A friend recently asked me how many funerals and memorial services I have officiated after more than 45 years of pastoral ministry.
“Many,” I replied. Then I surprised my friend by adding, “But I really prefer memorial services to weddings.”
“Why?” he asked.
I went on to explain that people usually come to memorial services with a deep sense of need. They’re ready to hear eternal truths. In the presence of death, some are ready to make changes in life. People ought to be just as aware of their need for God at a wedding, but mostly they’re just distracted. They’re curious about what the bride will be wearing when she comes down the aisle.
Of course everything is well rehearsed, and meant to run like clockwork. In premarital counseling I tell couples (somewhat jokingly) that the ceremony is hers to plan. The groom just needs to show up and do as he’s told.
I have never officiated a wedding when we had to wait for the groom. He usually walks in with me. But there have been several weddings where everyone waited patiently for the bride to appear. The dressing room for the bride, I suspect, can be a whirlwind of activity. Her hair must be just right, the veil securely in place, and the train firmly attached. The list of preparations goes on and on, because her entrance is what everyone anticipates. At the first sight of the bride or the first rustle of her beautiful gown, everyone stands.
With these things in mind, I want to turn our attention on the Front Porch to a far more significant subject than a wedding ceremony: the return of our Lord Jesus Christ to earth.
Prophecy about the second coming or return of Jesus has periodically been a front-burner topic among Evangelical believers. In the 1960s and 70s, the second coming was a hot topic, driven by books and prophetic conferences. Hal Lindsey’s 1973 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, was popular and influential, selling over 28 million copies by 1990.
As a new and very young pastor I was caught up in the prophetic current of the day. I could draw all the “right” lines on the prophetic charts and defend the pre-millennial and pre-tribulational view. I was so convinced of the imminent return of Christ that one of my articles, published in The Shoppers Compass, a paper distributed to every home in Morrow County, was titled, “The Sound of The Seventies—a Trumpet.” Obviously, this was a reference to the trumpet announcing Jesus’ return.
Books about the end times still sell well, as authors and TV preachers continue to beat the prophetic drum. Some of those teachers and preachers have gone off the rails, however, by attempting to set a firm calendar date for the Lord’s return.
It will never work. Jesus said it wouldn’t.
I still believe Christ will literally return to earth to rule and to mete out judgment, because that is clearly taught in Scripture. Jesus promised to return. After His resurrection, while His followers watched Him ascend into heaven, they heard the angel ask why they were standing there, mouths agape, gazing up into the clouds. Then the angel promised that this “same Jesus” would return someday in the same manner—visibly and bodily.
So we wait and watch. Like a congregation craning their necks, waiting for the beautiful bride to appear and to approach her groom, true believers are to be watching for our Lord’s return to receive His bride, the church. He could appear any moment. We call that imminent. It could be today or tomorrow or any day. We don’t know and can’t predict just when He will appear. But we can be assured that He will come as He promised.
Questions fly: Will He precede or follow the great Tribulation—or maybe come in the midst?
Two things are certain: Those prophecy prognosticators with their opposing views can’t all be correct, and may all be wrong. Second, we can be certain it will happen just as God Has promised and planned all along.
Would I still compose and publish that article about the sounds of the 70s? Certainly not with the confidence and audacity I had as a very young pastor trained and deeply engrained as I was in one particular prophetic school of thought. Back then I was convinced (or so I thought) that Jesus would return momentarily and a time of great tribulation would shake the world and every civilization to the core. Since then, men who once wrote books “proving” a pre-tribulation rapture of the church are now writing books suggesting Jesus will return in the middle of the tribulation period. I wonder, did God change His schedule? Of course not! Absurd!
Long ago, I surrendered my bold confidence that I had all the lines on my prophecy chart drawn correctly. I still believe Jesus is coming again. I still believe it could happen any day or moment. But these days when I am asked by a prophetic enthusiast about my position, I respond differently.
First, I try to point out that every prophetic utterance in Scripture is either preceded or followed by a “therefore.” For example, Jesus challenged His disciples to watch and pray when they saw world-shattering events taking place. We are admonished not to be anxious but confident and prepared like the “wise virgins” in the parable in Matthew 25. In other words, don’t get lulled into sleep while waiting. And don’t follow the logic of the critics in 2 Peter 3:3-4 who confidently mock something like, “Where is His coming? Nothing has changed; nothing will. His return ain’t gonna happen!” Jesus, having affirmed that “heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away,” warned against falling into the same deception as the generation preceding Noah’s flood.
Then I consider John’s warning: “But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3-4, esv)
So where do I stand on the questions about Jesus’ return? I do have my opinions about the time and circumstances, but mostly I just hold onto the confidence that He will return, because He said He would. My job isn’t to know all the details, my job is to be prepared for His coming.
What I truly believe about Jesus’ return will be evident in my daily life—in my choices and actions. In other words, don’t ask me to tell you what I believe about the return of Jesus, rather watch me. See if I truly anticipate His imminent return or am simply spouting the party line.
I wonder…. If we who claim to believe in Jesus would put our actions where our mouths are, how might the contemporary Church be transformed? Would it affect our preaching? Would it impact the way we share our resources with the hungry and with our persecuted brothers and sisters around the globe? Would it influence my choice about how many of my material possessions are necessary or even justified? Would we lay aside our denominational prejudices? Would the divorce rate and sexual failures within the church drop if we believed Jesus might return today? Would pastors be hesitant to preach about hell if they really believed Jesus might return before the message concluded?
Granted, those are some tough questions. But they are also necessary if we want to speak with integrity when we talk about our hope in the imminent return of Jesus.
Is the bride ready—if her Bridegroom returned today? What’s the state of our preparation or anticipation?
That’s the question.
Our lives will reveal what we really believe about our Lord’s return.
“Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
What I am reading: 2 Samuel
AI Superpowers China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order by Lai-Fu Lee
Letters to The Church, Francis Chan