The return of Christ is the finish line of the Christian life. And right now your mind is telling you that you already know this, but I assure you, your mind is lying: it will continue to think, plan, and dream as if the finish line were not the return of Christ, but rather the day you die. And your mind, as optimistic as a schoolgirl with a crush, believes that to be sometime in your nineties.
I often speak to college audiences, so maybe I see the distance between these finish lines a little clearer. Imagine being me and speaking to a room full of college students: A room packed with young men and women in the spring of their attractiveness and sexual drive, a room reeking of Axe body spray. Now, imagine calling these students to live a life of sexual purity: “Listen, all God is asking is for you to remain pure for the next seventy years.” At a heart level, you could assume a reaction similar to that of the French working class.
But instead, what if you said to these students, “Hold tight to your purity; the Lord is coming very soon, and you’ll be so happy you waited.” Do you see the difference? One finish line is right around the bend; the other, right around the twenty-second century. The motivational difference between the two is enormous.
This is the genius of God in the doctrine of Christ’s return: The finish line is ever before us. And this is precisely how the apostle Peter uses the teaching when he states, “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13, emphasis added).
Notice the delivery date of grace: it’s right around the corner, “when Jesus Christ is revealed” (NIV). Like me addressing teens on sexual purity, Peter is concerned for the holiness of this community. He’s not deluded about Christ’s return; he’s making use of its flexible location to encourage and impart hope.
To borrow a metaphor from Scripture, the Christian life is a race—a marathon. If we are living with the notion that the finish line is fifty to sixty years from now, we will probably plan water breaks (dipping back into old habits of sin). What’s more, we’ll probably run the race at a more relaxed and comfortable pace.
I’m writing this chapter in my living room, a room filled with boxes. We’re planning to move in a month, and I had always envisioned us as lean, travel-light missionaries. We’re not. We’re hoarders. I have a metal statuette of an ant—why? I’ll tell you why: When you picture yourself hanging around for another century, you don’t want to throw stuff away . . . you might need it.
Like that illusion of water on a highway off in the distance, the horizon of life plays with the mind. If deep down we believe we’ll be running this race another fifty years, we’ll try to make the running as pleasant as possible: slow the pace, buy expensive running shoes, plug in to an iPod—heck, why run at all, why not scoot around on one of those motorized Segues like a mall cop?
So it isn’t just sin but worldliness that’s restrained by the nearness of Christ’s coming. When his protégé Timothy was getting entangled in worldly controversies and civilian affairs, Paul saw an opportunity to move up the finish line, encouraging Timothy to “keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:14, NIV, emphasis added).
Do you see how this doctrine is being used by Scripture? The main point of the teaching is to provide a finish line . . . right around the corner . . . for the entire church age. People in past generations who wrongly believed Jesus would return in their lifetime, in a way, weren’t wrong at all. This is exactly how God wanted them to live, and this is what the doctrine produces: watchfulness and expectation. In fact, the expansion of the Kingdom is most indebted to those most wrong about the timing, because they were most right about the teaching and how to live in light of it. If the disciples really did think Jesus was going to return in their life . . . thank God.
This is where those who make predictions about specific dates—years, hours, months—have missed the point. The point of the doctrine is primarily inspirational, not informational. To know the exact day would subvert the evergreen nature of its motivation.
You’ve been reading from Watch: Wide Awake Faith in a World Fast Asleep. Author Rick James dives deep into the New Testament’s teachings on spiritual wakefulness, calling Christ-followers to defy the darkness and remain awake as they await Christ’s return. Because being spiritually awake changes everything.