I preached on the subject of our Lord’s return at First Presbyterian Church today. This series of posts is based on that sermon. Note: This post is cross-posted at my other blog here.
If you’ve driven along I-40 recently, watched TV, listened to the radio, or otherwise come into contact with civilization recently, you’ve probably seen or heard that Jesus was supposed to return, yesterday. At least according to the billboards.
Obviously that didn’t happen, which brings me to the one thing we can say with absolute certainty about our Lord’s return. Here I’ll quote Jesus himself from the Gospel of Matthew, “…concerning that day [the day of Christ’s return] no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt 24:36). Apparently Harold Camping, the guy whose ministry sponsored this media blitz, either wasn’t familiar with this verse of Scripture or willfully chose to ignore it.
A significant part of the life of faith, of discipleship, is the knowledge and acceptance that there are some things that are known only to God. We might want to know them, but we don’t need to know them. That’s why Christian hype about setting dates for Christ’s return is actually showing a lack of trust in God, ignores clear Scriptural injunctions against doing this, and frankly makes Christians look pretty stupid in the eyes of our culture.
Martin Luther is famously claimed to have said that human reason is sort of like a drunk man on a horse, always falling off one side or the other.[i] The way we think and talk about the return of our Lord is one of those places where we’re prone to excess, where we go way beyond what Scripture actually teaches about this doctrine or don’t go far enough.
On the one hand, there is a part of the Christian world that has an almost “escapist” view of Christ’s return. It dominates their understanding of the world and creates urgency in some things (things like, perhaps, personal evangelism), but not in others (caring for creation, alleviating poverty, and long-range planning). After all, this planet is going to consumed anyway.
Just so you know, this isn’t something new. The early church dealt with this! Paul had to command some believers, who expected Christ to return in short order, to find work and to get married. Basically, he told them to get on with their lives.
The danger of too great a focus on the “when, what, and how” of Christ’s return is an abdication of our responsibility to carry out the mission of God here and now. We’re calling to bear witness to the Gospel (the message of reconciliation) and to participate in the advancing of God’s Kingdom in our broken world.
On the other hand, some Christians virtually ignore the doctrine of Christ’s return and focus exclusively on the here and now.
They may say something like: “There’s so much injustice in the world that surely God wants us to focus on working and witnessing for justice…Let’s focus on that.” There’s no mention of Christ’s future return in judgment. No mention of eternity. For all intents and purposes it’s as if this world, precisely as it now exists, is all there is. This, I think, is an overreaction to the first view we discussed. And it fails to take seriously what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, “…he will come to judge the quick and the dead.”
Like most things, the truth is probably somewhere between. The church is entrusted with the Gospel, the message that God forgives guilty sinners, brings them into community, and sends them into the world to build His kingdom and work for God’s purposes in the world. There is a present and a future aspect to this message. If we emphasize one over the other we risk being like Martin Luther’s drunk man!