Expecting a Call at Any Moment
Christ’s return is always imminent; we must never cease to watch for it. The first Christians thought it so near that they faced the possibility of Jesus’ return in their lifetime. Paul thinks he too may perhaps be alive when it happens.
Many novel theological twists are appearing these days on a variety of subjects, including the timing of the Lord’s return; whether the church is the new, “true” Israel; who will suffer the pangs of the Great Tribulation—and for how long; when, or if, there will be a literal, future Kingdom; and whether we are in the age of an ethereal, celestially supervised Kingdom of sorts now.
Some people wonder, Is this all there is? What, after all, can we be confident of? Is it acceptable for Christians, along with the new breed of flippant theological semicynics, to declare themselves blissful “pan” dispensationalists who don’t know or care about a firm prophetic position? Their idea is that it will all “pan” out, so why bother with the details.
Let me tell you a story.
The cemetery was bitterly cold that day. Several inches of snow covered the ground and was being whipped around the open grave by aggressive gusts of wind. Because the grief-stricken mother could not bear to part with the body of her infant daughter, she insisted that the tiny coffin be opened one last time.
As a pastor for some 24 years, I officiated at scores of funerals. The details of most of them are blurred in my memory or have been completely forgotten. But this one refuses to fade. After more than four decades, the heartrending picture still appears vividly before me. seeing devastated young parents on their knees looking into the tiny face of one gone far too soon, a cruel winter wind ruffling the white satin dress she wore, is not a memory I care to cherish.
So what could I have said to the stricken couple in the cemetery that day?
“It’s okay kids, don’t worry about it. It will pan out all right”?
Hardly. Whether preacher or parishioner, you’d better have more in your spiritual arsenal than a murky attempt to brush off the questions plaguing broken lives and shattered dreams. And although human phraseology never seems to quite make the grade in such situations, there is a sufficient source that will minister to grieving hearts in the still small hours when friends, family, and pastors are no longer on the scene. It is, of course, the Word of God, that blessed fount of peace, solace, and expectation that the spirit imparts in all seasons of life.
Simplicity or Complexity?
I have found that in the basic matters of life and death in our sin-battered society, the divine provision comes to us garbed in simplicity. Certainly there are theological complexities that must be examined by competent scholars who use the Bible rather than personal prejudice as a guide to truth.
At the grass roots, however, there are millions of people who are not really equipped to grapple with theological complexities. These are believers who operate in the realm of the daily, practical, stuff-of-life issues. And for those of us who occupy these regions, the Word is communicated in a kind of simplicity and certainty no human being can deliver.
Simply put, God simplifies. We tend at times to complicate and, in effect, obscure the obvious. such is never the case in heaven’s communication with us. A case in point:
We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).
Absent from the body, present with the Lord. This statement answers, in eight short words, all the grieving saints who ask, “Where is my loved one now?” Furthermore, it puts to rest the notion of soul sleep, which teaches a works-righteous, end-times general resurrection to determine whether you go to heaven or hell. It also wipes out the purgatory prerogative of paving the way to heaven by praying and paying the way out of partial perdition.
Are you a true believer? Then when you exit this frail tabernacle of flesh, you will be immediately transported into the presence of the Lord.
And what of our bodies, deposited like shriveled seeds into the earth while our spirits inhabit the realms of glory?
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Th. 4:16–17).
The Lord will descend. saints’ bodies will be raised. And all living believers will be caught up with them to meet the lord in the air. Yes, He promises there will be a meeting in the air, and no born-again believer will be left behind. Is this concept difficult to understand? No! Rather, the question we can legitimately ask is, How can it be missed or muddled? The apostle set the record straight in clear and simple terms.
We might address a final word on the subject of simplicity. Just how did the Lord handle matters that were buffeting the hearts of His inner circle of disciples when He made the stunning announcement that He had an appointment with a Roman cross rather than a kingly throne?
