On Letting the Main Thing be the Main Thing
I sat speechless (well not really, but you get the idea) as the association of churches voted to never again debate the issue of divine election unto salvation. We were told the doctrine was too divisive! Of course, I understood that such a vote is sheer folly. The truth will always clamor to be heard in some fashion. Tragically, this same body had voted, without debate, to dot the I’s and cross the T’s regarding the details of eschatology. Indeed, certain viewpoints regarding future events had almost become idolized among many pastors and associational leaders to the point that these perspectives became marks of orthodoxy and tests of fellowship. For some, they became battle cries!
Fast forward a few years. I forced myself to bite my tongue while I patiently listened to a parishioner implore me (to use a humane description) to warn the congregation of the impending return of the Lord before the end of the year. In fact, she professed to know the precise date and possessed a written document to prove her point! “Why hadn’t I read the booklet?”, she barked. Surely I would be “held accountable to God for not preparing the people”, she not so tactfully instructed me. I fought the urge to blast her with the fact that she was accountable to God for what I knew to be her less than obedient lifestyle. Thankfully the Lord gave me needed wisdom to gently admonish her to godliness as a practical priority in light of the certainty of His return.
And so, I have learned that people are prone to be more excited about the future than present realities. The future is fascinating, even titillating; the present, often drab; the past, sometimes unbearable.
Yet, as Paul declares, the future coming of the Lord not only is, but should be, a special focus of believers, “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (NAS Titus 2:13). Indeed, everytime believers gather around the Lord’s Table they acknowledge a divine pledge of His return and properly express a holy longing for that return (1 Corinthians 11:26).
We must admit however, that as finite creatures, we do not, indeed can not, know all the details of this “appearing.” In fact, we know very little. Moses’ reminder to the Israelites shows that God never intended his people to have intimate knowledge of His sovereign plan for the created order, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law. (NAS Deuteronomy 29:29). Jesus himself declared, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. (NAS Matthew 24:36.) Jesus was not up to dirty tricks when he refused to give his trusted followers the details of His second coming before abruptly ascending into heaven never to be seen on earth by them again. Could it be that they did not need to possess precise details regarding his second coming? Surely the assurance that he would come again was sufficient information for successful ministry. Certainly this lack of hard data did not render them theologically defective!
In light of the paucity of precise Biblical information about eschatological minutiae, it is prudent to refrain from making dogmatic assertions regarding certain ambiguous details of the second coming about which the Scripture does not speak clearly. It is even worse to vilify advocates of certain eschatological positions with which you may disagree. Such conduct is utter foolishness, if not sinful. This, of course, does not abrogate each individual believer’s responsibility to doggedly pursue the truth. In fact, it is hoped that all who take the Bible seriously will arrive at a “position” as a product of diligent study.
What then, ought to be the emphasis of serious Bible students whose goal is to please God in both faith and practice? Though we will surely disagree about the details of the “blessed hope”, there are certain admonitions connected to the second coming which form bedrock truth from which there can be no variance and around which the Christian community should rally. To these all believers are required to give wholehearted assent and use as measuring standards for life. Of these crucial teachings there ought to be no debate. It matters not whether we are “pre,” “post,” “a,” “pro,” or just plain agnostic! If we would focus on these things we may be able to stay out of some nasty and unnecessary theological skirmishes
Peter gives us a clear admonition to believers in light of the coming of the Lord in his second epistle:
NAS 2 Peter 3:11 “Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! 13 But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. 14 Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless….”
So, embracing His future coming requires that we be God’s kind of person. Peter’s use of “since” at the onset of verse 11 shows that this section is the “so what” of his preceding teaching regarding the second coming. This is the conclusion of the whole matter. He assumes Christian readers will reject the uniformitarian error which disallows the possibility of divine invasion into cosmic history and accept his didactic instead. The implications of such a view form Peter’s focus. To put it in the vernacular, he in effect is saying, “if we are agreed that the Lord will come, then here is what you must do about it.” The biblical doctrine of the future must never be embraced in theoretic isolation. One’s knowledge of doctrine must effect his heart and hands as well as his head! In fact, a Christian who has the heart and hands right is much preferred to the one who has the head alone right.
Being God’s kind of person means that we will live in a manner consistent with our fundamental obligations as Christians (v 11-13). The use of "ought" reinforces the basic notion that there are certain obligations incumbent upon those who bear Christ’s name. Such consistent living will be evident in three particulars. First, we will loyally maintain a Christian identity (v 11). The emphasis is twofold - what you are now in light of the coming then, and the quality of your conduct as you represent Christ before others. As individual Olympians bear the flag of their homeland, so we bear the name of Christ. Second, our modus vivendi marked by both holiness and piety (v 11). The specific goings and comings of daily activity will be free of moral defilement. This should be anticipated because respect for God is the controlling dynamic of our life. Third, as we live godly lives, it stands to reason that we will eagerly await His coming (v 12-13). The life orientation of consistent Christians is bent toward His coming. Everything builds toward His coming in a rush of excitement and urgency.
