Note to the reader
This is a sermon I’ve preached recently in Kenya, Rwanda, and the DRC. It has been well-received, and I hope it will be helpful to you as well.
All Scripture citations are from the New International Version.
It’s a famous line that’s been used in countless book titles. Just fill in the blank:
“Everything you always wanted to know about ______ but were afraid to ask.”
What would you put in that blank? Today, here’s how I’d like to fill it:
“Everything you always wanted to know about the Second Coming, but were afraid to ask.”
In some ways, this is a hard topic to preach since there’s no single “classic passage” that we can turn to. Rather, what we can determine about Christ’s return is scattered in various passages of the New Testament. So even though we’ve chosen one passage (Acts 1:1-11) as our official sermon text, today is really more of a topical sermon. I hope you have your Bible open, since we’ll be looking at a variety of Scripture portions. Together, let’s consider five questions about the Second Coming.
QUESTION 1 — How can we be sure the Messiah has come for the first time?
In the film, “Fiddler on the Roof,” a group of Jews are living in Russia in the early part of the 20th century, just before the Revolution against the Czar. The local police chief has come and delivered the tragic news: All Jews must leave Anatevka, the small town that has been their home for a long time. Motel, the tailor, turns to the old rabbi and asks with deep sincerity:
“Rabbi, we’ve been waiting all our lives for the Messiah. Wouldn’t this be a good time for Him to come?”
The Messiah – the “anointed one” prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the “Old Testament” – is a key person for both Jews and Christians. The major difference is that Jews don’t accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Yet we see in Jesus of Nazareth and his death and resurrection a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, like Isaiah 53:5:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities: the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
Yet when some of the Jews outside Jerusalem picked up branches and waived them at Jesus as he rode into town on a donkey, they were not thinking of that prophecy, but of others like Isaiah 9:7 – “Of the increase of his government there will be no end.” Just one week later, Jesus was hanging dead on a Roman cross. It was impossible for them to see in that spectacle a fulfillment of political prophecies about the Messiah.
The late Bible scholar F.F. Bruce helps us put together this puzzle. He observed that many Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah were accomplished by Jesus when he came to earth the first time. There are others, however, that await fulfillment upon his return. And so we read in Revelation 21 of a “new heaven and a new earth,” of one who calls himself the “Alpha and the Omega” sitting on a throne in the New Jerusalem, one who proclaims: “I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:5) Here is the picture of a King, one who will judge sin and make righteous judgments. All prophecies will have been fulfilled by the end of the story.
QUESTION 2 – Why is the Second Coming important?
We’ve seen that the Second Coming will bring about the fulfillment of the rest of the prophecies about the Messiah, but that’s only one reason it’s important. The Second coming will be when the resurrection takes place. Here’s what John 5:28-29 says:
Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.
The Apostle Paul put it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:53-55:
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?
When the resurrection has occurred, judgment must come. Paul reminded us in 2 Cor. 5:10 that we must “all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
On July 1, 2012, a bomber slipped into a church in the city of Garissa (Kenya). A few minutes later, seventeen were dead, with many more injured. Our human reaction is to seek revenge, but is that a Christian reaction? Jesus said to pray for those who misuse us and persecute us. How is that even possible? I believe one reason we don’t need to retaliate is because we believe in the Second Coming of Christ. While we should pursue justice here on earth, at the end of the day, we must admit that some will elude justice on this side of the grave. But we believe after the resurrection that God will balance the scales of justice once and for all. Those who have done good and received only ill in return will be rewarded, and those who lived in comfort while getting away with evil acts will be punished.
QUESTION 3 – Are the Rapture and the Second Coming the same thing?
We’ve become so conditioned by movies and novels to think about the Rapture as something different than than the Second Coming that we may not realize that splitting them into separate events only happened in the 19th century. This was a new teaching promoted by John Nelson Darby. But for most of Church history, theologians have understood that “Rapture” is just another way of talking about the return of Christ. The word “rapture” comes from the word raptio found in the Latin version of 1 Thess. 4:17, and simply means “caught up.” It means to suddenly be taken away. This fits with Matthew 24:30ff, which talks about the “Son of Man” who will come “on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.” Notice that there will be a trumpet sounding. No one will miss this event, this time when all living and dead will be “caught up” at the return of the King!
