Let’s Save Apocalyptic Thinking for the Actual Apocalypse

The apocalypse is personal for me. In 1994, Harold Camping predicted the end of the world and the return of Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus himself says no one knows when he will return (Matthew 24:26). When I was young, Camping’s heresy infiltrated the church my parents were attending at the time and some people we knew in the church actually sold all of their furniture and were waiting around for the second coming. Of course, Jesus did not return in 1994. Eventually, the church split. My parents left with one of the lay elders at the church to start their own congregation which was not beholden to false teaching. We did the home church thing for a while, but never grew past about 10 people. When the preaching elder got brain cancer and died, the church disbanded. My parents then began looking around for another church and settled on LBC since it was close. The rest is history as they say.

The reason why I bring up my history with the apocalypse and apocalyptic thinking is because getting the end times wrong can have dire consequences for your faith. I suppose end times hysteria really isn’t that new, since the apostle Paul had to combat it in the first century (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2; 3:10-11). Still, it is discouraging to see believers be shaken by current events, being filled with fear and anxiety. It is disquieting to hear, as I have, some believers speak with such certainty that “things are lining up” these days to culminate in the apocalypse. The stress of COVID certainly has helped anything. The presence of war like in Ukraine and shifting morals and cultural winds in America have also added to feeling of unease for some Christians that the apocalypse may be nigh.

And maybe it is. Or maybe it’s not. We actually don’t know, per Jesus’ words: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36). So my goal here is spell out a few things: What does the New Testament actually teach about the end times and how should we live as a church in light of those teachings?

We Are in the Last Chapter (But Maybe Not on the Last Page)

When you hear the phrase “last days” what comes to mind? Probably not 2,000+ years, right? That’s exactly how long the “last days” have lasted so far!

The Bible tells us that Jesus’ incarnation, resurrection, and ascension to heaven were all events that ushered in the last days over 2000 years ago. For example, the author of Hebrews speaks of the “last days” when describing Jesus: “In these last days, [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Hebrews 1:2). The author of Hebrews, who was writing in the first century, believed that the “last days” were already upon the church.

The apostle Peter believed the same thing. When the Holy Spirit was poured out upon Jesus’ disciples on Pentecost, Peter interpreted the event as the inauguration of the last days prophecy of Joel 2: “And it shall be in the last days, God says, that I will pour forth My Spirit on all mankind” (Acts 2:17, see the whole context of 2:14-21). The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost ushered in the “last days.” Peter adds in a later writing that Jesus’ incarnation was a signal that the “last times” were upon the church (1 Peter 1:20). Even more surprising, the apostle John describes the first century church as living in the last hour (1 John 2:18). The last hour of the Biblical story, again, is 2000+ years long.

So the metaphor that I like to use is one of a chapter. We’re in the last “chapter” of the biblical story. God created the world, but we messed it up. God then began a long rescue plan, working through Abraham and then through Israel to bring the Savior into the world. Jesus was born to die. He died to save us. He then sent the Spirit to us so that we can finish the mission of declaring his excellencies to the nations (1 Peter 2:9). That’s the chapter we are in: the time when we need to accomplish the Great Commission. That’s really the only thing left to do. Everything else to accomplish our salvation, God has already accomplished in Christ. We testify to Christ and now wait eagerly for his coming.

So we’re in the last “chapter” But we don’t know what page we’re on. Are we on the very last page? (Maybe). Are we only still about halfway through? (Maybe). We just don’t know.

Jesus is Coming “Soon”

According to the New Testament, the “last day” refer the whole era of the church, from Jesus’ incarnation to his return. The “last days,” then, do not necessarily refer to the very last days just prior to Jesus’ return, but the time when the church is sent out by Christ to evangelize the world. Besides speaking of the last days to refer to the time of the church, another element of New Testament eschatology is the emphasis on Jesus returning “soon” or “quickly,” or the last days being “near.” The repeated emphasis on the seeming immediacy of Jesus’ coming has lead some Christian scholars to believe that the first-century Christians expected Jesus’ return in their lifetime. There are hints in the New Testament, however, that Jesus’ return might be delayed somewhat. Even so, how are we to understand the language of immediacy in the New Testament?

Revelation depicts all the events of the future which “must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1; 22:6). Jesus promises to come “quickly” for the salvation of his people and judgment of the wicked (Revelation 22:7, 12, 20). Jesus’ return is also spoken about being “near” (Matthew 24:33; Mark 13:29; Luke 21:31). The apostles encourage believers to live holy lives by recognizing that Jesus’ return is drawing near (Romans 13:11-12; Hebrews 10:25; James 5:8).

