On recent Sundays Iíve been preaching on the return of Christ. I grew up with some very mixed-up ideas about the Second Coming, but understanding the doctrine in our heads surely isnít enough. As Iíve preached these sermons, Iíve found myself asking again and again, 'how much do I look forward to the return of Christ? How much do I want him to come again?'
The New Testament takes it for granted that believers will long for the return of Christ. The Christians in Thessalonica had only been believers a short time when Paul wrote his first letter to them. But already people throughout Greece were commenting on what had happened to them. 'They report . . . how you turned 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 saves us from the wrath to come . . . '. Godless people were talking about these Christians, their strange behaviour, their strange beliefs. And one of the things that struck them most forcibly was that these Christians were all waiting for Godís Son from heaven. I wonder whether our unbelieving friends would say that about us.
When he wrote to the Philippian believers Paul could say, 'our citizenship is in heaven and from there, we wait for a Saviour . . .' (Phil. 3:20). When he wrote to Timothy he could simply describe Christians as 'all those who have loved his appearing' (2 Tim. 4:8). In his letter to Titus, he pictures believers 'waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ' (Titus 2:13). As he came to the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, he used a one word Aramaic prayer: 'Maranatha!' - 'Our Lord, come!' The Corinthian church was in Greece, but Paul knew that all his readers would understand that Aramaic word. Why? Because it was a prayer they used constantly. New Testament believers prayed for the coming of Christ.
Peter in his first letter (1 Peter 1:3-7) takes it for granted that his readers, however painful their trials on earth, are still rejoicing at the thought of all the blessings that will be theirs when Christ returns, when their faith 'will be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ appears . . .' And in his second letter, he talks of Christians 'waiting for and hastening the day of God . . . According to his promise we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth . . .' (2 Peter 3:11-13).
And how does the Bible end? Almost the last words are these: 'He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon". Amen! Come Lord Jesus!'
That is normal New Testament Christianity. The Christians we read about in the New Testament were waiting for Christís return. They loved the thought of Christís return, they rejoiced in Christís return, they prayed for Christís return.
I wonder how many normal Christians you know - Christians who are normal by New Testament standards, Christians who evidently have this this heart-felt desire for the return of Christ. I donít find it in myself. I donít see it in many others.
Yes, I still meet some believers (though not as many as I used to) who are fascinated by the 'signs of the times' - the things that may or may not happen before Christ returns. They want to talk about the place of Israel in the end-times, the role of the European Community, the identity of the antiChrist and so on. Theyíre gripped by these things. But I meet very few believers who seem gripped by the thought of Christ himself descending from the skies. Itís very rarely that I meet a believer whoís excited by the things that the Return of Christ will bring:- the final defeat of evil; the resurrection of the dead; the Day of Judgement; the wedding of Christ and his people; the everlasting joy that we will experience in the new heaven and new earth. Itís very rarely I hear a believer pray, 'Come Lord Jesus!'.
So why are normal believers so rare? Let me suggest some reasons.
First, we may be reacting against the cranky obsession with prophecy that has marked many believers in the past - including some of us. Weíve been put off by the silliness of so much Christian talk about the end-times. Again and again Christians have announced that Jesus would come in their lifetime; that this would be the last generation. I remember a confident young man explaining why the three families in the church he attended all had girls but no boys. It was because these girls would never need to look for husbands. Christ would return before they had grown to adulthood! Some Christians have been reckless enough to give specific dates which theyíve calculated from the Bible. Some have pointed to particular events and used them as signs that weíre into the final run-up. I was told as a child that Jesus must return within forty years of the formation of the State of Israel. Well, 1988 came and went. Some have pointed to specific politicians and world-leaders and said 'this man is the Antichrist - so we know Jesus must return in his lifetime'. And then the leader has died or fallen from power, and theyíre left with egg on their faces.
Weíre embarrassed that these people call themselves evangelical Christians and then misuse the Bible so grossly. We see how often their emphasis on prophecy leads them into bizarre decisions and unbalanced living. And we decide we want nothing to do with it. We think that the best way to avoid crankiness is to push out of our minds the thought that Christ could return soon. We tell ourselves that itís best just to get on with the work that needs to be done today, and forget the second coming.
Over-reaction is always a danger in the Christian life. We see some believers going to extremes, so we swing to the opposite extreme. The fact is that according to the New Testament no Christian can fulfil his duties effectively here in this world without the motivation of Christís second coming. A Christian who goes through his life without looking for Christís return is an unbalanced Christian.
