Is It Time Yet? Don’t Forget the First Rule of the Spiritual Life
March 8, 1998
So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” Acts 1:6-7
A few days ago I happened to be in my car at noon when the Paul Harvey News came on the radio. Mr. Harvey mentioned a news item about a strange religious group in Garland, Texas. It seems that the leader of this particular group has predicted that God will return later this month—at 11:00 AM on March 31—and that when he comes back, it will be to a particular address in … Garland, Texas.
I had mixed emotions when I heard that because before I moved to Oak Park in 1989, I lived in … Garland, Texas and pastored a church in … Garland, Texas. During my years there I drove on nearly every street in that town, which means I probably drove right past the spot where God is supposed to return at the end of this month.
My first thought was, “Rats! I left too soon.” My second thought was, “I hope none of my former church members are involved in this.” I can think of several who might be. In the years since coming to Oak Park, people have occasionally asked me to compare the two towns. I usually say that compared to Oak Park, Garland is boring. More stuff—good and bad—happens here in one week than happens in Garland in a year. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone has ever predicted that God was going to return to Oak Park. At least not yet.
Egg on His Face
I don’t know anything else about this strange group in Garland so I can’t make any definite pronouncements. Well, there is one I can make with certainty. The man who predicted that God s is coming back on March 31 will soon have egg on his face. For 20 centuries people have tried to read the Bible and figure out the time of Christ’s Second Coming. So far every attempt has failed miserably.
They may be wrong but they aren’t the first and won’t be the last. As we near the year 2000 the number of predictions will increase. And all of them will be wrong.
How can I be so sure about that? For one thing, Jesus himself told us that no one knows the day or the hour of his return—Matthew 24:36. Jesus’ disciples asked him the same question in different words in Acts 1:6-7, and he politely told them to mind their own business. The same answer still applies today.
I. An Honest Question
Let us for a moment consider the question the disciples asked: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6). They had good reasons to ask this question. According to Acts 1:3 we know that Jesus had been speaking to them about the kingdom of God. We also know that the Old Testament makes a close connection between the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the coming of the kingdom (Ezekiel 39:28-29; Joel 2:28-3:1; Zechariah 12:8-10). When he told the disciples that very soon they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit, they concluded that the establishment of the kingdom must also be near at hand.
A. The Positive Side
Many commentators over the years have upbraided the disciples for asking this question as if it reflected a kind of carnal spirituality. But as I have mentioned, they had a sound biblical reason for supposing that the kingdom was at hand. We can add several other positive points as well. First, this question represented a strong faith in Jesus—that he was the Sovereign Lord who had the power to establish his kingdom on the earth. You wouldn’t ask such a question to any other than the Son of God. Second, it came from zeal to see God’s kingdom established and the glory of the Lord fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). I can understand that, can’t you? When I consider how evil has reared its ugly head and perversion rules the day in Oak Park, I want to cry out, “Even so, Come, Lord Jesus!” Third, it stems from genuine grief over the coming departure of the Lord. When a father is about to leave on a business trip, his little children will sometimes tug on his pants and say, “Daddy, don’t leave. Stay with us.” By asking the question, the disciples were saying “Lord, why don’t you just go ahead and start your kingdom now? That way you wouldn’t have to leave at all.” They loved Jesus and didn’t want to see him go back to heaven. I can’t say that I blame them at all.
So there is much to be said in favor of their question. But that’s not the whole story.
B. The Negative Side
Take a look at that question again: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Underline the phrase at this time. That’s the key to the answer Jesus gives in verse 7. They weren’t asking, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” because they already knew the answer. It was yes. He told them as much in Luke 22:29-30, “And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (See also Matthew 19:28.) They knew that one day they would reign with Christ in his kingdom on the earth. That was a settled fact about which they had no doubts. It wasn’t if but when the kingdom would be restored to Israel.
What’s wrong with the question, then? It was wrong because they were asking for something that was none of their business. Jesus had told them the what, they wanted to know the when. There are three problems here: The first is carnal impatience that is unwilling to wait for God’s plan to unfold. The second is improper curiosity from prying into things that belong to God alone. The third is spiritual indolence in which the pious fold their hands looking at the clouds instead of working in the harvest fields for the Master.
So the question, though understandable, is still wrong, not in what it presumes—that Jesus will one day return and set up his kingdom on the earth—but in what it asks—when are you going to do it?
II. A Surprising Answer
Let’s get the answer clearly before us and then make several comments: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” This is what you might call a divine put-down. Some have misunderstood Jesus as saying that there will never be a kingdom on the earth at all. But nothing could be further from the truth. Suppose that on the first day of the semester the teacher tells the class that there will be four major tests and a few unscheduled pop quizzes. One inquisitive scholar raises his hand and asks, “Teacher, are you going to give us a pop quiz next Thursday?” “It’s not for you to know the times and dates of my pop quizzes,” the teacher replies. “As the one in authority over this class, I alone know the dates.” Does that mean there aren’t going to be any pop quizzes? No, and if the students think that, they’re going to be sadly surprised one day when the teacher says, “Take out a piece of paper.” By the same token, when Jesus says, “It’s not for you to know the times or dates,” it can only mean that the kingdom is coming but no one can ever be sure of the date in advance.
The phrase “times or dates” involves two different Greek words. The first refers to duration of times and the second refers to both length of times and kinds of times—such as “hard times.” Jesus is telling us that we can’t know the time in general or specific relating to his return. Those things the Father has reserved for himself. In the Greek it’s even stronger than that. The words mean that God the Father has set by his own divine authority the timetable for all the events surrounding the Second Coming of Christ to the earth. No one else can know that timetable. It’s his and his alone.
