We've come to the end of the church year. There are just four Sundays left before Advent begins again. Traditionally, the final Bible readings of the church year direct our attention to the end of the world. This Sunday we focus on Christ's final return to earth.
Instead of focusing on one Scripture reading for our meditation today I've selected a number of texts which tell us about Christ's return. The first of these selections comes from Matthew 24.
Before Jesus' crucifixion and glorious resurrection from the dead, his disciples approached Him and asked what the end of the world would be like. These first readings come from what Jesus told them.
Matthew 24:14, 27, 36 (ESV)
14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man."
36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.
PREDICTED BUT UNPREDICTABLE
Jesus promised His followers that He would return to earth one day to judge the world of sinners with righteous judgment. At that time He would gather to Himself all those who loved Him, trusted in Him and were waiting for His return.
But because God is merciful, a period of time would intervene before Jesus returned in glory to judge the world. During this period of time the message of all that Jesus did to save sinners from hell would proclaimed to the world. Sinners would hear the message that they were doomed to hell by their sins, but saved through Christ's suffering and death in their place. They would hear how God the Father raised Jesus from the dead to show all people that this Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Savior that He had sent. Through Him our sins are forgiven. Through Him we have a place in heaven.
Only after the message of Jesus was heard by all nations, would He be seen by all nations.
Some churches teach that Jesus will come back secretly before the end of the world and "rapture" or "snatch away" His believers YEARS before the end of the world takes place. But Jesus never taught such a rapture. He said very clearly that when He returns to the earth His appearing will be like the lightning that flashes in a thunderstorm. In other words, Christ's return will not be hidden at all, but visible to all people from one end of the earth to the other.
Everyone will see Jesus when He returns, but none will know when that appearing will happen. In fact, before Christ was crucified, not even He knew when His final return would occur. Keep that in mind the next time some false teacher predicts the exact day of Christ's return. Jesus says that no human can know when that day will be. Christ's return is predicted by God's Word, but His return is also unpredictable.
May this move us all to meditate on our own sins, and to constantly confess them to God. Only through faith in Christ can we be ready for His sudden return.
1 Corinthians 15:24-28 (NIV)
24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
CHRIST TO LEVEL ALL AUTHORITY
I don't know about your house, but lately we've been flooded with calls from candidates for office. It doesn't seem like you can pick up the phone, switch on the TV, or check your email without getting blitzed by some campaign ad. In fact, while I was typing out this paragraph of the sermon I got a recorded call from Dr. James Dobson telling me that voting is important.
We exist in a world of authorities. There's the president and the government in Washington DC. There's police and doctors. There's teachers and parents. No matter who you are, authorities exist above or below you.
But when Christ returns, all this will come to an end. The apostle Paul tells us, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that when Jesus returns He will destroy all dominion, authority and power. Every human being will stand on level ground before God the Father.
This leveling of all authority won't stop at human authority either. Paul tells us that even death will be leveled, stripped of its authority on that last day.
Even more remarkable than this is the fact that after Jesus Christ has leveled all dominion and authority and handed their power back to God the Father, even Christ, in so far as He is truly human, will stand subject to God the Father.
Let us keep this in mind as we exercise any authority that we have been given by God. Parents. Bosses. Teachers. Pastors. One day we will have to hand that authority back to God, and stand before Him in judgment. Without the gift of Christ's forgiveness, we would be condemned for the misuse of our authority, or we would be condemned for our rebellion against authority. Thank God that Christ's righteousness covers our sins today, and will cover us when Christ returns.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 (NKJV)
2 Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, 2 not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. 3 Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.
EVENTS BEFORE CHRIST'S RETURN
Jesus told His disciples that the Gospel would go out to the whole world before He would return in glory. In his letter to the Thessalonian Christians, the apostle Paul reveals that at his time there were two other things that were predicted to happen before Christ was to return. First, "the falling away" would happen, and second, the "man of sin" would be revealed.
"The falling away" refers to Christians falling away from faith. While we aren't given many details about this falling away, there can be little doubt that it has already taken place. The church as it existed in Paul's day has been splintered and shattered throughout the centuries, divided by false teachers and false teachings. The magazine "Christianity Today" claims that there are over 41,000 different denominations that call themselves "Christian". While many of these churches still teach the Gospel message, many have watered down Christ's message, completely abandoned it, or they tolerate doctrines or practices which directly contradict Christ's clear teaching.
As for the second thing that Paul mentions, the revealing of the "man of sin" there can be little doubt that he HAS been revealed. 2 Thessalonians 2 describes this "man" as being already active behind the scenes in Paul's day. It says that he would take "his seat in the temple of God" and proclaim himself to be God. Paul says that although this force opposing Jesus would be identified before the final coming of Christ, this "man of sin" would remain, would only be destroyed by Christ when He finally arrives on the last day.