Yet some have seen the Rapture not as a synonym for the Second Coming but as a secret rapture. In this non-biblical way of thinking, only Christians will be spirited away from this earth, and all others will be “left behind.” What follows is seven years of great tribulation, at the end of which Christ will return.
The danger with this teaching is that it essentially teaches that Christ will return twice. If you miss the first train, don’t worry. Another train is coming. Just join the “Trib Team” and fight the Anti-Christ and you’ll be O.K. in the end. Yet Matthew 25:1-13, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, makes it clear that the bridegroom will come to the feast only once. If we are not ready to enter in with him, there will be no second chances.
The framework set-up by the “Left Behind” series of books teaches what the late Nazarene theologian William Greathouse once called “a Protestant version of purgatory.” Unfortunately, it’s no more biblical than the Roman Catholic conception. Jesus’ word to us is simple: Be ready! I ask you: If the trumpet sounded this afternoon, would you be ready? There will be no time to make things right then. It will be too late. Are you ready now?
QUESTION 4 – When will Jesus return?
This is the question that everyone would like to be able to answer with certainty. I once posed the question to Dr. Morris Weigelt, former professor of New Testament and Spiritual Formation at Nazarene Theological Seminary. It was a warm day, and we were part of a group black-topping the parking lot of our church in Kansas City. He paused, and with a grin on his face and a gleam in his eye, he replied: “Greg, I can tell you confidently, it’s closer now than it’s ever been.”
Dr. Weigelt understood that Jesus himself doesn’t know the answer to the question! Mark 13:32 affirms: “No none knows about the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
This hasn’t stopped some from making predictions. Harold Camping, a 90 year old American preacher, solicited donations and bought billboards around the world, announcing Jesus’ return for May 21, 2011. (I saw one of the billboards here in Nairobi). My older brother was pretty excited. May 21 is his birthday, and he figured that would be the ultimate birthday present. But now more than a year later, we’re still here. The world is still turning; people still go about their business. Jesus still has not returned.
I read some online responses to the Camping prediction at the Huffington Post website. One article, written a day or two later, had more than 489 comments in response! It would have taken me hours to read them all, but one near the top summed up the consensus, complaining: “That doddering old fool scared a lot of people.” Since then, Rev. Camping has admitted he was wrong, and promised not to set any more dates, but the damage to the cause of Christ and the Church has already been done.
One thing is certain: When it comes to Jesus’ return, as ardently as we want him to come back, God refuses to be tied down to our timetables. 2 Peter 3:8-9 reminds us:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like a day. 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.
QUESTION 5 – While we’re waiting, what should we be doing?
The final question takes us back to our text in Acts 1. In verse 7, Jesus reminded his disciples that the “times and dates” are in God’s hands. It’s important not to miss what Jesus does next. Essentially he says: “Get busy!” Look at verse 8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Don’t spend your time speculating about what you can never determine for sure! Instead, we have two important words of instruction from Jesus: He gave us the Great Commission and the Great Commandments. In Matthew 28:19, he ordered us to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” That’s the Great Commission. But in Mark 12:29-30, he also instructed us to love God and love our neighbor. Those are the Great Commandments. When we put them together, it sounds like this:
As you go, love…
Or we could say:
As you love, go…
To the Church, he has given the Lord’s Supper as another important celebration while we await Christ’s return. In 1 Corinthians 11:26, Paul recorded the words of Jesus: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Those last three words – “until he comes” – remind us of the Lord’s remarks in Matthew 26:29 – “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until the day when I drink it anew in my Father’s kingdom.” On that day, Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords will preside the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:16-18).
There are many questions about the Second Coming, and the New Testament gives good answers for those willing to research them. We know that Jesus the Messiah came because his life, death, and resurrection fulfilled prophecy. Likewise, we await his return when we will receive eternal life and when Jesus shall judge all wrongs. Since the New Testament talks only about Christ’s return and says nothing of a “secret rapture,” we must be ready at all times. There will only be one chance! It is true that Jesus’ return seems delayed, but God has a plan. We must trust God and not fall into the trap of making predictions. Instead, Jesus tells us to stay busy, making disciples and loving people like God loves them. And finally, as we meet around the Lord’s table, we keep the Lord’s command to celebrate our unity, looking to the time when Christ himself will take the lead and celebrate his supper with his people. What a glorious day that will be. Maranatha!