I had a vivid imagination as a child. Perhaps it was because I was an only child until my sister was born nine years later, so I had to learn how to entertain myself. I would imagine what life would be like if I had brothers and how good we would be in athletic competition. Of course, I would be the best of us all.
My imagination would extend to spiritual matters as well. This began while viewing the Sabbath School picture rolls of life in heaven: playing with nondomesticated animals, sitting with other smiling children in the presence of Jesus, and having a mansion built just for me. My childhood was happy, but life as portrayed in these pictures was even better than what I was already experiencing.
The Apollo space missions, in which men landed on the moon and walked on its surface, also sparked within me a desire to travel through space to worlds unknown. That is what I wanted to do when Jesus came back to earth at the Second Coming. I was told by pastors and evangelists that the journey to heaven after Jesus comes to earth again will take seven days; and I could picture myself floating in weightlessness upward with loved ones, angels, and Jesus. I was so excited to know that these things would soon take place—perhaps even before I became an adult.
Before I turned 20 years old, however, something happened. My vivid imagination began to dissipate. This undoubtedly happened because of the demands of high school and university life. But more important, my dissipated imagination affected how I saw—or in this case, did not see—the second coming of Christ. I was busy laying the foundation for my career in gospel ministry. Looking back on it all, I find it embarrassing that I was preparing for a life of service to the Seventh-day Adventist Church yet was no longer giving much thought to the reality of the Second Advent.
But I was not the only one losing focus on the Second Coming. As a child, I heard countless sermons that heralded the message, “Jesus is coming again. Are you ready to meet Him?” But with each passing year, I heard less and less about Jesus’ return and more and more about the “how-tos” of life: how to have a better marriage, how to deal with anger, and a host of other worthy topics. I heard little that took me beyond the now to the not yet.
Why do many of us not preach the Parousia like we once did? I could offer a number of suggestions; but they might prove to be merely anecdotal. Has the pursuit for wealth—albeit a relative concept—infected us with “ ‘dissipation, drunkenness, and the
anxieties of life’ ” (Luke 21:34)?1 Do we find it easier to preach to the needs of our congregations, whether such needs are real or perceived? Have we, as preachers, become illiterate as it relates to our understanding of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation; as such, is it more convenient to preach things that do not require as much mental exercise to comprehend and share? Or might we avoid preach-ing the Parousia because the Second Coming brings an end to our current ways of living and ushers in final judgment for which many ministers of the gospel do not feel ready to face?
Thirty years ago, I was focused on starting my ministerial journey—being the best pastor I could be, caring for my church members, attending to the needs of my three-church district. Maybe one day the conference leadership would ordain me. I had my priorities straight. Or did I?
Thirty years later, with more yesterdays in my ministerial rearview mirror, the question constantly arises in my mind: Should I redeem the time and preach the Second Coming like the preachers of my childhood did?
I need to do so because I must recapture those same spiritual elements of that vivid imagination I had as a child. Life was simpler then, as it should have been. But amid the complexity of adult life in the twenty-first century, it becomes easy to forget that God has the present in His hands and our glorious future under control. It becomes easy to fall into the trap of wanting to fix everything, to guarantee that all things—both personally and professionally—transpire exactly as we believe they should.
It also does well to preach the Second Coming because it serves as an antidote to the infection of dissipation, drunkenness, and the cares of this life. The promise of Christ’s return reminds me that “the world and its desires pass away” (1 John 2:17) and that “ ‘the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever’ ” (Dan. 2:44).
Ministers must also preach the Second Coming because the message of Christ’s return points to judgment that results in deliverance for His saints. John wrote Revelation 22:7–11 within the context of Christ’s imminent return, and he concludes with these words: “Then he told me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near. Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy’ ” (vv. 10, 11). When I preach the Second Coming, I am constantly reminded that the God of love wants to judge me as worthy to eternally live with Him because I have allowed Him to live in and through me. When we preach the Parousia, it should spur both us and those who listen to our sermons to strive for holiness (see 2 Pet. 3:10–13).
When we deepen our commitment to preaching the Second Coming, we need to inspire people with a vision of the not yet; and in doing so, we need to be faithful to the text, allowing it to speak from its life setting into our twenty-first-century life setting. Pastors serve as resident theologians in their congregations; and one of our key responsibilities is to maintain a sharp focus on allowing God’s Word to explain itself, especially as it relates to helping people understand various questions surrounding the Second Coming.
How near is “near”? One of the biggest questions generations of Christians have asked is, “What’s taking Jesus so long to return?” For 2,000 years, Christians have believed in the imminent return of Christ—including Paul, who believed that many in his generation would still be alive when Jesus returned. When members of the church in Thessalonica saw their loved ones passing away, Paul, upon receiv-ing word of their concerns, comforted them with the promise of a future resurrection (1 Thess. 4:13–16). Yet and still, he believed that some of them—including himself—would be alive to witness the Second Coming. Several years later, when writing to the church in Corinth, he still held that same view (1 Cor. 15:51). If his was a mistaken notion, how could he have made such a mistake? Certainly he was aware of what Jesus had taught the Twelve about His return.
