Are You Prepared for the Return?

by Brian Knowles

D

uring the first forty of the fifty days between Passover and Pentecost, Jesus continued to instruct his disciples. Just before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told them they would soon be baptized (immersed) with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). He said that the power of the Holy Spirit would enable them to witness to him all over the world (Acts 1: 8).

            Immediately after he said this, Jesus rose into the air and disappeared behind a cloud (Acts 1:9). The assembled group of 120 disciples (Acts 1:15) looked intently up into the sky trying to figure out where he had gone and perhaps when and whether he was coming back (Acts 1:1).

            Suddenly two “men” (evidently angels) appeared before them with an explanation: “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from  you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go to heaven,” (Acts 1:11). So Jesus would return, and it would happen the same way he left. What we don’t know is precisely when it will happen. Approximately 1976 years have elapsed since the angels spoke those words and Jesus still has not returned.

Prophecy Buffs Hold Forth

I’m not a prophecy buff, but there are many of them out there. Some of them claim to know almost exactly when the Lord will return. They base their prognostications and pontifications on a variety of calculations. I do not intend to enumerate here their diverse and often convoluted methodologies. Suffice it to say that most of us, if we’re honest, have no idea when Christ will again set foot on this earth; we just know that he will.

            Nor do we have any real need to know precisely when Jesus will return. We do not need to understand the mechanics of his return. All we need to know is that when its His Father’s time, Jesus will show up (Matthew 24:36). Just as suddenly as he left, he will return. When he does, big things are going to happen (Zechariah 14:4 ff.). Our Lord will come to fulfill the parts of his divine commission he didn’t fulfill the first time around (cf. Luke 4:14-19 with Isaiah 61:1-2).

            Jesus could return within the lifetimes of people reading this article. Or it may be another millennium before he arrives on the scene. The point is: every generation of Christians, from the time of the original apostles to the present, had or has a duty live in a state of perpetual spiritual readiness at all times. If Jesus came tonight, would you feel that you are in the kind of spiritual state he would want to find you in?  

            So all this distils down to the issue of spiritual preparedness. In what ways did Jesus instruct us to prepare for his return?  

Avoiding Specific Deceptions

In one of the parts of the so-called “Olivet” prophecy that concerns the end times, Jesus said this: “…Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many…(Matthew 24:4).

            Not a few, but many – will claim to be the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Prior to the appearance of true Messiah, there will appear a plethora of false Messiahs. Jesus warned: “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time.

            “So if anyone tells you, ‘There his is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or ‘Here he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east and is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man,” (Matthew 24:23-27).

            One of the characteristics of false Messiahs is that they always seem to be “hidden” in secret caves or desert locations until a moment of “revealing.” Or they may reside in some obscure monastery high in the Himalayas. The appearance of false Messiahs is often accompanied by prophets, gurus and oracles who claim to have inside information about the prophesied figure that is soon to appear. Their job is to create a sense of expectation and anticipation.

            Just about every major religion – including Christianity – is capable of producing a false Messiah. When the only true Anointed One of God appears, he will be visible to all. His will not be a clandestine arrival but one that is as visible as lightning flashing across the sky. He left in clouds, he will return in clouds – and he expects his Church to be ready for him.

An Unwelcome Son

When Jesus returns, the world will not welcome him. He said, “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they shall gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other,”(Matthew 24:30-31).

            Forget the mechanics of this event for a moment. The issue at hand is spiritual preparedness.  Do you think Jesus’ true elect will “mourn” at his return? Of course not. Only the Lord’s enemies will mourn. They will realize the jig is up. The King has arrived. His people will rejoice – and only they will rejoice to see his coming. The Lord’s return signals the beginning of a much-needed new world order. All the kingdoms of this sad, sick, war-torn world will become the kingdoms of Christ (Revelation 11:15b). The rulers of the world’s murderous, corrupt kingdoms will not rejoice at the arrival of the One who will dethrone them, but the true people of God will rejoice.

Unexpected Arrival   

There is no doubt the Lord will return, but many passages of Scripture suggest that it will be at a time when people are not generally expecting it (Matthew 24:36-44).  We are advised to “keep watch” and to “be ready” (verses 42 & 44).

