October 1, 2019

Jesus Is Really Coming Soon

The end has never been nearer.

Shawn Brace

I recently sat around a restaurant table with four others discussing pressing developments in the political world. My friend Mike had, a few weeks before, recruited all of us to start a philosophy club. A couple of the guys are professors at the local public university, while the rest of us either dabble in philosophy—like me—or are pursuing graduate degrees in the subject. We all come from various Christian persuasions and certainly fall on various points of the political spectrum.

As we sat there reflecting on the current political climate in the United States—and the rest of the world—something surprising came out of my mouth. We were all miffed about the incredible polarization that has unfolded around the world, where moderates don’t seem to exist anymore, lamenting that there doesn’t seem to be any hope of returning to some sort of balance. We wondered about whether any solution even existed.

“Guys,” I suddenly offered, “it feels like Jesus is coming soon.”

Then, almost without thinking, it came out of my mouth: “Guys,” I suddenly offered, “it feels like Jesus is coming soon.”

Almost as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I sort of checked myself—both because, not knowing a few of the guys very well yet, I wasn’t sure what their views were on Jesus’ second coming and, to be honest, lately I’ve been wondering about my own views.

Because here’s the reality: as a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, I may or may not suffer from “signs of the times” fatigue. Over the nearly four decades of my life I have heard hundreds of sermons, and preached scores of them myself, about how Jesus is not only coming—He’s coming soon. You have too.

In fact, if we were to be honest, we would have to admit that we as Adventists have rarely if ever failed to take advantage of a world crisis to sound the Second Coming alarm. Think back to all the world’s major events over the past century—to World Wars I and II, to the moon landing, to September 11, to the Great Recession of 2008, to Pope Francis addressing the U.S. Congress, just to name a few—and reflect on how often Adventist preachers and writers leveraged these events to proclaim that we are, alluding to Daniel 2, “in the toes of world history,” and how Jesus must be coming soon. Some, perhaps on the fringes, have even gone so far as to set dates.

Yet here we are. Still.

Living With the Tension

This trend long predates our lifetimes, of course. Our denomination was founded nearly 160 years ago for the express purpose of proclaiming this “present truth” message of Christ’s soon return. Even older than the denominational organization were Adventist publishing efforts—starting what would quickly become known as the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald as a means to disseminate this urgent news.

All this has led some critics to conclude that our church has exerted a lot of energy “crying wolf.”

Yet honesty also demands a recognition that we live in a constant tension. There is no doubt in my mind that an honest reading of Scripture—of Daniel and Revelation, of Matthew and the Old Testament prophets—reveals that we are living in a unique time in human history, a time of unprecedented upheaval, on the doorstep of Christ’s return.

In fact, it’s not simply Seventh-day Adventists who believe this. Even as the United States, for one, becomes increasingly post-Christian, a sizable percentage of Americans believe that “by the year 2050 . . . Jesus Christ definitely or probably will have returned to earth.” When the Pew Research Center asked this question, 41 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative, including one out of every five persons who are religiously unaffiliated.1

All this is, of course, not simply a theological tension or debate. The question of whether and when Christ returns is not a mental exercise. It’s more analogous to a wife aching for her husband to return home from a long business trip than a mathematician solving an elaborate equation.

After all, if we truly believe, as I do, that the heart of the Christian message centers on communion with a Person—relating to a God who has thoughts and feelings and emotions and longings toward us, and has designed us to reciprocate—then it seems we wouldhave an infinite longing for reunion with Him, in the flesh. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). This is not a trivial theological exercise.

So what are we to do—living in this tension? Not only do we genuinely, and rightfully, believe that Jesus is returning soon, but we really want Him to as well. Yet we can get our hopes up only so many times. We don’t have the emotional or mental capacity to sit on the edge of our seats every time the Pope has tea with another world leader.

Learning From the Apostles

If anyone knows what it’s like to live in the midst of this tension, it was the early church. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus repeatedly told His disciples that He would “come again” and “receive” them to Himself (see John 14:3). As the disciples, with mouths wide open, watched Jesus vanish into the clouds, two angels stood beside them, announcing that He would “come in like manner” (Acts 1:11).

This would have been overwhelmingly joyous news to the disciples. Think about it: they had just spent more than three years with God—the most loving, compassionate, charismatic being in the universe, to say the least. To watch Him disappear from their presence would have been extremely troubling—no doubt depressingly so.