He had alluded to it on previous occasions; but they, like us, were listening for what they wanted to hear instead of what they needed to consider. They concentrated their expectations on the kingly aspects of the Messiah’s mission to Earth. Their focus was understandable. Unlike some of our theological contemporaries, they had no misgivings about the clear, biblical teaching of a coming, literal Messianic Kingdom set in Jerusalem with Jesus occupying the regal seat of Davidic authority. What they did not comprehend was how long the Kingdom phase was to be postponed or that the capstone on the divine plan for the fulfillment of sacrificial redemption necessitated a cross before a crown.
“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.” Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn. 14:1–6).
What the Messiah said was crystal clear:
- Don’t be troubled.
- Believe in Me.
- I’m going ahead to prepare a place for you.
- I will return and take you up to be with Me.
- The way home is through faith in Me alone.
To be sure, there was truth here for these troubled and confused followers. But what they needed also was some-thing for their grieving hearts. In this setting, explanation encumbered by complexity was not appropriate. Compassion transmitted in simplicity was enough.
Prophecy in a Word
For those of us who may be bedazzled or dazed by the current blizzard of alternate theories, positions, and prophetic perspectives blowing our way, there is a simple test we can use to check for truth. It involves one word: Imminence.
What does the purveyor of a new, novel, or absurd approach to end-times events have to say about the imminent return of Christ, which the Scriptures declare to be the watchword for the church? Any proposition that ignores, delays, or mutilates the clear meaning of the word and the way in which the early church understood imminence—the any-moment return of Christ—should be immediately discredited.
Looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Ti. 2:13).
First-century saints were instructed to revere the blessed hope as a constant companion and comfort. These believers were not looking for the dismal prospect of seeing the Antichrist or catastrophic upheavals of the Great Tribulation. Their focus was ever and always on the certainty of His coming for them.
The simple fact is that Paul did not know when Christ would return. He was in the exact position in which we are. All that he knew, and all that we know, is that Christ may come at any time.
—R. C. H. Lenski
Paul did tell us something of his own expectation concerning the catching-away of believers, commonly referred to today as the Rapture: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (emphasis added, 1 Th. 4:16–17). The “we who are alive” tells us that the apostle included himself in the band that might be alive should the catching-away take place in his lifetime.
Furthermore, he added a directive that has endured in the hearts of sincere believers for two millennia: “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (v. 18).
And so they did. Christians of the first century greeted one another in much the same way as the apostle Paul ended his first epistle to the Corinthians: “O lord, come!” (1 Cor. 16:22). Or, as expressed in Aramaic and more commonly known to us, “Maranatha!”
In these days, when it seems virtually everything in our culture is taking a turn for the worst, we must stay on course and retain an understanding of the biblical order of the end times: (1) the Rapture, (2) the Tribulation, (3) the second Advent of Christ with His saints, (4) the national reconciliation of the Jewish people with the Messiah, (5) the Kingdom and 1,000-year reign of Christ, and (6) eternity’s new heavens and new earth. There are, of course, exciting ancillary events related to each of these major distinctions, but these are the premier segments set forth in God’s Word.
For those of us today among the band of believers who are, in the imagery of Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, the alive and remaining remnant awaiting His return, the Holy spirit leaves us three great sources of comfort.
First, we are to be comforted in our faith as the Thessalonians were by Timothy, “our brother and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you and encourage [comfort] you concerning your faith” (1 Th. 3:2).
Then, we are to find comfort in the reality of the Rapture: “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Th. 4:18).
Finally, we are to find comfort in the fact that we will not face the traumatic events of the coming Tribulation. In speaking of it in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, Paul told us God has not appointed us to wrath. In view of this wonderful prospect, we are told to “comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing” (v. 11).
Thus the sum of all of these comforts is the motivation to serve one another and further the cause of Christ in an ever-needier world. And when all is said and done, we can echo the words of a saintly, elderly black preacher of the post-Civil War era who said of his imminent ejection from this world, “I’m standing at the water’s edge, waiting further orders.” Maranatha!