Perhaps one of the more perplexing matters in the New Testament is the sense of imminent expectation regarding the Lord’s return. We see this all through its pages.
Jesus said, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44). Jesus instructed His disciples to expect His appearing at any moment.
All through the epistles, we read of the New Testament saints eagerly watching for the Savior’s appearance (see Rom. 8:23; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; and Titus 2:11-13). It’s clear that those who read the apostles’ letters anticipated Jesus’ return at any moment, too.
Yet, 2,000 years have passed since then. How do we understand Jesus' command the expectancy of the New Testament saints?
What if we look at it from another perspective? What if . . . ?
What if Jesus had said this to His disciples? “Relax guys; it’s going to be a very long time until I return. It may be one or two thousand years before the world sees me again.”
What would have been the consequences if Christ had told His disciples of the long delay in His return with no need to watch for His imminent appearing?
1. No Urgency to Share the Gospel
With such a mindset, do you think the apostles would have been so determined to spread the Good News of salvation throughout the world? Would they have turned it upside down?
I don’t think so.
C. S. Lewis said this about the eternal perspective that motivated the apostles:
“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since because Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”[i]
The minds of the apostles and others who followed them were fixed on eternity because of their awareness that Jesus could return at any moment.
When Jesus’ return ceases to be an imminent possibility, His followers stop thinking about “the other world,” or eternity, and their urgency to share the Gospel diminishes. I am not saying that all evangelism ceases; just that for many it becomes less of a priority.
2. Less Motivation for Purity
The apostle John said this about the impact of Jesus’ imminent return upon our lives, “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he as pure” (1 John 3:3).
I realize that many other motivations exist that lead to a holy life, but the thought that Jesus could back at any moment heightens our resolve to walk closely with Him. I have found this to be true in my own life.
Of course, we do not earn our salvation. Scripture is clear on that matter.
However, when we live as though at any moment we might find ourselves in Jesus’ presence, it has an impact on our walk with Him and our service to Him. How can it be otherwise?
In Matthew 24:45-51, Jesus addressed what would happen with those who saw His return as a far distant reality. The behavior of most might not be as extreme as with the person in Jesus’ parable, but the point is clear. When people start believing Jesus is not coming back for a very long time, if ever, it ceases to be the motivation for faithful service Jesus intended it to be.
3. We Would Never Start Looking for Jesus’ Appearing
If the church has started out with the knowledge Jesus was going to delay his return by one or two thousand years, how would anyone know when to start watching for his appearing? What would be the key to change from passivity to actively anticipating his arrival? How would we know to start looking for the rapture?
For the prospect of Jesus’ appearing to motivate and comfort believers of all ages, it has to be an ever present possibility. Once we put it off to the distant future, it ceases to be our hope and fails to encourage us in the midst of suffering. It causes the things of this life to grow in importance as we look to the temporal things of earth for comfort rather than eternal realities.
Jesus commanded us to watch and be ready for His return because He knew without it, the results among His followers would be disastrous. We see this all through church history.
Did Jesus deceive us? Absolutely Not! All the saints who have gone before us are now enjoying the glorious joys of eternal life in the presence of their loving Savior and someday will be reunited with their earthly bodies.
For us, it means that the Lord’s patience has resulted in our salvation and the anticipation of a joyous eternity beyond our wildest imaginations.
No one in the past who died waiting for Jesus’ appearing was ever disappointed when Jesus welcomed them into glory.
No follower of Jesus today will feel an ounce of disappointment when the day comes for the trumpet to sound and we see Jesus welcoming us home! It will be oh so worth the wait.
Note:This was inspired by JD Farag's prophecy update on March 18, 2018.
[i] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Collins, Fontana Books, 1955), p. 116. Quoted in Hot Tub Religion, p. 90