When will Jesus return?
Dr. Jim Denison
Martin Luther thought the Pope was the Antichrist, and expected Jesus’ return during his lifetime. Christopher Columbus thought the world would end in 1656, and that his explorations would lead a Christian army in the final crusade to convert the world. Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, predicted the rapture in 1910 and the end of the world in 1914.
Closer to home, Harold Camping wrote the bestseller 1994? in which he predicted the end would come on September 6, 1994. Edgar Whisenant published Eighty-eight Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, and sold thousands of copies. Trinity Broadcasting Network president Paul Crouch predicted an apocalyptic event for June 9, 1994.
We have multiple end-times theories being taught and believed today. Preterists think the book of Revelation has mostly been fulfilled already; the Continuous-Historical school thinks different verses have been fulfilled at different times in church history; the Symbolic school sees the book as entirely symbolic, with no reference to literal history; the Postmillennialists say the church will bring in the millennium, then Jesus will return; the Amillennialists expect neither a literal tribulation nor millennium; the Historic Premillennialists expect Jesus’ second coming and then the millennium; the Dispensationalists expect a rapture, seven-year tribulation, then Jesus’ coming and the millennium. Each position is held by conservative, Bible-believing scholars.
I am a “pan-millennialist” myself—it will all pan out in the end. What are you? What position should you hold? Why does any of this matter to your life this morning?
The perennial question
After Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples “over a period of forty days and spoke to them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). He then promised them the Holy Spirit (v. 5). They knew that the coming of the Spirit and the coming of the Kingdom were related. So in response, they asked the question Christians have been asking ever since: “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6).
Their question was logical, but wrong. Calvin said, “There are as many errors in this question as words” (Institutes 1.29).
Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (v. 7). “Times or dates” refers to specific dates as well as years. “Not for you” refers to Jesus’ first and closest disciples—Peter, James, John, the others, and even Mary and his brothers. If Jesus wouldn’t tell them when he would return, will he tell you and me?
If discovering the time of his return was possible by scriptural exegesis, or spiritual commitment, would they not have determined it? To say that I know what Peter, James, John, and Mary didn’t is egotism, to say the least.
But the Father has placed this decision in his authority alone. Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:32-33). Paul told us that Jesus’ coming would be as surprising and unanticipated as a “thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Peter made the same prediction (2 Peter 3:10).
Listen to Jesus’ warning: “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him…It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:35-36, 38-40).
No one but God knows when Jesus will return. We must be ready every day, for it could be any day. This is the clear teaching of God’s word.
The practical response
Why, then, does the Second Coming matter? Jesus makes clear the practical response to our perennial question: “You will be my witnesses.”
The Bible is not a speculative book. We ask rational, philosophical questions. We want to know about creation and the end-times, two subjects about which we can do nothing. But God’s word was not written in the western, Greek, rational tradition. It is a Hebrew book, written from the Hebrew present-tense, practical world view. It seldom tells us all we want to know, but it tells us more than we can do.
And it is clear: “You will be my witnesses.” No one knows when Jesus will return, so everyone must be ready. You and I must be ready. Then we must help other people to be ready.
And we have only today to do so. The early Christians were sure about this. And so they lived in the daily expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. They wanted to be found doing what they would be doing if they knew Jesus were coming back that day. They wanted everyone they knew to be right with God, today. They had a passion for missions and evangelism, for they knew the time was short.
They were right. Jesus may come back for us all today. Or you and I may go to him. Either way, the time is short.
Listen to the word of God:
• Romans 13:11-13: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime.” Are you living in the “daytime”?
• 2 Peter 3:11-12: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” Are you looking forward to his return?
• John 9:4: “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no man can work.” Are you doing his works while you can?
• 1 John 2:28: “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” If it were today, would you be “confident and unashamed before him”?
• Revelation 16:15: “Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.” Are you awake? Are you ready?
• Rev. 22:12: “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”
If right now you’re thinking, “I have plenty of time, this doesn’t apply to me,” know that you are deceived and wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard the old story about the time the devil had a meeting of his demons to decide how best to deceive men and women. One said, “Let’s tell them there’s no heaven,” but the devil said that wouldn’t work, that God has put heaven in every heart and we know it’s real. Another said, “Let’s tell them there’s no hell,” but the devil said that people know wrong must be punished, so that won’t work. Finally a third said, “Let’s tell them there’s no hurry.” And they did. And they still do.
The glorious promise
So we are not to speculate about Jesus’ return, but work hard to be ready for it. Then one day, it will come. Just as he rose to heaven, so he will come again one day to earth.
Jesus’ ascension is no literary invention, but a real fact of history. Seven times the New Testament speaks of it, and its importance (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:22; Acts 2:32-33; Luke 24:50-53; John 6:62; John 20:17; Ephesians 1:18-23).
His ascension tells us much that matters. It tells us what happened to Jesus. He’s not “Missing in Action”–we know where he is. It says that he accomplished what he came to do, or he would not have returned to heaven. It says that he is truly divine, for he is in heaven where he belongs. It says that he now rules the world from his place of power in glory. And it says that the ministry of the Holy Spirit, through his church, is the best way to build his Kingdom on earth. The ascension is real and relevant.
And his return will be just as real. Buddha never made this promise, or Mohammad, or Confucius, or Joseph Smith. But Jesus did. He told his disciples, “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:27-28).
He told the high priest, “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). He said, “Men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens” (Mark 13:26-27). Revelation 1:7 shouts, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.”
I must ask you, are you ready to see him? If it were today, would you mourn or rejoice? If you knew he were coming back today, would you change your life? How?
Dwight Moody presented the gospel one Sunday, then told his vast congregation to go home and think about it. The next Sunday he would give an invitation, and he would expect them to come to Jesus. But that night the Great Chicago Fire began. 18,000 buildings were destroyed; $200 million was lost, a third of the entire city’s value. No one knows how many died, but some estimates range as high as 15,000 casualties, many of whom had been in Moody’s service. He never waited again.
Nor should we.