“Stay awake at all times” (Luke 21:36a)
Expectation of the return of Christ in glory was high in the first generation of the Church. In Paul’s earliest letter (about AD. 51), he wrote of this coming and could refer easily to “we who are alive” when that coming happens (1 Thess. 4:15). That it didn’t happen as soon as the first believers expected was a grave disappointment to many of them, and was probably the first “crisis of faith” experienced by the Church. Many believers lapsed.
More than 50 years later, when it was obvious that the Second Coming had not occurred when the first Christians expected it, their teachers had to explain the delay; we read, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years … The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you … ” (2 Peter 3:8-9).
We are now almost two millennia since the first generation of Christians was keyed up over expectation of the imminent return of Jesus, and Jesus has not returned. Yet the lectionary for this first Sunday of the liturgical year starts us off with the prophecy of the Second Corning. What are we 21st century Christians to make of it?
The scriptural evidence is strong with two themes about “the great Day of the Lord,” “the coming Judgment,” the Second Corning of Christ. The first is that we should be able to read the signs: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. . .. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:29, 31); the second is that we cannot predict the time of the event and will be surprised by it: “Concerning times and seasons, … you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:1-2). How can we reconcile these two themes? Should we try? Is it important to do so?
At the least, the faithful may believe that God keeps his promises and fulfills his prophecies, but it is abundantly evident in Scripture and experience that predictions about how he does so are almost always highly inaccurate. What is indisputable is that we are called and commanded to live at all times ready for the end, whether it is the Second Coming or the day we die, and that either way it will be for us a day of joy. Beyond that is mystery.
Think About It
Many scientists predict that all life on our planet will disappear in less than a billion years when Earth’s atmosphere will have vanished, and that the planet will fall into the sun in about 7.6 billion years. Do these predictions have any implication for the Christian belief in the Second Corning of Jesus?
Look it Up
What did Jesus tell his disciples about the timing of the coming of the Kingdom of God? See Acts 1:7. Compare this with Revelation 9:15, which speaks of “the hour, the day, the month, and the year” of the judgment, i.e., the precise time hidden in the foreknowledge of God.