In addressing His disciples’ query about the sign of His coming and the end of the world (Matt. 24:3), Jesus spoke extensively about a number of things for which they should look. During the discourse, He told His dis-ciples to learn a lesson from the twigs and leaves of the fig tree. The budding of the leaves signals the arrival of summer (v. 32). In the same way, Jesus continued (referring to His return), “ ‘when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door’ ” (v. 33). Greater confusion could arise because of verse 34: “ ‘this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.’”
Many years after Paul’s martyrdom, John the revelator shares the words of the True Witness who says “‘I am coming soon’ ” (Rev. 22: 7, 12, 20). How, then, are we to understand the concepts of near and soon? The word employed for soon is the Greek term tachu, from which is derived the medical term tachycardia. Tachycardia comes from the Greek, loosely translated “sudden heart” or “quick heart.” While the quickened heart rate is the most notable result of the condition, its asymptomatic nature sounds the potential alarm. One never knows when the next battle with tachycardia will come; it simply comes!
As preachers, we need to express the biblical concept that the nearness of Christ’s return reflects an event that transpires suddenly. When it happens, it happens in a flash. Paul employed the “thief in the night” concept (see 1 Thess. 5:2) to express the nature of the return of Christ. In fact, in verse 3, he uses the word suddenly to describe the Day of the Lord and its accompanying events.
Could it be that our use of the term soon, while well intended, serves to encourage date setting as it relates to what is better described as Christ’s imminent return? Could such use also unintentionally discourage people from appropriately preparing for the Second Coming because they have heard of this soon return year after year after year? A focus on the imminent nature of His return encourages me to “ ‘be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when [I] do not expect him’ ” (Matt. 24:44).
How does one become ready? Never should we preach Matthew 24 without also preaching Matthew 25. The former tells us Jesus is coming; the latter tells us how to prepare.
In giving us instructions on readiness, Jesus shared three well-known parables. The parable of the ten virgins speaks to preparing for the coming of the Bridegroom and closes with the counsel to “ ‘keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour’ ” (Matt. 25:13). The parable of the talents speaks to using that which has been entrusted to us, not for ourselves, but wisely and with an eye toward the future—a caution against living for today. The parable of the sheep and goats speaks to our responsibility to others, uncovering that horizontal spiritual dimensions are an important life factor as are the vertical dimensions. Jesus connects our duty to others with fitness for His eternal kingdom (vv. 34–40).
As preachers, we often focus on the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study as essential elements of character development. But Jesus clearly teaches that our unselfish and altruistic relationship with the impoverished, disenfranchised, and outcast serves as the practical outgrowth of time spent in secret with God. In other words, Jesus is coming back for those who walk with Him and others—including “ ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ ” (v. 40).
Peter, as did Paul, had to address those who questioned whether Jesus would return (2 Pet. 3:4). He acknowledged that the concept of time in the sight of mortals greatly differs from that of divinity (v. 8). Then he shared a reason for the delay, pointing to divine patience (v. 9).
But divine forbearance is not to be taken for granted, as if God is One who practices theological Universalism. Divine patience should be welcomed with human readiness. We “ought to live holy and godly lives as [we] look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (vv. 11, 12).
But how do we “speed its coming”? The Greek verb employed connotes the concept of “striving for” something.2 Our responsibility, as preachers, is to exhort our listeners (including ourselves) to live the commands and principles of Matthew 24 and 25—not only what was previously mentioned in light of the three parables but also to proclaim the gospel to all people groups (see Matt. 24:14). We do so ever keeping in mind that “like the stars in the vast circuit of their appointed path, God’s purposes know no haste and no delay.”3
Finally, we need to cast a vision for our listeners of what Jesus is prepar-ing for us. That is what He did for His discouraged disciples. After predicting His betrayal and imminent departure (John 13:21, 36), Jesus pointed them to their future reality. “In my Father’s house are many mansions. . . . I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2, 3, KJV).
Those who sit in our churches need to be reminded that Jesus is coming again and that His coming is both sure and imminent. They need to see the glory of His return (see Rev. 1:7). They need to hear the loud trumpet call that dispatches the angels who will “ ‘gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other’ ” (Matt. 24:31). They need to know that they will be reunited with their loved ones, who on that day will be resurrected (1 Thess. 4:16), and that they will be free from all traces of disease (1 Cor. 15:52, 53). They need to one day sing and shout “ ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments’ ” (Rev. 19:1, 2). “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (v. 6, KJV).4
In short, they (and I) need the imagination of a child.
1 Unless noted otherwise, all scripture is from the New International Version.
2 F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 762.
3 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 32.
4 For a picture infinitely brighter and better than I could ever attempt to paint, see Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1888), 635–652.