What Lies Ahead
Text: Mt.24:44 "Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
How fascinating people can find the future! Sports pundits tell you that Manchester City have already won the Premiership although the season is only just past the halfway mark. But it wasn’t so long ago that Gary Lineker was so sure his own club wouldn’t win that he promised to present Match of the Day in his underwear which he had to subsequently do. If you prefer to listen to the news on the radio you know that you’ll frequently be told what some politician is going to say later that day or week and economists will either tell you that you’ll be better off, or worse off, after Brexit depending upon their own political leanings.
One thing is certain, while people might make more or less informed predictions about probable outcomes no man or woman can be absolutely certain about the events that lie ahead. Just think for a moment of the soldiers who cheerfully crossed the channel to France in August 1914 convinced that after a brief skirmish they’d be home before Christmas. Little did anyone know that the War would drag on for four years with more than 700,000 British men losing their lives.
There is however one who knows everything that will happen in the future. I’m not talking about Nostradamus or some other prophet of the future but I’m referring to God. Some theologians at the turn of the century even tried to deny the possibility of knowing the future even to God as they promoted their ideas that came to be known as open theism. They argued that for human acts to be truly free then they had to be unknowable before they happened! Our Bibles do not however recognize such an anaemic and pitiful god. The God of the Bible declares this of himself:
This God has entered our world in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and he has spoken to us about the future. He hasn’t told us everything that is going to happen – but he has told us about the major cosmic event that lies ahead, namely Jesus’ return to earth.
The believer can look forward to this event with utter confidence that it will happen because God has promised and does not lie! The believer can and must take his Word to heart.
The Fact of his Return
The NT contains reference after reference to the fact of Jesus’ return. Jesus taught during his first coming that it would not be his last; he taught that he would return. He taught this so clearly that no-
If debate there is to be had it can only relate to the details concerning such a return and not to whether or not Jesus taught of his own return.
In the words of our text:
Mt.24:44 "Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
Or again in the last week of his earthly life Jesus encouraged his disciples with the following words explaining just what was happening and about to happen:
Jn.14:3 "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also."
This truth is to be found expressed in every part of the NT:
Angels knew it and declared it at the moment of Jesus’ ascension:
Acts 1:11 ""Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
Paul taught it:
The writer to the Hebrews taught it, so did James and Peter. The apostle John was not going to be left out either:
1Jn.3:2 "Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is."
The NT is brought to a close with the promise of Jesus’ return reverberating loudly:
Rev.22:20 "He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon.""
And let us be under no illusion – the type of return that is in view is a return that is an objective reality: it speaks of a literal, personal, physical/bodily return. This return cannot be reduced to Jesus merely coming in some spiritual manner to dwell hidden in the heart of a believer. The disciples had witnessed his leaving the earth, his ascension was a very real and physical event, and the angels had specified that he would return in a similar fashion!
What is the Believer to Make of This?
We might be very happy to affirm the truthfulness of all that has been said up to this point. Belief in our Lord’s Return is one of the Articles of Faith upon which the church is founded. But does it make any practical difference to us? What are we, what am I to do with this clear teaching of Scripture?
Well we are not left floundering. The Bible shows us the way in which we ought to respond and also indicates some practical outcomes that should flow from a hearty embrace of this doctrine.
John’s response, which immediately followed Jesus’ declaration, shows us just how a believer should welcome such teaching:
Rev.22:20 "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"
John’s answer demonstrates not only his acceptance of the truth but includes a love of the truth and a desire to see it accomplished. Other translations express it variously as:
Even so…, yes…, so be it…, "So, Lord Jesus, please come soon!"
Why so? Because this truth concerning the return of our Lord and Saviour is exceedingly good news and news which ought to fill us with expectancy and desire. It is news that brings us hope and encouragement that will enable us to keep on in even the most trying of circumstances.
The apostle Paul urged the Thessalonians to use this teaching about the return of the Lord Jesus as a means of encouragement. Believers who had already died in their faith had a future because Jesus was coming back. Those believers who were alive similarly would have a glorious future when Jesus returned. And so it has proven down through the centuries that Christians have taken great comfort from the fact that Jesus would return and that his return would have meaning and significance for them. Jesus’ return would enable him to keep his promise and take his disciples home with him so that they might be forever with the Lord!
John’s response was that of eager expectation and it is a response that ought to be ours too. Such expectation was evidenced at the time of Jesus first coming: do you remember Simeon from the Christmas narratives?
Lk.2:25 "Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him."
