I've got to show you something, pastor," Joe exclaimed as he unrolled a long strip of paper across my desk. On it he'd drawn an elaborate time line of prophetic events, from ancient times to the present and well into the future.
With a pen as a pointer, Joe eagerly traced a line right to the end of the chart, trying to interest me in some new innovation on an end-time event that he had just discovered in a little-referenced passage. In spite of my admiration for his artistic and eschatological diligence, I confess that it was only a moment before my eyes glazed over.
Joe must have noticed my loss of interest, because suddenly he grasped my arm and said, "Pastor, these are things we absolutely must know if we're going to be ready for Jesus to come."
Was Joe correct? Is this what it means to be ready for Jesus to return?
The essential message
As of this month, Ministry has been published for 70 years. While we commemorate this anniversary, we must recognize the bad news we are still here.
After all, shouldn't we have been in the kingdom "long ere this"? Nevertheless, 70 years have passed, and we still wait. What shall we do while we wait?
Our first editor, L. E. Froom, dearly understood that the vital issue is the message more than the timing. In our inaugural issue he wrote, "The most irresistible thing in the world is a movement and a message whose time has come."
Froom then cited great movements and messages of spiritual history: Noah, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, Pentecost, the Reformation, and the Advent awakening. He concludes by saying of these movements, "They came each and all, in the will and providence of God, at the time appointed."
What is that message? Froom said "Righteousness by faith is not a slogan or a catch phrase. It is not merely a doctrine to receive mental assent. It is a living experience that must become a personal actuality in all who shall triumph....Call it what you will the message of the indwelling Christ, the latter rain, genuine Christian experience, the deeper life, the victorious life, righteousness through Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit if rightly understood, these are simply varying expressions for the one all-essential, crowning provision to prepare a people to meet their God. It is God's final call for an experimental fitness for translation day.... And let us remember continually the irresistibility of a heaven-born principle set free at God's appointed time."
There it is. The question is not whether we are waiting for Jesus' return but how we are waiting. Our challenge is to do what we should at God's appointed time rather than to expend our energies in calculating dates and signs.
Relearning the lesson
Ironically, the very first lesson God taught Advent believers was that they were not to become too entranced with the time of Christ's coming. In 1844 our pioneers predicted the date of the Second Advent and were disappointed. Right then and there they decided that Adventists would always eagerly await Jesus' return but they would never again specify when they expected it to happen.
This is a lesson we must continually relearn. For even if we don't set precise dates, we have tended to let eschatological details captivate us. Thinking to apply Jesus' counsel to watch and wait, some draw charts and do fascinating things with Bible numbers. Some look for esoteric bits of knowledge in out-of-the-way passages while others concentrate on political events and read great portent into every headline. Others study each move of other religious organizations as if this will reveal the secret.
My encounter with my overanxious church member compelled me to pen a limerick. Its message is better than its poetic depth:
A young theologian named Joe
Eschatologically was "in the know"
So he plotted and charted,
But the saints all departed
While Joe had three signs yet to go.
Do we prepare for the coming by merely "making a list and checking it twice"? Can we face the challenge of waiting while avoiding the pitfall of dictating the details to Deity?
I once took a photograph of my wife on a busy Hong Kong street. I had stood a bit too far away from her, though, because when I saw the developed picture, I could hardly find Sharon amidst the cluttered background. The scene was so busy with people, cars, buildings, and signs that Sharon disappeared into the details.
When we fill our spiritual lives with the details of the Advent, the Lord of the Advent may well disappear into the background. Satan delights in sidetracking us. Far too many view the great controversy as if the enemy controls the agenda. With sadness I observe some believers as more diligent about keeping an eye on the beast than they are about keeping their eyes on Jesus.
Remember, God wins in God's time!
The "how" of waiting
There is a better way to wait for Jesus to come. Matthew 24 pictures Jesus on the Mount of Olives. There, gazing down at the temple shining brilliant in the sunlight, He tells the disciples about the events that will happen before His return and warns them to watch and wait.
But knowing that what He says may be misunderstood, Jesus adds a parable. Imagine a small businessman putting his servant in charge of his affairs while he goes on a trip. But the boss's return is delayed. If this master has a bad servant, upon returning, he might find that the servant had given up waiting, had spent his time "goofing off," or even had begun to fight with his fellow servants.
And what would the master find a good servant doing? Working. That's all! Simply doing the work the master wants him to do.
That's what it means to watch and wait. Faithful servants work while they wait for their Master to come home. As they wait, they will be doing His business preaching the gospel, helping those in need, raising good families, living Christian lives, winning souls to Christ not speculating about dates and times.
Speculation versus faith
As the millennium approaches, some even a few well-known names in our church have stepped forth to declare that they have studied these details more diligently than the rest of us and can tell us, if not the day or hour, at least the general time of Christ's coming.
But while such tactics sell books, the popularity of these theories is not a good sign for Adventism. It suggests that even after 150 years we have never quite given up our desire to second-guess God. This is toxic religion at its extreme and defies the very words of our Lord who said "No man knows the day nor the hour."
I have noticed through the years that each time we Adventists have studied the signs and prophecies attempting to divine what will happen next, we lose spiritual perspective. We begin to "goof off," to scrap with one another about details, and to lose sight of both the Lord and His priorities. We can become so preoccupied with coming Sunday laws that we miss the coming King!
But when we have studied past events to see how the Lord has led us in accordance with His prophecies, our faith has been strengthened.
Why, then, you may ask, were these signs given, if not to provide us clues?
Nowhere does Jesus say "I'm telling you these things so you can figure out what is going to happen next before everyone else does." If that is what He intended to do, it would contradict His advice about being ever ready and vigilant because "the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night." What Jesus does say is "I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe" (John 14:29).
I earnestly want Jesus to return. And I quite agree with Joe that we are not ready. But this is not because we have failed to memorize his time chart. It is because we have failed to experience Jesus' other advent. There is, you see, an advent of Christ in between the one recorded in the gospels and the one described in Revelation.
The vital coming between Bethlehem and Armageddon is when He comes into our hearts right now. And I boldly say that unless Christ has first been invited to come into the hearts and lives of His people, He will never come for us in the heavens.
If our Lord delays His coming, it is not because we have not traced out the right chart or calculated the right formula or spotted the right portentous event. It is because we have been too busy tracing, calculating, and spotting to welcome and know our life-changing Lord Himself.
Editor Froom was correct in understanding the primacy of righteousness by faith faith in Jesus' righteousness that enlivens, transforms, and, ultimately, translates God's people.
What will the Lord find you doing when He returns?