            Jesus then speaks of his “faithful servants” who will be found doing his work at the time of his return: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants of his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him so doing when he returns,” (Matthew 24:48).

            What is being depicted here? Clearly Jesus has in mind the activities of the leadership of the Church. A wise servant will be found faithfully carrying out his duties to the Church. He will be “feeding the flock” with sufficient and nourishing spiritual food, as Jesus instructed Peter (John 21:15-17). And what will that servant not be doing?

            There is a temptation, because of the approximately 1976 years that have elapsed since Jesus promised to return, to conclude that it’s not going to happen at all. To us, that’s a long time. To the Lord it is like a couple of days (II Peter 3:8). Jesus addressed this issue: “But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and then he begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with the drunkards,” (Matthew 24:48-49).

            What the Lord is describing here is a servant who has forsaken his spiritual responsibilities and slipped back into the retrograde behavior of an unconverted person. His conduct degenerates. He’d rather party than serve the cause of Christ. He begins to abuse his brethren in the Church.

            Peter, at some point, came to understand that the Lord might not return in his lifetime. He knew that some would be disturbed by this possibility. He addressed it in his second letter: “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he has promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation,” (II Peter 3:3-4).

            The term “following their own evil desires” simply means doing what comes naturally – yielding to the evil inclination, to the yetzer hara. It means behaving as one did prior to conversion, lowering one’s standards and behaving carnally. Another way of saying it is “backsliding.”

            It is natural to wonder why the Lord is taking so long to return. Peter suggests an explanation: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” (II Peter 3:9). The longer it takes the Lord to return, the more people have time to repent and get right with God. Once Jesus has returned, all bets will be off. Judgment will be at hand. That is what John the Baptist meant when he said that the Lord would “baptize” with fire (Matthew 3:11-12).

            Perhaps then it is the mercy of God that delays the Lord’s coming. At the same time, the Lord is not limited by the boundaries of time like we are. He will not return one moment too soon, or too late. The vital thing for Christians is to live in ongoing anticipation of that event no matter when it occurs. It means being spiritually ready.

Summing Up Preparedness  

There are many other passages that can be brought to bear on this issue. Not the least of them is the parable of the ten virgins, given by Jesus right after his words about his return (Matthew 25:1-13). Of the ten virgins in the parable, only half of them were prepared to meet the Bridegroom. Again, the issue is spiritual preparedness.

            To be ready for the Lord’s return, we must first have the discernment to distinguish between the true and counterfeit Messiahs. The true Anointed One (Messiah) will come suddenly, in the clouds, in a highly visible way, at a time when people generally are not expecting him. Even some Christians will apparently have given up on the idea of his return.

            Some will have degenerated to unchristian behavior – partying, getting drunk, and yielding to their darker nature. Some will even begin to abuse their fellow Christians.

            Those of us who are called to feed the flock must be found zealously doing so. We cannot afford to neglect those who are in need. Our first duty as Christians is to each other – no matter our doctrinal differences and personal quirks. We will have to account to Christ for how we have treated those who are his (Matthew 25:31 ff.). As Paul wrote the Romans: “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God,” (Romans 14:12).

            We must be discovered meeting each other at our points of real need (James 1:27). Ideally, we will be found in the process of maturing as Christians on every front. We will be living as though the return of the Lord were imminent. We can’t afford to get caught with our spiritual pants down. We need to be filled with the Spirit (have oil in our lamps), and be growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord (II Peter 3:18). And we need to be found in prayer (Romans 12:12; Ephesians 6:18).

            If we get discouraged, let down, and revert to the unconverted state, we’ll be like the virgins who had no oil in their lamps -- unready to meet the Bridegroom. Perhaps its time to do some soul searching and take inventory our spiritual condition. Despite claims, no one knows precisely when the Lord will return to this earth. It behooves each generation of Christians to live as though it could happen in their generation. The words of Luke 21:24-36 apply to the generation that lives to see the return:

            “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will come upon you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will upon all those who live upon the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen [in that generation], and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”