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April 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 2 · pp. 26–30 

Preaching the Second Coming of Christ

John Regehr

The shifts in our preaching from decade to decade may be the result of a short-sightedness which causes us to ride any wagon which happens to be rolling through the land, and, therefore, to preach a truncated “counsel of God.” On the other hand, it may be the result of our being tuned to the current mood, and preaching at the point of greatest receptivity.

In either case (and I am not sure which it is), the preaching about the second coming of Christ was a much more common occurrence in my childhood than it is today. Perhaps the depression of the thirties had something to do with that. In times of stress the end of life and the inauguration of the bliss to come are very attractive. When things are going superbly here, their attractiveness dims.

APPROACHES TO AVOID

Our history and our own experience has demonstrated that there are dangers in preaching the second coming of Christ. I am sure we will not all agree on these. What I call an error, another may regard as truth. Let me suggest the following:

1. There is the System Approach. Our need for control can drive us to pathological labeling and categorizing. As paradoxical as it may seem, it gives us a feeling of control when we can label the events of the end and set them in order, equating truth with the accuracy of the system. We have even alienated and excluded other brothers through insistence on a particular chronology!

And to think that we assume power over the Scriptures! We have even twisted the obvious meaning of texts to make them fit our time chart. We pick and choose and “put it all together” chronologically when the New Testament writers thought it unnecessary to do so. Of course, Jesus and the apostles did describe certain conditions and events with considerable precision.

2. There is the Scare Approach. Preachers have often used it, adding graphic detail where the biblical text is reserved. Jesus said that we should let children come, but we have at times scared them into submission. Add to this a legalistic understanding of a clean life, and children will thank God at the end of the day that Jesus did not come before they were able to say their prayers and ask for forgiveness. Adults can be scared into submission too. “Would you like to be caught there when Jesus comes?” we ask. Don’t misunderstand, Jesus does issue warnings with a view to the end. {27}

3. There is also the Sign Approach. We have become adept at interpreting current historical and sociological events in terms of the second appearing of Jesus. It is helpful in this connection to recall the many specific predictions of the second advent which have proven false. Last fall a brother sought to convince me that we preachers should get all Christians to leave the city before November 7, because a great earthquake would strike North America on that day.

Jesus warned against panic preachers (Matt. 24). So did the apostle Paul (2 Thess. 2). We have re-interpreted “readiness” to mean living on a hair trigger of alertness regarding the event itself. Jesus speaks of readiness as an inner condition and a way of life.

NEW TESTAMENT EMPHASES

1. Jesus himself spoke forcefully of his return, yet it was not a dominant theme. When he did talk about it, his explanations were designed quite deliberately to give the disciples a context within which to see the events which would shortly come upon them.

2. The apostles in Acts saw the second advent as following hard upon the first. The “last day” is a package concept tightly tied to Pentecost.

3. Paul’s early letters place considerable stress on the second coming of Christ. However, the explanations and descriptions were given in answer to very immediate concerns. The result is that the significance of that coming event was seen in its impact on the present situation. The second advent pointed to present obligation (See 1 Thess. 4 and 5; 2 Thess. 2; 1 Cor. 15).

4. The later letters of the apostle Paul contain repeated refrains regarding the second advent. These refrains are included in what seem to be creedal statements of the early church. They serve as a gyroscope—a steadying reality. Again the purpose of these statements is tied to the here-and-now situation (See 1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 1:11-12; 3:1-5; Titus 2:11-15).

5. The letter to the Hebrews is not different. The thrust of that letter is the encouragement to faithfulness and endurance of Christians who are finding their faith rather costly.

In summary: The New Testament does not much encourage us to look for signs pointing to the great event which will close this age. There is some of that, of course; but the great thrust is that this event points back to our present obligations. We are to use the second coming of Jesus as a vantage point from which to see life today. This perspective is necessary for wholesome preaching as well.

A PERSPECTIVE FOR THE PRESENT

The New Testament, then, encourages us to use the truth of the second advent as a way of gaining a necessary perspective on present situations.

1. This eschatological perspective on the present enables endurance in hardship and tribulation. Jesus himself had this eschatological orientation toward his own mission and passion (Matt. 21:33-43; 26:26-29, 63-64), and he taught his disciples to see the present suffering from the perspective of the end (Matt. 13:24-32, 36-43, 47-50; 19:27-30; 16: 19-31; John 14:1-3). Such a perspective will allow for some solutions to earthly situations (Matt. 22:23-32). When at the ascension the disciples were puzzled and bereaved, the angels {28} verbalized this perspective again, enabling the disciples to wait and work (Acts 1:10-11; compare 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Tim. 1:11-12; Heb. 9:28).

2. The eschatological perspective also provides the incentive and courage for service. In his early letter to the perplexed Thessalonians Paul made this clear (1 Thess. 5:1-11), and he later reiterated it in his magnificent conclusion to the teaching regarding the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:51-58). The Spirit does not remove the “mystery” from the event of the second coming of the Christ, but assures its certainty. It is this certainty which encourages us to constant and faithful service (see 1 Tim. 6:14 and 2 Tim. 4:1-8).

3. The eschatological perspective is a helpful incentive to personal ethics and growth. Paul proclaimed to the Athenians that Jesus will be the judge on that day (Acts 17:30-31). In the letter to the Colossians the Spirit links the truth about the re-appearance of Jesus and the revelation of our own glory with a call to holiness (Col. 3:1-10; see also 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Titus 2:11-15; 1 John 3:2-3, 1 Pet. 1:3-11). The truth gains in force when the Spirit shows us the other side of it. Not only will the holy ones be redeemed, but the unholy ones will be judged and punished (2 Pet. 2:9-10; 3:1-13; Jude 6-7).

