The Imminent Return of Christ

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From day to day, our lives revolve around the future. We live moment by moment in anticipation of what the morrow may hold. Many of the anticipated events are quite mundane such as meal and work schedules; however, others we may look forward to with trepidation or concern such as looming crises or obligations.

There is an event, though, that Christians of all ages have looked forward to ever since Jesus said those immortal words in revelation 22:20. “Surely I come quickly.” We are referring to the doctrine of the return of our Lord. By referring to it as a doctrine we are made aware of the fact that it is more than just an idea of man – this is a Bible truth that needs to be taught and expressed to the rising generation.

The New Testament is full of verses that suggest that the early church believed in the imminent return of Christ. The personal pronouns that the apostle Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17 make it clear that he was including himself with those “who would be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.” In chapter one as he commends them for their work of faith, he encourages them “to wait for his Son from heaven.” If we wait for something, we are clearly expecting it.

One of the earliest books of the new Testament to be written was probably the epistle of James. James 5:8-9 give a very colorful illustration of the imminent return. “Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold the Judge standeth before the door.” “Behold the Judge standeth before the door” gives us a picture of a judge standing behind a closed door leading to his seat. The throne room waits in anticipation for the door to open and the judge to take his seat of authority. What a vivid picture this gives of the return of Christ!

There are some misconceptions concerning this doctrine. Probably because of verses like the ones mentioned above, we sometimes equate imminence with quickness. The dictionary definition of imminence is “likely to occur at any moment.” Therefore, it is incorrect to say that Jesus must return soon. He may return today, but He may not. In fact, he may tarry another 500 or even 1000 years even though – given the state of the world around us – we hardly see how that would be possible. What did Jesus mean then when He said, “Behold I come quickly”? We must understand that Jesus said that He will return quickly so that each generation reading those words will apply them to their own experience. In this sense it is a motivator for us to walk circumspectly, carefully avoiding the pitfalls that will hinder our relationship with God. We must also remember that from God’s perspective the 2000 years that have elapsed since John wrote Revelation is but two days according to 2 Peter 3:8. God is not limited by time as we are. The past and the future are always present to Him.

Another false concept is the belief that Jesus will not come until we begin to see the signs of the end times. Just prior to the parable of the fig tree toward the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus gave His disciples a rundown of the time of trouble that will come on the earth prior to the return of our Lord. Some of these things, like wars and rumors of wars, have been a part of this world ever since our Lord spoke these words (Matthew 21:6). So we take from this that trouble in the world – even a seeming increase of troubles – does not necessarily point to an immediate return of Christ. In fact, Jesus even says that the “end is not yet.” There are cataclysmic events that will transpire during the tribulation period ushering in the second coming of our Lord, but belief in an imminent return precludes unnatural signs that would “give away” the rapture. It will be “at a moment when ye think not” (Luke 12:40). The New Testament gives admonition to look for the Jesus’ return, not the tribulation, as in 1 Thessalonians 5:2. In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, Paul would not have encouraged us to wait for the return of Christ if there was another event that would precede or introduce it. There is not one thing that must happen before our Lord returns.

Why is the doctrine of the imminent return of Christ important for us today? Because of our inherent tendency of procrastination, we naturally put off till the last minute needed preparations for an event. Since we do not know when Christ will return, but do know that we need to be ready spiritually, it behooves us to constantly keep our lives in order. This will have a noticeable effect on the way we live. Our material needs will be clearly separated from our wants. We will seem to be out of sync with the worldly system around us. It will make a difference in the way we think. “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1Jo 3:3). There is no aspect of our lives that will not be touched by this realization. It will also make us painfully aware of the millions who may be caught unprepared. My lack of watchfulness and the corresponding carelessness that goes along with it will also prevent me from diligently seeking the lost and helping them find their way.

It is also important for us to keep our focus. It is possible for us to become so involved with the mechanics of end time events that we miss the seriousness and the solemnity of the return. How awful it would be for us to be all excited about every detail of eschatology, and yet not be ready for the return of Christ because we were not excited about meeting our dear Savior face to face. “For our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ph 3:20). Even so come Lord Jesus!

~Peach Bottom, PA
January 2011