I grew up in a church that talked about the return of Jesus a lot—about every week. I remember posters with dragons on them. Each year we hosted a prophecy conference, naming specific politicians as the Antichrist (sorry, Jimmy Carter). We had our bumper stickers, “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” It was such a big deal for us that, as a kid, I had recurring nightmares about my parents being raptured while I was left behind.
It’s easy to make fun of all that now, and I think that a lot of evangelical churches today downplay the topic of Jesus’s return because they’re afraid of looking like fundamentalists. But there are 318 references to Jesus’s second coming in the New Testament—roughly 1 out of every 13 verses mentions it. And nearly every moral command in the New Testament is tied to the second coming. It’s not an embarrassing, uneducated uncle of Christian theology; it’s essential to our faith. The fact that Jesus could return any day at any moment should sober us and change us.
And it should change us now in at least four ways.
1. Spiritual Alertness
Amid the many ways my home church went wrong, they were absolutely right about one thing—the earnest expectation of Jesus’s return. The New Testament writers all eagerly wait for Jesus to come back. They are straining forward to that day, almost on tiptoes as they yearn for his return. They lived with spiritual alertness, as if Jesus could back at any moment.
Wouldn’t you live differently if you knew Jesus were coming back tonight? Wouldn’t it make you ask the questions, Am I ready? or Am I living today in a way that I’d be happy to see him tonight? At my church we would often end our services with the pastor saying, “Maranatha,” which means, “The Lord is coming.” And we would respond, “And it could be today.” I think we could use more of that attitude. It could be today, and this may be your last chance to repent, last chance to forgive, last chance to share the gospel.
2. Mission Urgency
If you know the world has an end—and that it could be soon, it rearranges your priorities. It makes no sense to go around rearranging deck chairs if you’re on the sinking Titanic. And yet that’s what many of us are doing with our lives. We are so consumed by vacations, hobbies, possessions, and bucket lists, that our actions tell the world the end is not soon and the mission is not urgent.
I’m not a guy who believes God never wants us to have or enjoy nice things. But I also know that life is painfully short, and when the Master returns, I want to have invested my talents to the fullest for his kingdom, not be found sitting on them. Sadly, many in the church will hear the chilling words of Jesus on that day, “Why didn’t you invest what I gave you for my kingdom? Away with you, you worthless servant, to the outer darkness” (Matt 25:26-30).
3. Power to Forgive
Tim Keller points out that believing in the return of Jesus gives us the power to forgive. When someone wrongs us, we want justice. We run to the judgment seat of the world, hop on it, and help God mete out his due. But here’s the problem: we weren’t meant for that seat. It’s too big for us. And like the ring in Lord of the Rings, it distorts us. It makes us assume the worst in others, causes us to paint large groups with negative stereotypes, and blinds us to our own sin.
Apart from the doctrine of the second coming, we have no power to keep ourselves from running to that judgment seat. Only by knowing that Jesus is coming back, and his return means true justice, can I be content to stay off it. I can endure injustice for the time being, because he’ll set things right.
4. Hope in Suffering
Depictions of Jesus’s return often have him coming through the clouds or riding on top of them, but Jesus says that he’ll be coming back “in the clouds” (Mark 13:26). This is an important distinction, because it points back to the glory of the God in the Old Testament. Frequently, when God appeared to his people, it was in the form of a powerful cloud—when God led his people out of Egypt (Ex. 13:21), when he gave them the Law (Ex. 24:16), when the temple was dedicated (2 Chron. 5:14). This “glory cloud” was a sign that God was coming to dwell with his people, to undo all of the terror and pain caused by the fall. Jesus says in Mark 13:26 that his return means the permanent return of the glory of God. It is a promise that all of the pain and suffering in our lives can’t last forever. Or, as Cornelius Plantinga says, “The return of Christ is good news for people whose lives are filled with bad news.”
So if your son just died of cancer, if your marriage just dissolved, if you’re lonely, if you’re body is wracked with chronic pain, then Jesus is saying to you: Lift up your eyes! I’m coming back, and it might be today! There is reason to hope even in the midst of the darkest valley. As one author puts it, “The promise of the second coming shows us the ‘good ole days’ are always ahead of us.”