Secondly, we live in an extraordinarily wealthy and comfortable society. Thereís never been a generation in history thatís had such an easy, pain-free life. Many of us live through much of our life without experiencing any great physical or emotional trauma. Few of us experience the extended physical pain that was part of life before the introduction of modern anaesthetics. Few of us know what real hunger means. Few of us bury one child after another. And few of us face life-threatening persecution. Itís many years since UK believers have had to face the sort of persecution that believers in many parts of the world take for granted. So why should we long for this world to come to an end? Why should we long for Christ to return? Many of us have already got just about everything we want - weíre satisfied. The good things weíve already got here seem more real to us than any amount of joys that may be on offer in another world.
New Testament believers faced pain in so many ways. And especially they faced constant persecution. So when they were told that Jesus would come again and rescue them from this world, it seemed to them the best news that theyíd ever heard! If we were told that Christ was to return next week, how excited, how joyful would we feel? Have we invested too heavily in this world and all it has to offer?
Thirdly, I wonder if weíre intimidated by the godless society around us and the way it ridicules any talk of Christís coming and the end of the world. The Christian preaching the coming of Christ is a figure for cartoonists to point fun at. Heís wearing a sandwich board with the slogan 'The end is nigh' or 'Prepare to meet thy God'. Heís probably got a long beard like Moses and is wearing sandals. Perhaps we feel that if we talk about the return of Christ, weíre giving the sceptics an opportunity to sneer.
Or worse, weíre giving them the impression that weíre part of a sinister and fanatical cult. After all, most of the cults major on end-time prophecies. Every Jehovahís Witness who arrives on our doorstep wants to talk about Armageddon and Paradise on Earth. Look up Jim Jones on the internet. He manipulated his followers with prophecies about the end of the world and then persuaded them all to commit suicide.
Godless people around us view any talk of Christís return as weird, crazy, fanatical. And they tell us that itís this world that matters. Weíre told constantly that if we want to win peopleís respect weíve got to show them that Christianity is relevant in the here and now. The world will tolerate us if we get involved in helping the poor, building hospitals, improving society. But talk about the world to come, and the world will close its ears.
I wonder if weíve been affected by that propaganda. Paul wasnít afraid to speak to the self-satisfied intellectuals of Athens about the return of Christ. 'God has fixed a day when he will judge the world in righteousness by the man he has appointed . . .' (Acts 17:31). Well some of the clever people laughed. But that didnít stop Paul preaching that Christ will return.
Fourthly, I suspect that many of us have a very nebulous doctrine of the world to come. The reason we are supposed to look forward to the coming of Christ isnít just for its own sake; itís because of the wonderful new world that will begin when Christ comes. But most Christians have only got the vaguest idea of what that world will be like. They canít look forward to it because they canít imagine it. An eternity spent playing harps with a huge crowd around the throne? Well they know that thatís a picture, but theyíve no idea what itís a picture of. They know weíll have resurrection bodies but what are these bodies for? If we have hands in that world, what will we use our hands for? Here in this world weíve got bricklaying and gardening and architecture and music-making and computer programming . . . whatís there to do in that world? Iím afraid for many Christians all they feel about the world to come is that itís a world where every pleasure theyíve ever experienced here - marriage, eating, hobbies, their job - has been taken away, and nothing solidís been put in their place.
I suppose Iíve got to hold preachers - including myself - to blame if thatís so. Perhaps we havenít spent enough time explaining the wonderful pictures of which the Bibleís full. Before this Sunday evening series is over, Iíll be trying to do that.
But it canít just be the fault of the preachers can it? How much time do you spend meditating on those wonderful closing chapters of Revelation, with their picture of the city where the Lamb dwells among his people? How often do you pray that God will open your heart to understand the glories that lie ahead? Paul prayed for the Ephesian Christians that the 'eyes of your hearts might be enlightened, that you might know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints . . .' (Eph. 1:18). Do you pray that for yourself and for your fellow-believers in this church?
And then fifthly. Isnít the ultimate problem simply this: that we - I - donít love Christ as I should? In the end it all comes down to that. If I loved Jesus Christ with all my heart, I would be longing to see him. I wouldnít be fascinated by sensational events that may or may not lead to the big day. I wouldnít ever feel at home in this world, where Iím separated from him. I wouldnít be put off by the thought of Judgement Day and the secrets of my life that will be exposed then. Even my concern for loved ones who are unconverted would come second to this: 'I want to see him! I want to be with him!'
Jesus said to his first disciples, 'I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be always . . .' (John 14:3). Whatever else the Second Coming means, it means that: we shall be with Him! And for the Christian who loves him, that is the greatest joy we can imagine.
So the question I really need to ask myself is not, 'Why donít I long more for the Second Coming?' Itís 'Why donít I love Christ more?' Perhaps we all need to ask ourselves that question.
Stephen Rees is Pastor of the Grace Baptist Church in Stockport. The above is taken from its monthly magazine, May 2009.