When is Jesus coming back?
At one time Martin Luther thought the Pope was the Antichrist, and expected Jesus’ return during his lifetime. Christopher Columbus thought the world would end in 1656, and that his explorations would lead a Christian army in the final crusade to convert the world. Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, predicted the “rapture” in 1910 and the end of the world in 1914.
Closer to home, Harold Camping wrote the bestseller 1994? in which he predicted the end would come on September 6, 1994. Edgar Whisenant published Eighty-eight Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, and sold thousands of copies. Trinity Broadcasting Network president Paul Crouch predicted an apocalyptic event for June 9, 1994. Such predictions will continue, because every believer wants to know: when will Jesus return? Our question is not new.
The perennial question
After Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples “over a period of forty days and spoke to them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). He then promised them the Holy Spirit (v. 5). They knew that the coming of the Spirit and the coming of the Kingdom were related. So in response, they asked the question Christians have been asking ever since: “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6).
Their question was logical, but wrong. Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (v. 7). “Times or dates” refers to specific dates as well as years. “Not for you” relates to Jesus’ first and closest disciples—Peter, James, John, the others, and even his brothers and Mary. If Jesus wouldn’t tell them when he would return, will he tell you and me? If discovering the time of his return was possible by scriptural exegesis or spiritual commitment, would they not have determined it? To say that I know what Peter, James, John, and Mary did not is egotism, to say the least.
The Father has placed this decision in his authority alone (Mark 13:32-33; 1 Thessalonians 5:1; 1 Peter 3:10; Luke 12:35-36, 38-40). No one but God knows when Jesus will return. We must be ready every day, for it could be any day. This is the clear teaching of God’s word.
The practical issue
Why, then, does the Second Coming matter? Jesus makes clear the practical response to our perennial question: “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The Bible is not a speculative book. We ask rational, philosophical questions. We want to know about creation and the end-times, two subjects about which we can do nothing.
But God’s word was not written in the western, Greek, rational tradition. It is a Hebrew book, written from the Hebrew present-tense, practical worldview. It seldom tells us all we want to know, but it tells us more than we can do. And it is clear: “You will be my witnesses.” No one knows when Jesus will return, so everyone must be ready. You and I must be ready. Then we must help other people to be ready.
And we have only today to do so. The early Christians were sure about this. And so they lived in the daily expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. They wanted to be found doing what they would be doing if they knew Jesus were coming back that day. They wanted everyone they knew to be right with God, today. They had a passion for missions and evangelism, for they knew the time was short.
And they were right. Jesus may come back for us all today. Or you and I may go to him. Either way, the time is short (Romans 13:11-13; 2 Peter 3:11-12; John 9:4; 1 John 2:28; Revelation 16:15; 22:12). If right now you’re thinking, “I have plenty of time, this doesn’t apply to me,” know that you are deceived and wrong.
You’ve probably heard the old story about the time the devil had a meeting of his demons to decide how best to deceive men and women. One said, “Let’s tell them there’s no heaven,” but the devil said that wouldn’t work, that God has put heaven in every heart and we know it’s real. Another said, “Let’s tell them there’s no hell,” but the devil said that people know wrong must be punished, so that won’t work. Finally a third said, “Let’s tell them there’s no hurry.” And they did. And they still do.
The glorious promise
So we are not to speculate about Jesus’ return, but work hard to be ready for it. Then one day, it will come. Just as he ascended to heaven, so he will come again to earth. Jesus’ ascension is no literary invention, but a real fact of history. Seven times the New Testament speaks of it and its importance (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:22; Acts 2:32-33; Luke. 24:50-53; John 6:62; John 20:17; Ephesians 1:18-23).
Jesus’ return will be just as real as his ascension. Buddha never made this promise, or Mohammad, or Confucius, or Joseph Smith. But Jesus did. He told his disciples, “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:27-28).
He told the high priest, “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). He claimed, “Men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens” (Mark 13:26-27).
Revelation 1:7 shouts, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.” Can you say “amen” to the promise of his return? If it were today, would you mourn or rejoice? We are one day closer to the Second Coming than ever before in human history. I cannot promise you that Jesus will return today. But I cannot promise you that he will not.