4. Further, the eschatological perspective is a help in keeping us faithful to the Christian way when it seems endless and we are under persistent pressure. The letter to the Hebrews is concerned with Christians who are losing heart. The writer keeps pointing ahead to the hope set before us; but always that goal immediately points back to the present. “Carry on,” it says, “there is a world of glory to come (2:5, 10), there is a rest awaiting (4:1-11), there is an eternal city to which we journey (12:22-24; 13:14).”

The letter rings with certitude about this great finale (9:28; 10:36-39; 12:26-29). This certitude is the context for the encouragement which the Spirit gives the saints, and which the saints are to give each other (10:25). An additional means which the writer uses to bolster courage in the weary pilgrims is to point to others who have gone before and have endured (11:10, 16, 35). The greatest example of endurance, of course, is Jesus himself (12:1-2; see also James 5:7-11; 1 Pet. 1:3-13; 4:7-13; 5:1, 10; Jude 24-25).

5. Finally, the eschatological perspective enables us to see our present as being in process toward a grand, culminating triumph.

Who can read the book of the revelation given to John and not throb with the excitement of the victory toward which we are moving! In the midst of the sickeningly destructive forces at work on the earth and in the universe, the King of Kings moves on—steady, unperturbed, never baffled or dismayed—to the culmination of all.

The first verses set the tone by introducing the theme of his coming (1:7, 8); and the seven intimate letters keep playing the theme in variations (2:7, 10, 17, 26-27; 3:5, 11, 21). Then follows the vision of God himself, and against that majestic reality is seen the colossal destruction—seals, trumpets, bowls. In the midst of the devastation rings the call to endurance (14:12).

The drama heightens. Christ comes to make war on his foes (19:11-21). Then the earth is ready to receive the City of God (21:1-8). All things are now new. Who can read uncommitted! And who, being committed, can read and not pray with the seer, the Spirit, and the bride, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:7, 12, 17,20).

The eschatological perspective, then, enables us to see history whole. That is indeed a sustaining vision. {29}

PREACHING THE SECOND COMING

Textual preaching is to be preferred to proof-text preaching in regard to the second coming of Christ. Don’t misunderstand. There is a place for systematic and biblical theology. There is tremendous value in placing scripture beside scripture and discovering complementary truths and underlying trends. We are responsible for the whole counsel of God. But on this topic textual preaching is better.

Some time ago Howard Loewen, a colleague at the Bible College, came out of a class and rather excitedly spoke to me of his findings in regard to the word parousia in the Thessalonian epistles. Always, he said, when the word appears in the text, it is coupled with a very present responsibility or situation. That put it into a capsule for me. I looked at 1 Thessalonians again and settled on the passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 as a sermon text. This sermon emerged:

Theme: The second coming of Jesus is a sign pointing back to today.

  1. It points to our present responsibility to comfort each other (4:13-18).
    1. There is a grieving without hope (v. 13).
    2. The grieving in hope is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus (v. 14).
    3. Those, then, who had died are in no way disadvantaged (v. 15).
    4. In that great event of his return, Jesus will demonstrate his lordship over history and death (v. 16).
    5. We, who are alive, will join those who have died in that great reunion (v. 17).
    6. Therefore, we can comfort each other (v. 18).
  2. It points to our present responsibility to encourage each other (5:1-11).
    1. There is the danger that we only look away from us to that coming event (v. 1).
    2. What we know about the event points us back to today (v. 2).
    3. The event will be catastrophic for those who have not seen, or have ignored, this pointing (v. 3).
    4. Where there is readiness, however, there is no panic (vv. 4, 5).
    5. Therefore we resolve to live in the light in order to be ready (vv. 6-8).
    6. After all, this is in keeping with God’s intention for us (vv. 9-10).
    7. We need each other to remain ready. Therefore we encourage each other and build each other up (v. 11).

Another sermon on the theme of the second coming could also move through Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24 and 25 in this way.

  1. The discourse is triggered by the disciples’ inadequate understanding.
    1. They were anchored to their own time and place (v. 1). The key truth: “. . . all thrown down” (v. 2).
    2. They were obsessed with the time schedule (v. 3). The key truth: “You can’t know! Be watchful! Which means, be ready!”
  2. Why is the call to watchfulness necessary?
    1. Because of the danger of undiscerning credulity (vv. 4, 5).
    2. Because of the danger of panic (vv. 6-8). {30}
    3. Because of the danger of renunciation in word and deed (vv. 9-13).
    4. Because of the danger of slackening off in regard to the commission (v. 14).
    5. Because of the danger that anxiety and despair will grip us (vv. 15-28).
  3. What about the events that will surround the second coming?
    1. The moment of the rapture itself will be accompanied by cosmic convulsions (vv. 29-31).
    2. But the times will be like any other age, including the times of Noah (vv. 32-44).
  4. What does it mean to be ready?
    1. Readiness is measured in terms of life style (vv. 45-51).
    2. Readiness is not guaranteed by similarity to those in the Kingdom (25:1-13).
    3. In the end disobedience will be equated with unbelief, and will constitute non-readiness (25:14-30).
    4. In the end indifference to the brother will be equated with unbelief, and will constitute non-readiness (25:31-46).

Again the truth comes sharply into focus: The account of the second coming of Christ is designed to point to today and to our present responsibilities!

John Regehr is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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