Modern American Christians are, I think, used to thinking about the return of Christ in two different contexts: 1) when confessing doctrine as a religious exercise, and 2) when specific world events are tagged as proof that Christ must be coming soon. One is often an intellectual abstraction, and the other causes “cry wolf” exhaustion. This is very sad, because just as the cross and resurrection are the focal point of Christian faith, the return of Christ is the focal point of Christian hope. The cross and resurrection create an eternal friendship between the Living God and a host of people who long to experience God’s intention for their lives. But Christ’s return will expand and finalize his work, restoring God’s intention over the entire earth and banishing everything unworthy of his design for humanity.
The importance of Christ’s return
The return of Christ is more than just one doctrine among many. It is the last necessary link in the chain of God’s plan. Christ’s return will fully establish the Kingdom of God on earth and in heaven. This is what our salvation is all about, the celebration of God’s rule over every part of creation. Biblical salvation is so much more than the initial wonder of forgiveness. Redemption frees us to center our lives around the Living God, so that our identity becomes wrapped around his glory. This is the hope of those whose hearts are awakened to follow Jesus.
Biblical hope expectantly waits for what we know we cannot find in this life, but are certain will be ours when Christ returns. Hope focuses on treasures that cannot rust or decay. Hope discerns the value of life’s many details by how they fit into God’s coming Kingdom, and reorders our choices accordingly. Without such hope, we might otherwise spend a lifetime accumulating treasure we cannot keep, or building lives on assumptions that crumble under the weight of eternity. Faith in Christ sets us on a journey to discover our true identity and eternal purpose. Therefore, hope sets the tone for each day. What ultimately matters right now is always connected to the return of Christ.
The imminence of Christ’s return
Something is “imminent” when it is impending; it could happen at any time. One of the dangers of some theological systems is that they maintain that Christ can only return after specific bad things happen. Believing that, Christians naturally attempt to ground their hope in Jesus’ return in shocking news flashes and ominous political developments. Accumulated disappointment and confusion needlessly deaden the hope we desperately need. Well-meaning systems that yield an endless string of failed prophecies should be reevaluated.
Jesus unambiguously taught us to always expect his arrival—like staying up through the night to catch an anticipated burglar, or keeping the house ready for a loved one at the end of a long journey. They could come earlier or they could come later, meaning they could arrive at any time. Before the final reckoning, Jesus travels through our darkness as the Light of this world, bringing the Kingdom of God to hearts open to receive it. But he could complete this mission at any time. He could come back today. Tomorrow, he could come back today. The day after that, he could come back today. Jesus was not playing games with us. He will return when the fullness of grace has been poured out to God the Father’s satisfaction. Since we won’t know our Heavenly Father’s satisfaction until he acts on it, we must always be ready.
So what is the significance of today’s headlines of real tribulation? I’ve explored the biblical teaching in my books on Daniel and Revelation, but in brief, “tribulation” describes the birth pangs of the Kingdom of God during the Last Days, the entire period between Christ’s first and second coming when the gospel advances and the gates of Hell collapse. The point of noticing the signs of tribulation is to remind ourselves that they are always apparent. Every plague and every war, every natural and man-made catastrophe, all our failure, pain and death are signs exposing this age for what it is. Jesus wants us to see each evil, wicked, tragic, and heartbreaking event as another billboard warning that unless our relationship to God changes, we will ultimately perish. But Jesus couples this with the promise of God’s kindness to anyone, anyone, who wants to be reconciled to him. This is our hope!
Living in this moment
Let me share how I think hope is supposed to work, and how it works for me.
Every day, I seek to understand who I am in terms of Jesus. He is my Lord and my Savior, God in human flesh. His character and purpose are templates for mine. In the morning I remind myself that following, imitating and serving him in this world is why I’m getting out of bed. Nothing matters apart from him. Alongside him, everything matters.
My faith is challenged as soon as I’m aware of my chronic back pain or some other personal difficulty. It doesn’t take long to remember all the trials faced by people I care for. And of course, social media and broadcast news scream pain and corruption. Worse, it prods me to scream along with them.
Where is the Kingdom of God? Over and over each day, I have to make a choice. Do I scream? Do I turn away and pretend I don’t see? Do I try to deal with it all on my own? My effort to fix the world can only pile two feet of sandbags against a ten-foot flood.
The only other choice is the choice to hope. To help me make that choice, I stop and consider the signs of the times. As I look out the window, I see my world as it was graphically painted in the Book of Revelation. I see the Four Horsemen of oppression, violence, poverty and death, the demonic Dragon seeking to devour Christ’s people, the Beast of Government demanding devotion, the Beast of False Religion offering idolatry, and the Prostitute of Culture selling a full assortment of immorality and addiction. I see antichrists deceiving the naïve. (The Apostle John wrote that he could already see many antichrists in his day—people who take the place of Christ in the hearts of God’s people.)
I don’t have to wonder whether the horrors I see might be what the Bible predicted. Of course, they are. They have dominated the landscape for the last 2,000 years. They are signs of the times. Signs of our times as the gospel of God’s glory and grace presses on through a world that prefers its own chaos. Every day, as I see this tribulation, I remember Christ’s warning that this is the natural state of a world in rebellion, and it will be this way until he returns.
Until he returns! Jesus promised to return the instant he can account for all the children God planned for. That changes everything.
Once I’m in touch with reality, I can face the world with hope—with Jesus, who is the hope of the world. I find peace, knowing why the world is the way it is. I regain purpose as my day assumes the shape of imitating him, doing good as he did, sharing the good news of the Kingdom as he did, employing all the resources and opportunities he entrusts to me. I don’t have to defeat the world’s chaotic rebellion. The rebellion will not be defeated in this age. But the chaos cannot stop Jesus as he walks through it, saving a multitude. And the chaos cannot stop me as I follow him. I take heart knowing that the madness will end at Christ’s return, when everything is reordered around God’s design. And I will be there, taking my proper place.
Every day, I need to rebalance myself on the truth that Jesus will return, and he may actually return today. There is nothing I want more. I am ready, and I want to stay ready. It’s the only way I can stay sane. It’s the only way I can love without despair. It’s the only way I can stay useful, at peace, and confident about the future.
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers,remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.… how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.1 Thessalonians 1:2-3,9-10