difference is in how we take each of them to be true.
The resurrection is attested to by multiple evidences, which Christians (who have studied it) generally consider be sufficient to allow us to say, “I know it happened.” (Knowledge, by the way, does not have to mean certainty, as in “There is absolutely no possibility I could be wrong;” but I won’t go into that now.) The return of Christ is attested to by multiple promises. That’s where faith comes in. Faith is not, as so many people have misconceived it, belief lacking evidence. It is belief that is based on knowledge, builds on knowledge, and extends out of knowledge.
Jesus Christ said he would return; Christians trust his word. Faith is a synonym for trust; thus the return of Christ is a matter of faith.
There is much confusion over this particular matter of faith, however: Jesus said it would be soon, and yet here we are a couple thousand years later and still waiting. Where is the promise of his coming?, you might ask. The apostles thought it would be in their lifetimes, but they died, and here we are centuries later, and everything is still cooking along just like it has been from the beginning.
That’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked. Be aware that you’re not the first, though: see 2 Peter 3:3,4. He goes on to explain (2 Peter 3:8-10a):
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…
“Like a thief” is a phrase used elsewhere in connection with Christ’s return. Based on those other usages, one of which we’ll see in a moment, we know it has nothing to do with dishonesty or robbery, but rather unannounced suddenness. The thief doesn’t tell you he’s going to break in tomorrow at 1:25 am. Likewise Jesus Christ will come without telling us exactly when.
But what about the New Testament being wrong about the time of his return? Jesus himself says, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place;” but let’s look at the context (Matthew 24:32-43, ESV):
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
The lesson of the fig tree seems to be that we need to watch and wait until we see the signs[1. “all these things;” see the larger context of Matthew 24] that the time is near. Matthew 24:14 is especially instructive: the end will come only when the gospel of the kingdom has been preached to all the nations. That hasn’t happened yet, though it’s coming close to completion.
Another potentially confusing statement was the one Jesus made in Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, Luke 9:27:
Matt. 16:28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Mark 9:1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
Luke 9:27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
This was just before his transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8), which is plausibly the fulfillment of that prediction in the form of a foretaste. One commentary (Jamiesson, Fausset, Brown) says,
The reference, beyond doubt, is to the firm establishment and victorious progress, in the lifetime of some then present, of that new kingdom of Christ, which was destined to work the greatest of all changes on this earth, and be the grand pledge of His final coming in glory.
The Bible Knowledge commentary adds this concerning Mark 9:1:
Several interpretations have been suggested for the meaning of the kingdom of God come with power: (a) Jesus’ transfiguration, (b) Jesus’ resurrection and Ascension, (c) the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and the spread of Christianity by the early church, (d) the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in A.D. 70, and (e) the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The first of these is the most reasonable view in this context. The specific time reference in the following account of Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:2a) indicates that Mark understood a definite connection between Jesus’ prediction (v. 1) and this event. Jesus’ transfiguration was a striking preview and guarantee of His future coming in glory (cf. 2 Peter 1:16-19).
This is certainly the most problematic prediction in the New Testament, but it has to be understood in context. Recall that the same Matthew who recorded this prophecy also said that the end would not come until all nations had heard the gospel of the kingdom. That makes it hard to press the case that Jesus could have meant nothing other than his physical return in glory.
Additionally, it seems likely that the apostles expected some time to pass before Jesus’ return. One does not get the sense that they sat on a rooftop waiting for aliens riding on a comet to pick them up any minute, or even for Jesus himself to come pick them up any minute. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians rebuked church members who had adopted the false belief that “Jesus is coming back any day so nothing we do now really matters.” The gospels, the Acts, the letters and the Revelation seem to have been written with at least a few coming generations in mind.
There are of course several “thief in the night” references sprinkled throughout Jesus’ teachings and elsewhere. I learned an important lesson about these when my friend Steve and I were working at the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan in 1977. While we were there, Steve’s brother was tragically killed in a plane crash (it was over Lake Michigan, if I remember correctly). There at Interlochen we got connected with Arthur Katterjohn, who had written a book opposing the pre-tribulation rapture view.[2. Pre-trib rapture: the sudden return of Christ to take away his followers alive into heaven at the beginning of a seven-year tribulation period, leaving all others behind.) Steve was opposed to the pre-trib view from the start. I was beginning to lean the same direction, but something about it bothered me. I remember the conversation vividly: I told Steve, “If the pre-trib rapture isn’t true, and if there has to be a seven-year tribulation first[3. That’s the version of end-times teaching we were discussing at the time; there are others.] then what about the teaching that Christ could come any second now, without warning?” Steve said simply, and quietly, “He came for my brother without any warning.”
We will each meet Christ individually, or maybe we will be alive when he comes for all. Some of us are looking forward to that meeting with great expectation. Others think it’s a joke or a fraud. Others don’t want it to be true. Jesus said we should expect that difference of belief. He also said it would be great joy for those who are prepared, but unimaginable sorrow for those who have neglected or rejected him.
Which are you?