When we look around at the world today, it would be easy for us to come to the conclusion that the eschatological end is very near. Western society has reached new levels of celebrating evil, persecution is rising in America and is already prevalent throughout the world, and the church has largely abandoned the true gospel. Every day’s headlines seem to fit with what the Bible says to expect before the coming of God’s day of judgment, so surely Christ’s return is around the corner!
While Christ indeed could return at any time and we need to be ready, we should also remember that we are not the first believers to conclude that we must be in the last of the “last days.”
Who first expected Christ’s return at any moment to their godless time? The very first generations of Christians. Sometimes people talk about how America has descended into a Romans 1:18-32 situation and is thus ripe for final judgment, but the fact is that the conditions described in that passage already existed in the Roman world of the first century. People worshipped literal images of creatures rather than the Creator (Rom 1:18-23); indulged in rampant fornication, adultery, and homosexuality (Rom 1:24-27); and promoted many other sins associated with a debased mind (Rom 1:28-32). Actually, Paul’s whole point in Romans 1-3 is not to talk about what the world will eventually become but what the world generally is: sin-ridden, under God’s wrath, and desperately in need of the saving gospel of faith.
Additionally, persecution and apostasy were huge issues in the first century. Both Jews and Gentiles periodically attacked Christians, especially with Nero’s persecution in Rome starting in AD 64 and Domitian’s empire-wide persecution starting around AD 89. Christ and the apostles warned that times of persecution would come as part of the last days, and the early church experienced such times (Mt 5:11; 10:23; Lk 21:12; Acts 8:1; 2 Thess 1:4; 2 Tim 3:10-12; 4:6-8; 2 Pet 1:13-15; Rev 1:9; 2:9-10; 13; 3:8-10). As for apostasy, the apostles were constantly dealing with false teachers in the churches, whether these teachers were adding OT rule-keeping for salvation (Galatians), advocating some kind of gnostic asceticism (Colossians), or simply trying to secure exclusive authority against the apostles (2 Corinthians, 3 John). Paul and Peter warned that more false teachers would come and lead many to fall away (Acts 20:29-30; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 2 Pet 2:1-3), and Jude and John later confirmed that such was already happening in their own time (Jude 1:3-4; 1 John 2:18-19).
In the midst, then, of incredible godlessness, persecution, and false teaching, you can understand why many believers in the first century thought that Christ was about to return! But Jesus didn’t. And later generations of Christians similarly expected Christ to return in their own times and even identified many good candidates for the antichrist, whether Roman emperors, Catholic popes, or modern dictators or presidents. Yet these Christian speculations also were not accurate. Christ did not and still has not returned.
The lesson to be learned from all this is not that Christ won’t return (2 Pet 3:3-9) but that we should be humbly cautious in our estimate of when he will return (Eccl 8:16-17; 10:14). Christians have not been wrong to suppose that Christ could come at any time; the world has always been ripe for his return and only gets more so everyday! But we cannot see exactly what God is doing. Our job is not continually to speculate nor, as they say, “to exegete the newspaper,” but to be about the disciple-making commission of our Master and be found faithful when he does come.
Matthew 24:45-47, “Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions.”
Questions to Consider:
1. Sometimes people talk about the early church like it was a spiritual golden age. Why is this kind of talk ultimately naïve?
2. Is speculation about the details of Christ’s return beyond what the Scripture says profitable? Why or why not?
3. Are you ready if Christ should return today? Are you also ready if Christ should not return today?