Probably one of the clearest texts speaking of Jesus’ return being near is 1 Peter 4:7: “The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.” So is Peter wrong? If you’re reading this, then the “end of all things” has been delayed over 2000+ years. No, Peter is not wrong in his contention of the end being near because the language of Jesus’ return being “soon,” “near,” or “quickly” has a few distinct features. It’s best to understand the language of “soon”-ness as being redempive-historical. In other words, the apostles are speaking of the time of the church being the last chapter of the biblical story. Jesus can come “soon” because everything has been accomplish to achieve salvation. Now is the time of the church’s mission, but Jesus could come back at any point during that time. Peter is also speaking in a theo-centric manner, that is, from God’s perspective. With God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day (2 Peter 3:8). So in God’s timelines, it’s only been about two days since Jesus’ ascended! It certainly would be “soon” for Jesus to return after two days, or three or five.

Should We Look for Signs of Christ’s Return?

Should we look for signs of Christ’s return? The answer is “sort of.” Yet the emphasis of the New Testament is different than we typically think. The New Testament, of course, repeatedly exhorts believers to be “watchful” or “alert” because Jesus is coming soon (Matthew 24:42-44; 24:50; 25:13; Mark 13:32-33, 34-37; Luke 12:40; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Romans 13:11-14; Philippians 3:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Titus 2:12-13; Hebrews 10:25; James 5:7-9; 1 Peter 4:7; 2 Peter 3:10-11; Revelation 1:3; 22:7, 12, 20). But the vast majority of those references refer to a moral alertness. In other words, the way believers stay “alert” is watching out for and staying away from sin. The Bible’s emphasis for us as believers is moral preparation for Christ’s return rather than prediction of when it may or may not occur.

Ironically, the Bible actually tells us some things which are not signs of Christ’s return, such as wars and rumors of wars. Jesus explicitly tells his disciples that the “church age” will be tumultuous, but that the tumult of this era is not necessarily a sign of his return:

“You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the endFor nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (Matthew 24:6-8).

Believers must not be frightened by the chaos and violence of life, for these things are part and parcel of living in a world corrupted by sin. Furthermore, believers must also resist sensationalistic thinking, believing that Christ is physically present on the earth in the current age, for many false prophets and false Messiahs will arise:

“For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many…Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. 24 For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.” (Matthew 24:5, 23-24).

The Bible makes plain that false prophets will also produce many different “signs” that could mislead people. So the presence “signs” is not necessarily an indicator of Christ’s return being at hand. They may be a satanic deception meant to mislead.

Aren’t There Some Texts Which Speak of Observing the “Signs of the Times” Though?

There are some texts which seem to imply that Christians should look for signs. Upon closer inspection, however, these texts tells to be watchful of these in slightly different ways than we typically think. The most common passage which believers argue that Jesus tells us to be on the look out for signs is the Parable of the Fig Tree, tied to Jesus’ eschatological discourses:

“Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:32-35)

“Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. (Mark 13:28-31)

Then He told them a parable: “Behold the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near. 31 So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. (Luke 21:29-33)

All of these texts seem to indicate that believers should be alert to signs of Christ’s return. Some Christians argue from this passage that just like we can tell its almost summer when fruit begins to ripen, so believers can know when Jesus’ return is near. Is that what the passage is really saying, however? Everything hinges on the identity of who Jesus is talking to. Is Jesus talking to all disciples of all time, or the disciples gathered around him at that time? Is Jesus talking about his second coming, or the coming destruction of the temple in 70AD?

I believe that Jesus is talking to his current disciples and about the destruction of the temple in 70AD. The reason why I think that he’s speaking to the disciples of his day is because every time “this generation” is used in the Gospels, it is referring to the generation currently live in Jesus’ day. What Jesus seems to be saying is this: “The temple will be destroyed soon. So be on alert. These things are going to happen in your lifetimes, disciples. And you can bank on this because my word never passes away.”

Another passage which seems to imply that believers should watch for signs is Luke 24:25-28:

“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Since Christ’s return is often depicted as a sudden event, these celestial phenomenon seem to be part of the package at the time Christ return. And of course, when these things start taking place, we should take comfort, for the complete fulfillment of our salvation. So the emphasis seems to be that when they are starting taking place, draw hope and courage in the midst of difficult circumstances. Whenever they occur, believers will see them, and based on them, they should know that Christ will deliver them out of their distress.

Do the End Times Bring Joy and Increase Your Hope, or Anxiety and Fear?

The second coming of Jesus is meant to increase our joy and give us hope. Yet too often believers seems to succumb to fear over the state of our world. “Fear not, little flock!” Jesus says, “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). That kingdom will come in great power and glory. As our Statement of Faith so eloquently puts it:

“We believe in the personal, bodily and glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission” (Article 9, LBC Statement of Faith)

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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