He was "eagerly waiting" "looking forward to" "longing for" God’s deliverance to come.
And then there was Joseph of Arimathea who showed himself to be a disciple at the end of Jesus’ life:
Mk.15:43 "Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus."
He too was eagerly anticipating the coming of God’s Kingdom.
It is with this sort of eager anticipation and longing that we are to be characterized as we too live in a period of waiting, only our waiting is now for the glorious return of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Tit.2:12-
And yet... and yet...
Is that the way Christians in the UK today react? Is that the way that I react to the teaching concerning the return of our Lord and Saviour?
Sadly, I’m afraid, the church isn’t known for its fiery commitment and enthusiastic expectation is it? Perhaps one of the reasons why this might be so is the widespread prosperity we enjoy in the west. We have so many good things to enjoy that perhaps we have become just a little too satisfied with the things of the world and the more we become satisfied with what the world has to offer the less we long for the return of our Saviour. After all his return will forever change the nature of our relationship with this world – maybe we sometimes come to suspect whether our joys will be reduced when he does come!
An awful thought but maybe we should do a little soul-
On the other hand the more satisfied I am with Christ as I reflect upon who he is, what he has done for me and fellowship with him and the Father by his grace, the more I will long for him. And the more I am satisfied with Christ the more I will see this world as it really is, a sphere of sin and rebellion that is inexorably opposed to God.
For almost 2,000 years Christian believers have indeed been waiting and expecting their Lord to return and we’re still waiting and we wonder how we might continue to live with the expectation that Jesus might return this year, this month, this week...
In his wisdom God has determined not to tell us at what time this great event will take place. If we knew it was a long way off then the reality of this return would in all probability have very little if any impact upon us. On the other hand if we knew it was set for next month we might well take inappropriate decisions and wrongly order our lives in a way that brought no honour and glory to God. eg. A man in the US published a book declaring that Jesus was definitely going to return that year, 1988. 300,000 copies of this book were sent to ministers in the US and a further 4.5m copies were sold world-
Unwise people as well as folk who really ought to know better get caught up in the "excitement" of such proclamations. And what scorn is cast upon the Bible when such declarations are found to be false. The man in the street doesn’t need much encouragement to reject Christianity and isn’t too bothered if his dismissal of Christianity and the claims of Jesus Christ is based on the crack-
The Bible does make a number of things very clear to us concerning the return of Jesus Christ:
That he will return is a fact
That we do not know when he will come is a fact – and for Christians to seek to know what God has kept secret is not evidence of spiritual zeal but of downright disobedience.
Mk.13:33 "But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
But we have a little more too:
The return of Christ will take place unexpectedly:
Mt.24:44 "Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
The only way to be ready when the hour is unexpected is to be always ready.
Now to be always ready means that we will keep careful watch over ourselves as Jesus said:
Mk.13:33 "Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come."
This we will do with God’s grace as we persevere in the way of salvation, as we go on looking to Jesus Christ and to his sacrificial death on the cross for us, as we continue to ensure that we have treasure laid up in heaven.
We mount that guard and keep awake as we go on abiding in Christ and enjoy fellowship with him and with God’s people;
It means we will confess our sins as they are made known to us by the Holy Spirit.
In short it means we will be serious about living our Christian lives in a spiritual manner and we will repent when backsliding tendencies begin to affect us. In this way we will continue to lay plans for the future and we won’t abandon normal life but we will attempt to sit lightly to the world. We know that God remains in control and we know too that all our plans may never come to fruition but we will still seek to make them in a godly manner and we will still hear that commendation "well done, good and faithful servant – enter into the joy of your Lord" (Mt.25:21, 23).
Finally the Bible does refer to a number of signs:
These are said to precede the return of our Lord. Looking at the signs described people have come to a range of conclusions some of which are definitely not helpful. In trying to work out whether these signs have been fulfilled or not yet fulfilled some have argued that the time necessary for the fulfilling of all the signs means that the return of Christ simply can’t happen immediately. This is a conclusion that clashes with what we’ve already seen about the unexpectedness of his return. If the signs were given in order to provide a foolproof timeline that leads up to the return then the element of unexpectedness would be entirely lost.
So it seems best to regard the signs as having been given for a different reason. If the signs are not to help us develop that time-
Lk.21:28 "Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Jesus is coming again. This is no abstract doctrine but it is a subject that is designed to encourage us and give us hope for the future. It is a truth that demands a practical response from every Christian. Am I ready and are you?