Most genuine Christians yearn for the return of Christ. When we contemplate the sheer magnitude of mankind’s problems, we realize there are no purely human solutions on the horizon. Whatever we do seems not to make a dent in the deepest difficulties. The world clearly needs its Savior.
Capitalizing on this need, this yearning, are all kinds of prophetic prognosticators who make handsome livings keeping Christians on the edge of their pews in anticipation of the return. Christian bookstores abound with books filled with prophetic speculation about end time events and the arrival of Messiah. Within the Churches of God Pod we too have had our prognostications, and our eager anticipations. All have, to date, come to nothing. The years 1972 and 1975, for example, came and went without event – as did a series of “19-year time cycles.”
As the Scripture says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). It does more harm than good to cry, “Wolf!” Those who speculate on the dates and times of Christ’s return, and then turn out to be wrong, lose credibility.
Over the years, we’ve heard much speculation on which individual would turn out to be the first “beast” of Revelation 13. In the 30’s, it was Hitler. Later, it was various German leaders, including the late Franz Joseph Strauss.
Speculation about the “beast” has been accompanied by speculation about the “final pope” – the second beast of Revelation 13. Several popes have been designated as “the one.” The present pope is being viewed by some as the final religious “beast” who works closely with the last political leader of a 10-nation United Europe to bring about a “world-ruling empire.” The former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is a doctrinal hardliner who for years headed up the office formerly known as the “Inquisition.” What better candidate for the “final” pope?
Point is: it’s all groundless speculation based upon exegetical assumptions upon which it is impossible to get closure. How do we know for sure that Revelation 13 is talking about a European or German leader and a Catholic pope working in tandem under the power of Satan? Are you aware that there are four possible ways to interpret the book of Revelation (Preterist, Idealist, Historical and Futurist)? Which, if any, of these is the correct one?
More importantly, Jesus himself said that we cannot know the day or hour of his return: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:36,42).
Setting dates for the Lord’s return is exegetical folly. It is contrary to Scripture. Creating in Christians unrealistic expectations is cruel and unjustified. Those who create false hope are often unethically motivated. They seek to “scare” people into their group or denomination by implying that they have some sort of inside track on how prophecy will play out in “these end times.” The perception is that their group will be protected, while others will sizzle and pop on the fiery grill of the Tribulation. Perhaps they believe themselves to be “Philadelphian” (Revelation 3:10), while others are lowly “Sardis” or “Laodicean” Christians.
Detailed prophetic speculation is almost always based on an arbitrary, and methodologically unsound, approach to the 27 percent of the Biblical verses that are deemed predictive (28.5 percent in the Old Testament, 21.5 percent in the New). Referring to the plethora of prophetic speculation that is “out there,” the late William Sanford LaSor wrote: “I am also of the opinion that many eschatological studies (studies of the end time) are written from one-sided positions – either from the Old Testament alone without taking into account how Jesus and the apostles handled those Scriptures, or from the New Testament without any understanding of the true nature of Old Testament prophecy and without using it as anything but a collection of proof-texts” (The Truth About Armageddon, Preface, p. xi).
Continues Prof. LaSor: “With the rash of books that have appeared in the past decade or so on the various subjects connected with the end of the world, I became a bit restive. Emotionalism was more evident than sound scholarship. Claims were made that could not be supported by biblical exegesis” (ibid. p. xii). LaSor wrote that in 1982. The problem has not abated in the years since. If anything, it has gotten worse.
The fact of the matter is: we do not know when Jesus Christ will return. We can hope and pray that it is in our lifetimes, but if it is not, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness”(II Peter 3:9a). Sooner or later, the Lord will return, but, as Peter also wrote, citing Jesus himself: “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (II Peter 3:10). It will happen when we don’t expect it, not when we do (Matthew 24:44).
Wasting time with prophetic speculation is not only unprofitable, it diverts energy from what we, as Christians, should be doing. The Jewish leaders of the Rabbinic period understood the futility of certain kinds of spiritual speculation. In their Oral Law (Mishnah), second division: Moed (Set Feasts), tractate Hagigah (“The Festal Offering), 2:1 we read:
“Whosever gives his mind to four things it were better for him if he had not come into the world – what is above? What is beneath? What was beforetime? And what will be hereafter?”
The sages who commented on these verses said that any speculation on these four subjects leads nowhere, serves no useful purpose, and diverts people from their moral duty. Speculating on what the world to come will be like, or what heaven will be like, is a waste of time. Speculating on what hell or the state of the dead is like is equally useless. Living in the past is of no use, since it’s gone. Once we’ve learned the lessons of history, we must move on.
Nor can we know what the future will be like, except in the most generalized sense. Speculating about specific events, timetables, sequences, and scenarios is often an exercise in futility. There are simply too many variables to speak with certainty. Those who attempt it often make fools of themselves, losing all credibility as Scriptural expositors. Jesus taught, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). Biblical religion is a religion of today. As God’s people, we seek our “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). We live by faith in God moment-to-moment. Each day has its own load of evil, as well as blessings. When it comes to the return of Christ, two things are important:
- For each Christian to be living at all times in a state of spiritual readiness. Jesus said simply, “Keep watch…be ready” (Matthew 24:42, 44, excerpts). Rabbi Eliezer is famous for saying, “Repent one day before thy death…” (Mishnah, Aboth 2:10). Since none of knows when he or she will die, it means we should live constantly in a state of repentance. If you sin, don’t waste any time before you repent of it. By the way, repenting doesn’t just mean saying, “I’m sorry.” It means we stop doing it.
- To be found doing good works and serving the Church: Jesus described the faithful and wise servant: “Who then is a 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? If will be good for that servant whose master finds him so doing when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions” (Matthew 24:45-47).
It is important to be good stewards of all that God has given us: our intelligence, our talents, our wealth, our physical skills and abilities, our spiritual gifting, our blessings, etc. etc. Whatever we do, ideally, we should do it to the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31). Everything, including our own persons, is His. We are, as Paul wrote, “bought with a price” (I Corinthians 6:20). We belong to Jesus Christ (Romans 1:6). All of the material wealth of the world is God’s; we are merely its caretakers. He says, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine” (Haggai 2:8). God asserts: “…for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills”(Psalm 50:10). Summing up, David wrote: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters” (Psalm 24:1).
Our lives are short, often full of pain and conflict, and all too suddenly over. We have a limited time to glorify God in these very transient material bodies” (cf. I Corinthians 6:20). We have no idea when the Lord will return. Surely we all hope and pray that it is soon. But whether He comes soon, or waits another 2000 years to return, each generation of Christians must be found in a state of spiritual readiness, zealously doing the Lord’s work in an always needy world. Every generation of man needs to hear the Gospel. Every flock that is generated as a result needs to be fed, not once, but constantly. The poor are always with us, as Jesus said, and they always need to be served. Widows and orphans in all times need to be taken care of (James 1:27). Reread Matthew 25:31-46 and remind yourself of what kind of people the Lord will bless in the judgment, and what kind He will reject.
For me James 1:27 sums it all up. My short version of that verse is: “Be good, and do good.” That’s how Christ should find us when He returns: being good and doing good.