The best analogy I can come up with is the utter despondency I felt recently as I got into my car to drive to the airport on my way to Australia for two weeks, leaving my wife and three young children behind. As I looked at them in the rearview mirror, I felt as if my heart was being ripped out.

The primary task of Christ’s disciples, both then and now, is to get on with the work of witnessing to the resurrected Lord.

To say that I couldn’t wait to return home would be an understatement. Yet what I experienced is such an inadequate comparison to what Jesus experienced as He ascended to heaven. It probably approaches the emotions of the disciples as they watched Him disappear.

It’s not surprising, then, that the disciples were eager to know when they would be reunited with Jesus—and how they could know when this moment was approaching. We are familiar with Jesus’ answer in Matthew 24, of course, having heard scores of sermons on the chapter. But His words for the disciples in Acts are equally as important and informative—and better address what our role is during the extended delay.

“It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority,” Jesus told them. “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7, 8).

In other words: don’t get overly focused on all the “signs of the times.” Yes, we are to understand Matthew 24 and Revelation 13 and all the pertinent passages—most of which were not yet “present truth” to the apostles living in the first century. But the primary task of Christ’s disciples, both then and now, is to get on with the work of witnessing to the resurrected Lord, both in word and deed.

Interestingly, it is fascinating that as a part of His “signs of the times” sermon in Matthew, Jesus finished His whole exposition by announcing that those who would experience eternity would be those who treated the “least of these”—the hungry, the imprisoned, the foreigner—with grace and love (see Matt. 25:31-46). In Matthew’s telling, this was the very last teaching Jesus shared before going to the cross—the climactic end of His public teaching ministry.

Don’t miss the important connection: we can’t stop at Matthew 24. Chapters 24 and 25 are one long sermon in response to how we can know Christ will be coming soon. We will know Christ is coming soon not only when we see upheaval in the world but when we see works of justice and compassion in the church.

So being Second Coming people means living with hopeful expectancy of Christ’s return while also pursuing His healing mission in the world. It means proclaiming His truth and, just as important, living it out.

This is how we live in the tension.

Learning From Contemporary Jews

Just a couple days after my declaration to my friends in the philosophy club, I found myself sitting at a different restaurant table with another friend. He’s an older Jewish gentleman, with a philosophy degree from Yale and an architecture degree from MIT. We meet every few weeks to discuss a whole gamut of topics, ranging from religion to politics to philosophy to life. And yes, Jesus often comes up in our conversations, though my friend is nowhere near a believer in Christ’s Messiahship, as far as I can discern.

I was even more shocked by what he said in reflecting on our current political climate than what I had said a few days before. He offered that there was about a 20 percent chance that the next presidential elections in the U.S. wouldn’t happen. He went on to say that in his opinion there’s a 50 percent chance that the U.S. military will have to step in, either siding with Congress or the president to make sure the elections take place.

After I recovered from my utter surprise, I realized that I was now at liberty to share my own shocking perspective. “I was just saying the other day,” I remarked, “that it seems like the end of the world is near and that Jesus is coming back soon.” I then went on to explain how we Adventists believe this has all been predicted in the book of Revelation—admitting, however, that we don’t want to get too extreme with our prognosticating.

He found it interesting, politely acknowledging the perspective. Then he shared something fascinating. “Jews believe,” he said, “that before the end of the world and the messianic age, God has given us the task of perfecting the world. God created us to join Him in works of justice and compassion.”

Then it dawned on me: this is what it means to be expectant Second Coming people. We passionately proclaim Christ’s soon return, and we recognize and humbly announce the signs of the time. But in the meantime we participate in God’s mission of healing the world, doing works of justice, compassion, and love. This is essentially what Ellen White said was our end-time task, pointing to Isaiah 58 as the “special work now before us.”2

After all, Jesus may not come tomorrow, but we know there will always be fellow humans who need our help tomorrow. Only the Second Coming can and will ultimately set everything aright.

Until then, however, borne of our deep appreciation for His grace and forgiveness, we relentlessly pursue His mission in the world, proclaiming and demonstrating His love.

  1. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2010/07/14/jesus-christs-return-to-earth/, accessed July 19, 2019.
  2. See Ellen G. White, Welfare Ministry (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), pp. 29-34.

Shawn Brace, a pastor in Bangor, Maine, United States, is married and has three children. The family’s ministry has increasingly focused on mission, discipleship, and incarnating the gospel in their neighborhood and city—a journey that can be tracked via their podcast, Mission Lab.