Ten Turning Points: The Certain Return of Christ

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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?

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7 Responses to “ Ten Turning Points: The Certain Return of Christ ”

  1. and Philippians 2:5-11, which ends with

    so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee will bow
    of those who are in heaven and on earth
    and under the earth
    and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

    For those who have willingly and obediently acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour in this life, we will bow down before Him in His eternal kingdom in worship and gratitude and victory, as loyal subjects and heirs.

    For those who have explicitly rejected Jesus Christ in this life, they will bow down as defeated enemies, with no citizenship in His kingdom.

  2. @Tom
    You know that this will bring up a scathing criticism by skeptics regarding all those people who have never heard of Jesus Christ and through the circumstances of cultural indoctrination, time and/or geography, have never been able to accept or reject Him.

  3. Victoria,

    As I’m sure you know, Romans 1:20 addresses that issue specifically:

    “20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

    There isn’t anyone who doesn’t know. Now, how that works itself out in terms of salvation no one knows. But Acts 17:31 tells us:

    “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice…”

    We have a just God. We need nothing else.

  4. /Thinking…Saw this web bit. Any reaction?/

    PRETRIB RAPTURE SECRETS

    How can the “rapture” be “imminent”? Acts 3:21 says that Jesus “must” stay in heaven (He’s now there with the Father) “until the times of restitution of all things” which includes, says Scofield, “the restoration of the theocracy under David’s Son” which obviously can’t begin before or during Antichrist’s reign. (“The Rapture Question,” by the long time No. 1 pretrib authority John Walvoord, didn’t dare to even list, in its scripture index, the too-hot-to-handle Acts 3:21!) Since Jesus can’t even leave heaven before the tribulation ends (Acts 2:34,35 echo this), the rapture therefore can’t take place before the end of the trib! (The same Acts verses were also too hot for John Darby – the so-called “father of dispensationalism” – to list in the scripture index in his “Letters”!)
    Paul explains the “times and the seasons” (I Thess. 5:1) of the catching up (I Thess. 4:17) as the “day of the Lord” (5:2) which FOLLOWS the posttrib sun/moon darkening (Matt. 24:29; Acts 2:20) WHEN “sudden destruction” (5:3) of the wicked occurs! The “rest” for “all them that believe” is tied to such destruction in II Thess. 1:6-10! (If the wicked are destroyed before or during the trib, who’d be left alive to serve the Antichrist?) Paul also ties the change-into-immortality “rapture” (I Cor. 15:52) to the posttrib end of “death” (15:54). (Will death be ended before or during the trib? Of course not! And vs. 54 is also tied to Isa. 25:8 which is Israel’s posttrib resurrection!)
    Many are unaware that before 1830 all Christians had always viewed I Thess. 4’s “catching up” as an integral part of the final second coming to earth. In 1830 this “rapture” was stretched forward and turned into a separate coming of Christ. To further strengthen their novel view, which the mass of evangelical scholars rejected throughout the 1800s, pretrib teachers in the early 1900s began to stretch forward the “day of the Lord” (what Darby and Scofield never dared to do) and hook it up with their already-stretched-forward “rapture.” Many leading evangelical scholars still weren’t convinced of pretrib, so pretrib teachers then began teaching that the “falling away” of II Thess. 2:3 is really a pretrib rapture (the same as saying that the “rapture” in 2:3 must happen before the “rapture” [“gathering”] in 2:1 can happen – the height of desperation!).
    Other Google articles on the 182-year-old pretrib rapture view include “Pretrib Rapture Politics,” “Pretrib Rapture Scholar Wannabes,” “Famous Rapture Watchers,” “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” “X-Raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “Walvoord Melts Ice,” “Wily Jeffrey,” “The Rapture Index (Mad Theology),” “America’s Pretrib Rapture Traffickers,” “Roots of (Warlike) Christian Zionism,” “Scholars Weigh My Research,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Appendix F: Thou Shalt Not Steal,” “Thieves’ Marketing,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy,” “Deceiving and Being Deceived,” “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty,” and “Christ’s return is NOT imminent!” – all by the author of the bestselling book “The Rapture Plot” (see Armageddon Books).