To this day the Roman Catholic Church claims to be the only true church of God. The head of this church, the pope, claims to be the God given "stand in" for Jesus Christ on earth. As such the pope claims astounding things for himself. Official Catholic doctrine states that when the pope speaks on spiritual matters, he cannot make a mistake. It claims that the pope has final and absolute authority to interpret what the Word of God means. The pope claims he can forgive a person's sins on a whim, and by his own authority. The pope who preceded the current one once declared that it was possible for people to make it to heaven without any faith in Christ at all, if only they lead a good enough life. And just after the time of Luther, the papacy announced, in an official document that still stands today, that anyone who thinks they're going to heaven through simple faith in what Jesus did for them - is damned.
What other "man of sin" who sits in the "temple of God" exalting himself to be above God fits the description God gave us?
Paul told the Thessalonian Christians not to believe that the Christ had already come. He told them that certain predicted things still needed to occur before His final return. But for the Christian of today, we can be sure that these things HAVE come. The great falling away has happened and the "man of sin" has been revealed. The return if Christ can come now at any time.
1 Thessalonians 2:19, 3:11-13, 5:23 (NKJV)
19 For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? 20 For you are our glory and joy.
11 Now may our God and Father Himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all, just as we do to you, 13 so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints.
23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.
RESURRECTION, REUNION, AND RIGHTEOUSNESS IN CHRIST
In his first letter to the Thessalonian Christians, the apostle Paul says he looks forward to standing before Jesus with the Thessalonians Christians beside him and in the company of all the believers who had come before. With his words Paul directs our minds to the final resurrection.
In this same letter Paul describes how on the last day Jesus will descend bodily from the sky with a great cry and the trumpet call of God. In an instant those who died trusting in Christ for forgiveness will be raised from the dead to stand beside the believers still living on the earth. And then together they will be lifted up to meet Jesus in the air. Eternal life with Christ will begin in the sky.
This is what you and I have to look forward to! Resurrection and reunion awaits us! And all this is made possible because the Holy Spirit has brought us to trust in the message that Jesus suffered and died in our place, and was raised to life because His sacrifice was accepted. Only through Christ are our sins atoned for, and this exciting future made ours.
And so Paul encourages the Thessalonian Christians to keep on loving one another in Christ. To keep on building each other up in faith through the Scriptures. To keep the grip of faith tight on the promises of Christ.
And because the Holy Spirit has preserved these words for us to hear, these encouragements from Paul come to us today also. Let us also keep on encouraging one another to hold onto Christ by faith, and to look forward to our resurrection, reunion, and to the day when Christ's righteousness will be sealed upon us forever.
2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-13 (NIV)
3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
ENCOURAGEMENT TO BE PATIENT
Many think what we're doing here today is foolish. Why meet to remember the promises of a man who lived 2,000 year ago? Why do we still expect Him to return? It's been so long!
But the apostle Peter reminds us to wait patiently just like God. God isn't dragging His feet in keeping His promise of Christ's return. God is patiently waiting for His people to share His message. God is patiently working through the Gospel message, bringing sinners to repentance and faith in the one Savior. Because God is gracious and loving, He waits, and works through His Word.
But just like the flood eventually came in Noah's day, the return of Christ will also come at last. For the scoffers, the time of grace will come to an end. For the believers the time of patient waiting will come to an end. And then our new home will be revealed.
Perhaps you've let impatience get the better of you before. Maybe you were waiting for a ride home. Someone had promised to pick you up, but it was taking forever. And so, frustrated by the wait, you left to find another way home. But only a few moments after you turned the corner, your ride arrived. Traffic, or some other complication had gotten in the way, but your ride HAD arrived - only to find you were missing.
Don't let the world make you impatient for Christ. He keeps His own schedule, and for reasons we do not always know. What we do know is that His reasons are gracious and right.
Thousands of years intervened between the time when God promised to send the Savior, and when Christ was born. But, regardless of the time, He came. The same will be true when Christ Jesus comes again. He promised to return when he ascended up into the sky, disappearing from the disciples view. And regardless of the time, He will come again. Believe it. Trust His promise, and pray that we might wait patiently while cherishing and sharing the promises connected with His return.
1 John 2:28 (ESV)
28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.
BEING READY - ABIDING IN CHRIST
No talk about Christ's return is complete without talking about what makes us ready for His return. You can talk about what's going to happen on that day. You can talk about the signs that precede that day. You can talk about what's going to happen after Christ returns. But, what really matters is that you and I are ready to meet our Creator and Savior in person.
The apostle John says that we'll be ready for Christ's return if we abide in Him. What a strange little phrase that is, "abide in Christ". To "abide" in Christ, to "live" in Christ is simply to trust in Him. To live each day with Christ as our great hope. This means letting our sins go as the horrible things that they are, dropping them at the foot of His cross, and knowing that because of His death, we truly stand forgiven.
Abide in Christ my friends. Your salvation doesn't depend on how well you've avoided temptation in the past, or how well you'll avoid it tomorrow. Sincerely seek to live according to Christ's commands, for sure, but remember that He is your Savior, not just your coach. By faith in His grace, you are ready to embrace Him with confidence when He comes in glory, instead of shrinking back in shame. To those who have rejected Him He will come as judge. But to those who trust in His promise of forgiveness, He comes as the long expected Savior.
Thanks be to God for the gift of life and for the gift of eternal life in Christ. Thanks be to God for the promises He has kept, and the ones yet to be fulfilled.