Jesus Returns - Not a Date, but a Reasonable Pattern
"Doomsday prophet wrong again." This was the October 22, 2011 headline, the day after Camping's latest prediction failed. Before that it was May 21, 2011. All told, he's been wrong twelve times since 1978. As the saying goes, "With friends like Camping, Christianity needs no enemies."
Indeed this kind of nonsense fuels hostiles and intimidates friendlies. A core Christian conviction gets little serious press even in the Christian world. Jesus himself assures us, "I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you will be also." John 14:3 His return was reiterated by the heavenly messenger who met the disciples after Jesus ascended to heaven. "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will return in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven." Acts 1:11
Just before this, Jesus had told the disciples not to expect precise dates. "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority." Acts 1:7 That anyone would attempt to predict a date baffles me.
So what can we know?
God has given us enough to recognize the event when it happens without being distracted from daily responsibilities to serve Him and others today. Isn't that how it happened with his first coming? There was enough info at hand to cause the likes of Anna and Simeon to know without a doubt that they had met their Messiah in his infancy.
So it is with the approaching return of Jesus and the events that will accompany it. The fact is certain and there's a pattern of events leading up to it. Yes, for some it will be a startling surprise, like a thief in the night. But the biblically informed believer will easily recognize events unfolding toward the Savior's climactic return. And when it finally happens, there will be no doubt that it is happening. "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God." I Thessalonians 4:16 That will be hard to miss no matter what your convictions.
Yes a pattern is found displayed all over the Scriptures. It's hard to isolate any one text that makes it clear. It goes something like this:
Satan was restrained at Christ's first coming.
The gospel is now advancing around the world.
The enemy counters with such violence as to seem to win the day.
When hostility is at its fiercest, Jesus will return in power and glory.
Here's why I hold these convictions. When Jesus died and rose from the grave a couple of cosmic issues were settled. First, the penalty for human sin was once for all paid. Believing sinners are now reconciled to God and endowed with his Spirit who enables them to enjoy God's presence, resist the enemy and serve their fellows. Secondly, Satan lost his ability to accuse. Up until Christ, Satan seemed to have access to God in some way. Remember Job? Satan, with justification, accused us of sin and God of unrighteousness for putting up with us. All that ended when Jesus died and rose again. He satisfied all that was required for God to remain just while believers are spared eternal judgment. Jesus commented to his disciples, "I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven." Luke 10:18 That this took place at Christ's first advent is made quite clear in Revelation 12. After Jesus was born and ascended back to the Father (vs.5), war broke out in heaven. The dragon and his minions were thrown out, never again to have direct access to God. (vs.7-10) Revelation 20 refers to this event as the "binding of Satan. He is bound in the sense that he cannot keep the gospel from advancing by "deceiving the nations" He can however harass us but only so far as God allows it to test our faith and display the power of the gospel.
Speaking of harassment
If you read on in Revelation 12 you'll see that, having been cast out of heaven, Satan now goes on a rampage to destroy God's people. You see the mother in Revelation 12 is not merely Mary but the covenant community through which the Messiah was delivered to the world (Israel) and by which He is proclaimed to the world (the church). The woman symbolizes God's people in both her Old Testament and New Testament form. So our times, now already over 2000 years long, comprise a period in which two things happen: on the one hand the gospel advances toward every tribe and nation. Jesus assured us that the gates of hell would not be able resist this advance. (Matthew 16:18) On the other hand the enemy pushes back. He has always tried to discredit the true God and his people, but it is getting more intense and violent. More on this later.
For 1260 days?
This is the period referred to above in which the Church thrives and draws the enemy's fury. Revelation 12:14 calls it "time, times and half a time." In the previous chapter there's yet another term for the same period, "forty-two months." Do the math. All three work out to approximately 3 1/2 years. But they refer to a period of time already over 2000 years long. Why the multiple terms? It's a signal that we're not to look at our calendars but to an analogy. The first and obvious event that comes to mind is the ministry of Jesus Christ. From his baptism to his crucifixion and resurrection is about 3 1/2 years. Now the Scriptures make it clear that the church, called the body of Christ is to carry on the ministry of Jesus. Just as He suffered, we, his body, must expect to suffer for his name. "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but suffer..." That's why our age is referred to as a period of 3 1/2 years.
But the enemy is not pleased at all
As the gospel advances into every nook and cranny of the universe, what would you expect Satan to do? He would mount an offensive to discredit Christ and his people. And we have given the enemy plenty of stuff to work with. It is a measure of the greatness of God that he has entrusted the advance of his kingdom to the frail and sinful who cling to Jesus by faith. Our hope is not in our goodness but in Christ's righteousness counted to our credit by God. Yet we are in process. So God's people have always provided Satan and those under his influence plenty of fodder for their fury. Yet, despite our failures, there is hardly a square mile on earth where there isn't someone who loves Jesus. God set it up this way so that it would be clear to all that the power resides in the gospel itself, not in those who promote it.
Revelation 11 tells of two witnesses who preach the gospel with great power and effectiveness for 1260 days. We already know that 1260 days is a symbolic term for our times, the time between the first and second coming of Jesus. The two witnesses stand for the organized church faithfully (not perfectly) preaching and practicing the gospel. As might be expected the beast that rises from the bottomless pit makes war against them and kills them. The whole world celebrates the demise of the organized church, but only for 3 1/2 days. That is a symbolic number that compels comparison with the 3 1/2 years. By contrast, a very short time. So the organized church will be destroyed as we near the end of our age. Imagine: no more public places for worship, no more Christian media, no more publishing houses, no more Christian schools and universities. Every organized expression of the Christian faith evaporates. God's people are left to themselves and God. Will our faith stand the test? Jesus asked, "When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?" Luke 18:8
Books I've found helpful even though I disagree on some points.
After a very short time there is a complete reversal. The two witnesses come to life and are summoned to heaven. Rev.11:11,12. Paul wrote more fully about this in plain ordinary prose. You'll find it I Thessalonians 4:13-18 (Click and read for yourself!) This is the best description of the Lord's return found in Scripture. On that day those who have died in the Lord will rise first. Then we who are alive will join them traveling to meet the coming Lord in the air. We all return to this old world which we find to be totally transformed into the New Heavens and the New Earth. The judgement of the wicked has already taken place. God's people now face the eternity described in so many places in Scripture, among them Isaiah 65:17-25 and Revelation 21
What to do
See? There's a clear pattern to watch, but no dates. We don't need dates, but we do need to be aware and live accordingly. What might that look like? Peter gives a pretty good answer. "Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish and at peace." II Peter 3:14 Let me unpack.
First and foremost settle your relationship with the coming Christ. Is He your Savior or your Judge? The time to get that clear is now, not on the day He returns.
Secondly, seek to be more dependable than dependent. Yes, take full advantage of the encouragement to faith offered by the church and Christian literature and song. But don't depend on them. Look to Jesus alone for strength and comfort. Remember that the day comes when these will all be gone.
Thirdly, pray your life will attract others to the Savior. Many we care about are still clueless, but heavy-handed proselytizing won't do. The world is rightly suspicious of our marketing the gospel. It's time to live it and speak it gently when we have the opportunity.
Finally, pray your heart out! 'nough said.