We had an interesting discussion in our small group last week. We were thinking about how we live out lives of witness faithfully on our frontline (Tit 2:9-10), and the urgency of Jesus’ return. Should we be playing a long game with our friends or should we be running through the streets screaming ‘repent’ at everyone. I had an email the next day asking for a bit more explanation. Here’s my answer:
Great question Jim [not real name] – you are on the ball.
There’s a few things to try and say in answering the question so I’ll number my paragraphs to try and preserve some logic.
1. First thing to say is that what we’re talking about has been the subject of intense debate throughout the centuries – the passages are open to interpretation and not always as clear as we’d like – probably deliberately in God’s wisdom to keep us humble.
2. Second, we are told that his coming will be at an hour we do not expect (Matt 24:44); and will be like a thief in the night (2 Pet3:10), which means we cannot know when he’ll come – could be any time – and anybody who predicts it is in disobedience of Scripture.
3. We’re also told that the day is soon (Rev 22:20); drawing near (Heb 10:25); at hand (1 Pet 4:7). Those words were written a couple of millenia ago which tells us something about God’s timescales – soon for us, and soon for God aren’t the same. With the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day (2 Pet 3:8-9). Again all of this makes us humble with regard to timings, and aware that God is playing a long game.
4. We are told of some things that are to happen before Christ returns: the gospel will go to the nations (Matt 24:14); there will be a significant and powerful deception by the man of lawlessness (2 Thess 2:1-10); and there may be a large scale conversion of Israel (Rom 11:25-26). Now here’s where it gets difficult. Some of the predictions (of Matt 24 for example) may be referring to events surrounding the fall of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70; and there are multiple interpretations of the events just listed – they may or may not already have happened depending on how you interpret them. Now you begin to see the difficulty of having certain opinion on these things.
5. Some of the kingdom parables suggest significant growth and expansion over time. Weeds and wheat will grow together (Matt 13:30); the mustard seed must grow into a tree, and the yeast must work through the whole batch (13:32-33); The bridegroom will be delayed, and the master gone to a far off country for a long while (Matt 25:5, 13, 19). Again, all of these things may be adjudged to have already come to fruition, or they may not.
6. We know God is patient not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance and eternal life (2 Pet 3:8-9). That doesn’t mean all will be saved (see 2 Thess 1:7-10), but it perhaps explains why we’re still waiting.
So how do we make sense of all of that. It all really depends on your interpretation of the various passages. What is clear is that we cannot know the time Jesus will return – it could be any time so we must be ready. Yet at the same time it seems to me that the events and kingdom parables haven’t reached fruition yet so there is still work to be done. The ambiguity makes me watchful, the state of the nations means I’ll keep labouring and praying – the harvest is plentiful. And knowing God is sovereign and patient means I don’t need to rush round like a headless chicken peeing people off left, right, and centre. I make the most of every opportunity, whatever that looks like, so that when Jesus returns (if it’s in my lifetime) he’ll find me at my post.
Hope that helps. As I say we’ve wandered into a minefield in the history of Christian interpretation. Let’s make sure to major or the majors and keep living for Christ on our frontlines,
Anything you’d want to add. Most of the above is a combination of Grudem and Bavinck (and for what it’s worth I’m more with Bavinck).