The Second Coming: Knowing and not knowing

What we may know and not know about Jesus' second coming

John S. Nixon is senior pastor of the Oakwood College Church in Huntsville, Alabama and associate director of the North American Division Ministerial Association.

When addressing a group of ministers, Fred Craddock used a metaphor to illustrate what is essential for Christian living.

We tend to think, Craddock said, that giving our all to Jesus is like taking a thousand dollar bill and laying it on the table. "Here's my life Lord, I give it all to you." The reality of Christian life, he said, is not that way. Instead, God sends us to the bank in order to cash in the thousand dollar bill for rolls and rolls of quarters and we go through life putting out fifty cents here and twenty-five cents there. Living the life of faith is not always glorious or dramatic; it is mostly mundane. It is done day by day, in little acts of love, twenty-five cents at a time. It is one thing to go out in a blaze of glory for God; it is a much harder thing to be faithful day in and day out, enduring to the end.

Craddock's illustration presents a challenge for believers in the Advent. To hold on to the promise of the Second Coming is a test of faith's endurance. If every generation of believers since the Ascension has expected Christ to return in their time, why hasn't He? What do we do with the urgency inherent in the Advent message? How are we to live joy fully and expectantly in the face of apparent delay?

The tension

The Second Coming prophecy as found in Matthew 24 incorporates three end-of-the-world scenarios the flood of Noah (the end of the antediluvian world), the destruction of Jerusalem (the end of Israel as the chosen nation), and the Parousia (the end of Satan and the reign of sin). The fulfillment of the first two prophecies serve as a guarantee of the fulfillment of the third.

But as Jesus masterfully weaves the three prophecies into one, two conflicting principles of eschatology emerge, creating a tension between that cannot be fully resolved. Though our inclination is to try and resolve the tension the contradictory things inherent in the prophecy must remain. Believers are called, not to rationalize the prophecy of the Parousia, but to live, by faith, even with the tension found within it.

The first of the two conflicting principles is certainty. Jesus said," 'Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door'" (Matt. 24:32,33, NIV). The fig tree points to an occurrence in the natural order, used as a sign of the certainty of our Lord's return. It is a potent symbol.

The fig tree was one of the most common trees in Palestine. Jesus and the disciples may have been sitting under one as He spoke these words. When the branches of the tree become soft with sap and begin to bud, summer is fast approaching. The natural order confirms the promise of something to come. By pointing to the fig tree Jesus meets us at our level, the level of facts that anyone can verify. When we witness the changes in the fig tree, we know certainly that they portend a specific change in the season. As surely as summer follows the signals observed in the fig tree, the second coming of Jesus follows the phenomena He identifies in Matthew 24.

But as Christ draws the analogy, He does not make nature equal with the Word of God. The fig tree is only a sign of the validity of the promise. The promise is staked on something greater than something created. It is staked on what caused creation to be. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West; grass is mowed down and grows back again; rivers flow; clouds give rain; salmon swim upstream; and, " 'As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease'" (Gen. 8:22). But more sure than all these put together, is the invincible word of God, the word that called it all into being. The God who can not lie has spoken, and He has said, Jesus is coming again.

The reason the promise cannot fail is not because we believe it. The promise is sure because God is God and He can not deny Himself. (2 Tim. 2:13). The Bible's first word is "in the beginning God" and in Matthew 24 we are assured, "in the end God!" The world did not come about by accident and it will not end by accident either. We have certainty because the promise is staked on God.

But there is also an opposing reality clearly expressed in the prophecy." 'No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father"' (Matt. 24:36).

This element completes the teaching and reveals the inherent tension. There is a paradox of certainty and uncertainty. Jesus promises a sure return, but its time is undisclosed. The believer knows what, not when. And it is clear that this element of uncertainty is the design of God, intended to create a particular response in the servant of God: " 'Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come ... So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him' " (Matt. 24:42,44).

The paradox of the promise creates a unique posture for the church. The what is certain, the when obscure. And just as the certainty stands up against our doubts, so the uncertainty resists our investigations. The time of the Lord's return is not just undetermined it is indeterminable.

The peril of not knowing

Salvation history reveals, as a constant, that believers are commanded to live with the peril of not knowing. In key areas of our relationship with God, we are called to walk by faith without sight. We don't need to believe in what we see. Some things we have to accept without full understanding.

When God called Abram to leave everything he was sure of and follow Him, it was a clear command, but it was given in the mists of not knowing and in the hazes of ambiguity. Abram did not know where he was going and God did not tell him. The land he had been promised was still not his on the day Abraham died. He lived in tents throughout his life and experience with God. The only land he ever owned in his lifetime he had to pay for, the field bought from the Hittites for a family burial ground (Gen. 25:9,10).

Job never did get an explanation for his afflictions or an answer to some of his deepest questions. When God finally responded to His servant, He was the One asking the questions " 'Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me'" (Job 38:3). And the servant of God remembered his proper place, " 'I am unworthy how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth'" (40:4).

The Hebrew boys did not know whether God would intervene to save them from the Babylonian furnace. Their duty to God was clear enough, but how much it would cost them was hidden.