III. What We Should Learn From This
What should we learn from this brief Q & A between Christ and the disciples?
First, there is a lesson here about humility. There are some things in life we don’t know because we haven’t learned them yet. But there are many other things we don’t know because we can’t know them because they belong only to God. Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God.” When I was younger, I felt it my duty to always answer every question anyone asked me, whether or not I knew the answer. I find the older I get the more important it is to be able to say, “I don’t know” when I really don’t know. There are many passages of Scripture I don’t understand and many heartaches I can’t explain. Each week I encounter many mysterious tragedies that seem to have no rhyme or reason. I am learning—and continue to learn—that it’s better to say “I don’t know” than to pretend you do because you’ll always be found out in the end.
Second, this teaches us that God’s timetable and ours are not the same. Most of us are in a hurry. God isn’t. For most of us long-range planning is where we’re going to eat lunch on Tuesday. But God plans from the standpoint of eternity. One day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years is a like a day (2 Peter 3:8). It’s been 2000 years since Christ promised to return and some people wonder what’s gone wrong. But to God 2000 years is like two days on his eternal calendar.
It’s tough for us humans to grasp that truth. We worry and fret and stew over the minor problems of life. This is the time of year when our high school seniors are making up their minds about where they are going to college. That’s an important decision because your college years set the direction for the rest of your life. Very often young people choose a career in college and many meet their future mate in college. I’ve been surprised to discover how many seniors have still not decided what they’re going to do next September. Twice this week I’ve heard people say, “Young people today have too many choices.” That’s probably true. One hundred and fifty years ago you either stayed on the farm or you got a job. For most young people college was out of the question. Now there are hundreds and hundreds of possibilities and that means more choices for everyone—and more difficulty making up your mind.
As the father of a graduating senior, I’ve done my bit of fretting about where my oldest son will go to college. I found great comfort a few months ago when I heard a distinguished Christian educator say that God isn’t worried about where your children are going to go to college. That thought has not only brought me comfort, it’s also calmed my soul in many areas. God isn’t worried about anything. He’s not up in heaven wringing his hands over the mess in the White House. He’s also not fretting about your next visit to the doctor. He’s not worried about your aging parents or your income taxes or whether or not you’re ever going to get married. God’s not worried about anything in your life or my life or about anything relating to the people we love. He’s up in heaven in perfect control of the entire universe at all times. He’s working out his plan to perfection and nothing can hinder him in the least degree.
If God isn’t worried about your life, what are you so worried about? His timetable may not be the same as yours—I can guarantee that it’s not—but in the end he will take care of everything and everything will be taken care of by him.
Third, our text reminds us of the true secret of contentment. Contentment comes when you realize that you have everything you need right now. If you needed anything else, God would give it to you. I find this a tremendously liberating thought. If you aren’t content right now, it’s not God’s fault because he’s given you everything you need for this very moment. If you truly needed anything else, he would give it to you. The fact that you don’t have it must mean that you don’t need it. But you can rest assured that if you need something else tomorrow, he will be pleased to give it to you.
A hard-driving, recently divorced young executive met a commercial fisherman he knew from church in mid-afternoon, legs dangling off the pier as he helped his two young sons catch crabs. “Why aren’t you out there fishing?” he asked. “Because I’ve caught enough fish for today,” said the fisherman. “Why don’t you catch more fish than you need?” “What would I do with them?” responded the fisherman. “You could earn more money,” came the impatient reply, “and buy a better boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. You could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish, and make more money. Soon you’d have a fleet of boats and be rich like me.” The fisherman asked, “Then what would I do?” “You could sit down and enjoy life,” said the industrialist. “What do you think I’m doing now?” the fisherman replied.
When Jesus answered the disciples, he was in essence telling them, “You know everything you need to know about the future. If you needed to know more, I would tell you.” True contentment comes from appreciating what you already have—not in dreaming about what you don’t have.
Fourth, we learn something about doing God’s will. When Jesus answered their question in verse 7, that wasn’t the entire answer. He went on to say in verse 8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In other words, our job is to tell the world about Jesus. His job is to come back at the right time. If we do our part, we can be sure that he will do his. This is a great truth for everyone who wants to know God’s will for the future. Do what you know to be God’s will today and tomorrow will take care of itself. If we could ever grasp this principle, it would save us from hours and hours of needless worry over the future. It would also keep us focused on our present duties—which is where God’s will must always begin.
He’s Coming But I Don’t Know When
I close with this thought. Jesus is coming back but I don’t know when. I think it may be soon but I can’t be sure about that. I do think there are signs that point in that direction but that’s just my own speculation. I have a sermon called “Seven Signs of the Second Coming” in which I detail the trends that lead me to think that these are the last days of human history. But after I’m finished with Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton, the Internet, the apostate world religion, the Mark of the Beast and the plans to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, the truth is that I don’t know any more about the precise date than the disciples did 2000 years ago.
But I’m sure of this. Jesus is coming back sooner or later. It would be wonderful if he would return this month—not just to Garland, Texas—but to the entire world to be revealed as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Until he returns—whether soon or far away—our job is simple. Be ready to meet him when he comes. And how does one get ready to meet Jesus? First, by welcoming him into your heart as Savior and Lord. Second, by doing God’s will every single day. That’s the whole truth of the matter. When you get up in the morning say, “Lord Jesus, I hope you come today. Please help me to do your will so I will be ready to meet you when you come.” Daily obedience is the key. Keep your eyes on the skies. Keep your bags packed and ready to go. Do God’s will in all things. Serve the Lord every day. Live for Jesus and you will never be disappointed no matter when he finally returns.
May God help us to do his will with joy this week. And we say with all the saints of every age, Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.