Some things we Christians believe seem extraordinary. Probably because they are. I mean, a big fish swallowing a man who lived in its stomach for three days, and also lived to tell about it? Or a type of sweet cake that appears with the morning due six days a week, for forty years! And then one day stops because a new source of food is available. How about a man born blind suddenly able to see? Or a gold coin lodged in the throat of a fish—the exact fish Peter “just happened” to catch after Jesus told him what to do.
There are so many others, but none ranks higher than Jesus rising from the tomb He’d been buried in. This was not a resuscitation or even the kind of resurrection Lazarus experienced. Jesus came alive and received a new, glorified body—one that transcended the laws of physics and would never die again.
His model 2.0 is the precursor to His return. It’s also the proof and precursor to our own resurrected bodies which we’ll receive one day, but that’s a topic for another day.
What I’ve been thinking about is a question that recently got me thinking. Are Christians expecting Jesus’s return to be a surprise that will catch everyone off guard, in the same way that a thief who comes in secret surprises a homeowner? Or are there clear prophecies that mark out what must happen before Christ will come again?
I’ve always thought the answer is, Both!
After all, Scripture says more than once that we are to be ready, to be alert, to be like the servant awaiting for his master’s return, like the wedding attendants ready with the extra oil for the bridegroom’s appearance. And yet, Jesus gave a list of things that would happen that He called the beginning of the end: wars and rumors of wars, false prophets and persecution, earthquakes and famine, the darkened sun and the darkened moon.
Paul seems to reinforce the idea that the day of Christ’s return will be sudden and yet will follow a set, recognizable series of events. He said in his first letter to the Thessalonian church that believers should not be like everyone else:
For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. (5:2-6)
So, like a thief, but it won’t overtake believers like a thief.
In some ways this makes perfect sense. Christians who know the Bible will know the signs that indicate Christ’s return is imminent. Those who do not know the gospel of God will miss those signs or will poo-poo them when they’re told what is to take place.
Of course, convincing unbelievers that signs do exist is all the harder because Christians don’t agree. A quick Internet search uncovered articles that named ten signs, seven signs, fourteen signs. So which is it?
Some theologians concentrate on the signs mentioned in the New Testament. Besides the things Jesus said, we have Paul’s list in his second letter to Timothy:
But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. (3:1-6)
Of course, there’s also Revelation, but the discussion about this book of prophecy is more of what scholars say about the prophecies from the Old Testament: how much is fulfilled prophecy, how much future; how much is literal and how much figurative? In these disputed passages we find such things as nations ganging up against Israel, the establishment of a worldwide government, the gospel of God preached to every tribe and tongue, and the re-institution of the Jewish sacrifices in the temple. Oh, and the rise of the Antichrist.
A segment of evangelical Christianity solves the question, will Christ come back like a thief, surprising us all, or like the final chapter of a well-orchestrated drama, with His triumph as the beginning of all things new, by suggesting two returns. Well, it isn’t worded that way, but that’s the essential idea. First Christ returns to take believers out of this world, then Christ returns to bring judgment on those who remain. And on the world, the universe, everything corrupted by sin, it would seem.
There’s reason to believe this idea, chiefly given in 1 Thessalonians when Paul is explaining that those who already died will receive their resurrected bodies first, before those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return. The latter, he says, will be caught up and meet Christ in the air.
I have to admit, I’m not convinced that this meeting in the air is a precursor to Christ’s return and not a part of it. But how it all works, I don’t know.
I don’t know if we’ll be able to see the rise of the Antichrist and know that it is he. Some believers think Christians will be long gone by then, but I believe Scripture says there’s going to be persecution during this time, so I tend to think Christians will still be here.
But that’s a guess. As educated as I can make it, but still a guess.
The one thing I’m sure of is that no one will know when Christ is going to return. Jesus made that fact very clear, so from that standpoint, His return will be a surprise. Which is why we must be alert.
But can we see that men are lovers of selves, of money, boastful, arrogant, disobedient, and all the rest? Sure. Can we see the increase in wars and rumors of wars, in famine and earthquake and disease? Absolutely. Can we see the political forces lining up against Israel and the growth of a global economy that could lead to a global government? You bet.
So what does all this tell us about Christ’s return? I think we’re back to BOTH. We can see the signs Scripture laid out crystallizing, yet we know we won’t know the day or hour when Christ will come back. We know it’s sooner today than it was yesterday. We know it’s sure. We know we need to be alert and to be about our Father’s business, being the ambassadors for His kingdom He wants us to be.