Being God’s kind of person means that we will excel in areas which we know the Lord will inspect at His coming (v 14). The corollary of how we live in consequence of our professed anticipation of His coming is highlighted by the use of Dio,, “Therefore”. All believers should be serious about the Christian life in anticipation of His future examination when they will be “found out” by Him! Two areas demand our attention - moral purity and personal integrity. We must strive to remain free from the stain of sin and disgraceful blemishes which would tarnish His name.
The writer of Hebrews also delivers an admonition to believers in light of His coming:
NAS Hebrews 10:22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.
So we also learn then that embracing His future coming requires that we spur fellow believers to a godly life. The writer gives a synopsis of the crosswork of Christ (v 1-18) followed by a summary of benefits which flow to believers because of the cross (v19-21). He then argues, by use of “let us” hortatory statements, that there are three obligations each believer has in consequence of the benefits of the cross. Each believer should engage in personal exchanges with God, an evidence of his faith (v 22); give public assent to the Truth, an evidence of his hope (v 23); and stimulate fellow believers to godliness, an evidence of his love (v 24-25). So the obligations of the Christian life derive from the cross. As we look backward to the marvelous grace of God displayed at the cross, our lives now are tangibly changed. But the last of these exhortations is also tied to the second coming. The author argues that the ultimate motivation for stimulating one other is the prospect of His coming.
Both His cross and His coming propel believers into a community of faith populated by other of His people. We are redeemed individually, but not in isolation. Within this society we are now expected to forge an atmosphere of mutuality by righteous acts of provocation which lead to genuine love and goodness among the brothers. This term teaches that as one involuntarily reacts to a sour drink by spitting, so our reaction to one another should be love and good works. This is decidedly unlike the acts of provocation often associated with proponents of differing views of the second coming. We are to be comrades, not combatants.
The means of accomplishing this noble relationship between believers is cast in both negative and positive terms. Negatively we can spur others to love and goodness by not abandoning the church. We are not told how one forsakes the church, but can safely conclude that stimulation to good works can not be maintained unless believers regularly gather with one another for worship and fellowship. Positively we can spur others to love and goodness by means of the noble art of encouragement.
The writer draws his exhortation to a close by alluding to the second coming as the climatic motivation for spurring others to godliness That this is the highest motivation is seen by the piling up of “more” words in the final phrase of v 25. “And all the more” connotes measure or degree. Somehow the author wants his readers to come to full understanding that the second coming compels him to a life of godliness which stimulates his spiritual brothers to the same life.
Paul also urges believers to adopt certain lifestyles in view of the certainty of the coming of the Lord:
NAS 1 Thessalonians 5:1 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3 While they are saying, "Peace and safety!" then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. 4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief; 5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.
So , in third place, we learn that embracing His future coming requires that we wake up right now! Perhaps the most well know section of the Thessalonian letters is 4:13-5:11 of the first letter wherein Paul deals with the future coming of the Lord. However Paul brackets this famous section with intensely practical admonitions to the “brothers”. He delivers hard hitting, down to earth discussions of godly living. It is almost as if he is saying that how we live our life here and now is far more significant than precise understanding of the then and there. No wonder then that this first section of chapter 5 concludes with the connective “so then” (v 6) to serve as a bridge from the coming day of the Lord to daily Christian living.
Being awake demands that the believer practices vigilance at all times. In it’s simplest sense the term “alert” means to wake up. Jesus implored his disciples to “watch” with him in Gethsemane. Elders are to “watch” over the souls of those entrusted to their care. Believers are exhorted to “watch” for the presence enemies. Indeed, vigilance is a commended characteristic for the entire life, not just in connection with the second coming. We must never be surprised or caught off guard. We know He is coming, we therefore must be alert.
Being awake also demands that the believer maintains constant sobriety. In the literal sense this term (nh,fwmen) describes abstinence from wine. Yet in the New Testament it is always used figuratively to describe being keenly aware of reality. Because of the certainty of his return we must never allow outside influences to dominate us. We must always be in charge of our lives (so the NIV translates “self-controlled”) so that we are not surprised.
Many other passages speak of the intensely practical ramifications derived from the doctrine of His coming. Wise discernment (Matthew 24:3-5), thorough preparation (Matthew 24:42-44), faithful stewardship (Luke 12:35-48) specific righteousness (Titus 2:11-14), personal purity (1 John 3:2-3), faithful witnesses (Acts 1:1-11), courage (1Thessalonians 4:18), and active service (Matthew 25:14-30) are also some of the traits and activities incumbent upon believers because they embrace the second coming.
One gets the impression that the main thing about the future coming of the Lord is that those who anticipate it must live holy lives. To focus on the details of the coming is to miss the entire point of the New Testament teaching about it.
If this says anything at all, it says that God’s people would do better to fuss with one another over the presence of sin and scandal in the church than when or how the church will participate in his future coming. How is it that God is grieved when His holy name is tarnished by the conduct of His people yet at the same time His church stands tragically silent. Have we raised up leaders over the church whose passion for precise eschatology surpasses passion for precise obedience? Where have we erred?
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.