All these demonstrated a steadfast faith in God without full knowledge of many crucial facts. Yet their ignorance did not inhibit their faith; on the contrary, it enhanced their faith. And their testimony showed the heroic nature of their confidence in God." 'But even if he does not [save us]," they said, "we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods'" (Dan. 3:18)." 'Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him'" (Job 13:15). "And he went out, not knowing where he was going" (Heb. 11:8, NASB).

Certainty and uncertainty are part and parcel of Christian living, and of the Second Coming promise in particular. If either of these elements is omitted from the prophecy, the force of Christ's teaching is lost. The truth of a promise fosters hope, the uncertainty of the time of its fulfillment is a summons to watchfulness, endurance, and faith.

The believer therefore lives in a state of expectancy, anticipating an event that must come at some time, and may arrive at any time. The tension between the knowing and the not knowing, the certainty and the uncertainty, keeps us at our spiritual peak. It is the life of faith that calls for constant listening, a life that is dynamic, not static.

The daily walk

Here is where the necessity of relational Christianity is emphasized. Jesus Christ is not a creed, He is a living Per son. The only way to know Him is to be in fellowship with Him day in and day out, moment to moment. We cannot learn a few doctrines, and then put our trust in those doctrines. The only way to know what God is going to do next is to be walking with God so that when He speaks we will hear Him and when He moves we will know it.

We must not be surprised at the challenge of our faith. If our convictions are true, we expect them to be challenged. It is deep within the nature of the walk of faith for that faith to be tested and thus to grow and prove itself.

The coming of scoffers does nothing, nor can it do anything to weaken the force of the promise of God itself. On the contrary, their coming serves only to strengthen the promise, since the prophecy predicts their coming. "In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, 'Where is this "coming" he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation'"(2 Peter 3:3,4).

The evil of the scoffers is in rationalizing the promise. By making their logic the measure of the validity of God's Word, they fall into a snare. They have not the humility to remember that empirical knowing is only one way of knowing and that all truths, especially the most profound and far-reaching, simply cannot be demonstrated in the way they expect them to be. Then, seeking to justify their skepticism, they exaggerate the facts:" 'Everything goes on as it has,'" they say. Peter casts doubt on the sincerity of their motives when he says, "they deliberately forget . . ." (verse 5, emphasis mine).

The promise of Christ's return is based on faith in the Word and promise of God. By its nature it cannot be merely a matter of rationality. It is certainly not irrational to believe it, but this is clear only to those who believe the word of promise.

Jesus is coming soon. There is an urgency to the message that is not deter mined by our clocks and calendars. We cannot judge the infinite God by the dictates of finite time "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day" (2 Peter 3:8).

The promise calls us to accept it on the basis of the trustworthiness of the word of the One who gave it, and with it, accept that God leads in many paths that are, along with many other things, obscure to us. But the paths are not obscure to God and because our ultimate trust is in Him, we await joyfully the fulfilling of His word in the fullness of time.

Look at God's track record. Though, when it comes to the fulfillment of His promises, there always seems to be a tarrying, the One who is Sovereign and Omnipotent always has fulfilled the sure word of His promise. Again, the promise is absolutely sure, it is the time of fulfillment that is beyond our knowing, until the time of realization.


When I was a boy we used to ride the subway to church every weekend. There were five of us who traveled with our father in the New York City under ground. I will never forget the day he left us on the train. We had stopped at the station where we transferred from one train to another. As the doors of the "A" train opened, Dad ran across the platform leaving all of us behind. He had never before done such a thing.

As we raced behind him in near panic, we soon saw the meaning of his apparent abandonment. The "GG" train was about to leave the station without us, the conductor pressing feverishly on his lever. But there was Dad, standing in the only gap holding open the doors for us to follow. And so we safely boarded, one and all, under the wings of our father's outstretched arms.

In the same way, Jesus has left us behind to prepare a place where we can be together forever. And though we are not alone because of the abiding presence of the Comforter, we long to see our Savior in person and look into His face. But God requires that in faith we run after Him, following Him where we cannot see, and believing in Him in situations we cannot explain or fully understand.

When Dad bolted through the sub way doors, we didn't know what he was doing, but we knew enough to follow him. And Dad knew we would follow. For children there is no other choice. With Christians it is the same. We may not know why Jesus has not returned already or when He will return, but we do know Jesus. We may be confused sometimes. The ways of Jesus may be mysterious to us, but His character is no mystery. We know Him to be a faithful and depend able Master, One who loves us, is true and unchanging. He will keep His promise to us to come again. Ours is to be watchful, faithful, and ready, never doubting that He will do just as He has said.

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John S. Nixon is senior pastor of the Oakwood College Church in Huntsville, Alabama and associate director of the North American Division Ministerial Association.

June/July 2000

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More Articles In This Issue

The return of Jesus: The God who is coming

The final and full revealing of God

The significance of the Second Coming

What the Second Coming accomplishes

Indicators of the end time: Are the "signs" really signs?

The role of signs as Christians await the Second Coming

Adventist approaches to the Second Coming

What Seventh-day Adventists may learn from their past

The Second Coming and the time of trouble: A great time to be alive

The reasons for and role of the "time of trouble" preceding Jesus' coming

The Second Advent and the "fullness of time"

The investigative judgment and the timing of the Second Advent

The Second Coming: The certainty of an appointment with Christ

God has set a time and location for our ultimate meeting with Him

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