Can too much attention be given to one part of the Christian faith? Let’s consider one prominent example: the second coming of Christ.
The Christian faith is founded upon the faithfulness of God. On page after page of the Old Testament, God demonstrates His faithfulness. He is the God who can be trusted. He is holy love. He will always to be true to Himself. “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9 NRSV).
Consequently, ancient Israel knew God would be faithful, though fulfillment often came in surprising forms.
Even when Israel lamented perceived discrepancies between God’s promises and Israel’s ominous circumstances, their appeals were for God to act in marvelous ways to redeem His people.
Historians chronicled God’s faithfulness, psalmists exulted in it (Psalms 36:5; 40:10), and prophets trusted it (Isaiah11:1-5; 25:1).
Through the prophets, God promised He would make a new covenant with His people (Jeremiah 31:31-34). And He would establish His long-awaited kingdom of justice and peace. The New Testament proclaims the good news that God fulfilled these promises in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 24:13-27; Romans 15:8; Hebrews 1:1-4). Matthew says that, as promised, in Jesus, God took up permanent residence with us (Emmanuel, “God with us,” Matthew 1:18-23). He will continue to be Emmanuel for the church as it makes disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20).
Jesus, the ultimate confirmation
Early in the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Zechariah declare that in Jesus, God is “remembering his mercy” (Luke 1:54) and “raising up a horn of salvation” (1:69). Mark opens with Jesus proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus is the ultimate confirmation of God’s faithfulness (2 Corinthians 1:18-22).
But the cross and death of Christ seemed to have firmly negated God’s faithfulness. Jesus, who had gloriously announced the coming of God’s kingdom, lay brutally silenced in a borrowed tomb. However, the New Testament tells us that even in those dark hours, Christ was nailing the powers and principalities to the cross—vanquishing everything that might stand against God and His people (Colossians 2:13-15). Because of His victory, we are no longer subject to cosmic “powers and principalities” (1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Ephesians 2:1-10; 1 Peter 3:22).
The ultimate exoneration of God’s faithfulness occurred on Easter morning. Exhausted, death and hell had failed to obstruct Him. In that victory the entire Christian faith finds its inspiration, meaning, and anchor. Easter is the origin and key for understanding Christian hope—certainty that the kingdom God inaugurated in Christ, and the redemption begun in us through the Holy Spirit, will in the future be fulfilled (Revelation 11:15; 22:4-5).
A future, assured by the past
Ironically, Christian hope is dependent upon the past, upon what has already happened— Jesus’s resurrection—not upon something that will happen in the future. Christians can be unwaveringly confident about God’s future, our own resurrection, the church’s future, the kingdom’s future and the creation’s future. God, through the power of the Spirit, raised His faithful witness (Revelation 1:5) from the grave. Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father interceding for us (Romans 8:34; Colossians 3:1).
Christian hope “anchors the soul” (Hebrew 6:19) by producing “full assurance to the very end” (Hebrews 3:6; 6:11). Through the Holy Spirit, by faith, Christians now wait “for the hope of righteousness,” that is, completion of the transformation Christ is now working in His people (Galatians 5:5) until “the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). God is referred to as the “God of hope” (Romans 15:13), who thereby generates in His people “everlasting consolation and good hope through grace” (2 Thessalonians 2:16).
An essential part of that “everlasting consolation” is that one day we too shall experience a resurrection of the body like that of Christ’s own resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21). The Apostle Paul recognizes there is mystery associated with this expectation. Nevertheless, “We will not all sleep [die], but we will all be changed. . . . The trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality…then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).
Consequently, Christians have good reason to “rejoice in hope” (Romans 5:2); hope will never disappoint them (Romans 5:5); they will be saved by hope (Romans 8:24); and must “lay hold upon the hope set before them” (Hebrews 6:18 KJV). Hope is inspired and authenticated by the Holy Spirit who, Paul says, is God’s pledge or down payment (Gr. arrabon, 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:6; Ephesians 1:13-14) on promised things yet to come (cf. Romans 8:23).
What God started, He will complete
But what does all this have to do with our expectations regarding the second coming of Christ? Everything.
The New Testaments brims with promise and confidence that what God inaugurated in His Son, He will complete. And it brims with a longing for that day. An inner creative tension exists between what God has already done (the already) and what He has yet to complete (the not yet). Christians long for the “already” to be made complete. In the interim, like their Lord, Christians are supposed to be “about their Father’s business” (Luke 2:49).
The Apostle Peter‘s instruction applies: “Gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 1:13). Hope sets us to “reconciling the world to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19; Romans 11:15), not to idleness or fruitless speculation. We await our Lord’s return by seeking to transform every dimension of life in the image of Christ, and by announcing God’s Good News to all people.
Diverting hope away from Jesus
If Satan wanted to deprive Christians of their hope and confidence, what better scheme could he devise than to deceive them into transferring the foundation of their hope away from Jesus’s resurrection and ascension? What better way to detour the church from growth in Christian holiness, from loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and from binding up the broken of this earth? How better to divert our attention and waste our energies than to put us to “settling” what was never meant to be settled, and to generating unfounded “certainty” about something even Jesus himself didn’t know (Matthew 24:36)?
Satan would be delighted to trick Christians into reducing the central focus of the beautiful New Testament to an accumulation of arbitrary predictions, stale charts, meticulous time lines, and scintillating visions that contribute nothing to God’s kingdom. Church history is littered with the wreckage of failed efforts to gain certainty about events supposedly associated with Christ’s return. The crafty old deceiver knows our susceptibility.
The enemy might not be able to immobilize Christians by leading them into gross wickedness. However, he can achieve the same goal by turning our attention away from the business of God’s kingdom. The various parts of the New Testament that touch on the second coming of Christ are simply too diverse to be pressed into simple and fixed predictions. Tragically, such efforts have often provoked bitter disputes, bred smug elitist “knowledge,” and even resulted in sectarian divisions.
Come, Lord Jesus
Anticipation of the Lord’s return is important. But permitting it to squander our energies and disturb our peace is cancerous. Anticipation should send us into the fields already ripe for harvest (John 4:35), to tell a broken world about the Redeemer who has yet to meet a sinner He could not redeem.
The New Testament permits one plea regarding the second coming of Christ: “Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 16:22) and “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). The plea is for God’s fulfillment of the new creation begun on Easter morning, not for charted knowledge about the event. It is born of love, longing and confidence, not anxiety or tantalizing curiosity. It is the plea of Christ’s “spouse” (Ephesians 5:25-27) longing for the marriage supper of the lamb (Revelation 19:7).
Therefore, let no speculation deprive Jesus’s disciples of their resident hope (1 Peter 3:15). Rejoice. By the Spirit, our Lord has already delivered us from the power of darkness, already translated us into the kingdom of His dear son (Colossians 1:13; 2 Corinthians 4:6). Already we share in His resurrection (Romans 6:1-4). May “the Lord direct our hearts into the love of God, and into [a] patient waiting for Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5 KJV).
Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of religion and Christian ethnics, Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
For additional reading, the author suggests: N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (NYNY: HarperOne, 2008)