The Up and Coming Christ: “He Will Come Again to Judge the Living and the Dead”
John 14:1-3; II Peter 3:3-10
May 9, 2004
You never know where you will find spiritual truth. A few days ago I received a letter from Mary Jo Lynch. Thirty-five years ago, she lived with her husband Dudley in my hometown of Russellville, Alabama. Dudley Lynch pastored a tiny Cumberland Presbyterian Church built near a strip mine on state highway 24 between Russellville and Belgreen. It was a typical tiny country brick church. I remember attending services there a few times. I suppose if they had 60 people it was considered a high attendance day. Dudley worked a variety of second jobs to support his family. At one point he opened up a sandwich shop next door to Hayes Oldsmobile where they sold the greasiest hamburger in America—the Lynchburger. I remember sitting at the counter talking about the Bible while Dudley filled the orders. That was the beginning of my knowledge of Bible doctrine. I never saw him without a smile on his face.
Dudley died in 1992. Mary Jo wrote a letter shortly afterward. I didn’t hear from her again until this week. She is now 71 and living near Lexington, Kentucky. She wrote me because while browsing through her church library, she found one of my books. So she wrote to say hello, to tell me about how her son Paul and her daughter Joanna are doing, and then at the end she added these thoughts:
“With whatever discernment I have at this point in my life, it seems to me that these are the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times, because God’s true church is alive and well and the Spirit is using some unexpected ways to get the attention of the lost people all around us. Who would ever have thought that Mel Gibson would make a movie that would cause so many to either dust off the Bible they have, or buy one and read the biblical account of the crucifixion?
“It is the worst of times because never in the history of our country has the stability of the family, especially marriage, been threatened as it is now. It is my hope and prayer that there will be a movement back to Christian values and to an acknowledgment of God in society in general. But maybe it is too late for that. I just get this feeling that God is pouring out his grace upon us in these last days before he will pour out his wrath in the Tribulation period. He is not willing that any should perish but all come to repentance.”
When I read that, I said to myself, “You have the whole thing right there.” The best of times, the worst of times, the last days, the Tribulation, and God is not willing that any should perish. I’d like to follow those thoughts a little deeper and see where they lead.
A. It was the best of times
We can start where my friend started, with the amazing success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Not only has the film garnered almost $600 million worldwide, it also captured the attention of the secular media. For a brief period, Jesus became popular in America. Every TV commentator on every network talked about Jesus—who he is, why he came and why he died. Such a thing has never happened before. Then there is the incredible success of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, and several years ago the popularity of The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson, and the amazing run of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Even the commercial success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (a book that attacks Christianity) points to the spiritual hunger (and spiritual confusion) of this generation.
And it is a good thing when we have a man in the White House who truly believes in Jesus Christ, reads his Bible, prays for guidance, and openly affirms his evangelical faith. Much of the bitter hatred of President Bush stems from his openness in talking about his faith. And on another front, the flap over John Kerry’s views on abortion has led the mainstream media to talk about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to take communion. We have never seen anything like this before.
David Brooks, senior editor of the Weekly Standard, recently wrote On Paradise Drive, an analysis of modern culture. Noting that 43 million Americans move each year, he draws this conclusion: “We work harder than any other people on the face of the earth. What on earth are we looking for? And I think the answer is that we’re looking for heaven. We’re looking for paradise.” We keep moving from place to place precisely because we cannot find the happiness we seek. We’re hoping to find heaven—even though we wouldn’t say it in those words.
One final note. Not long ago I received an e-mail from a young man who read my book, Beyond All You Can Ask or Think. Having just come through a very difficult experience in a dating relationship, he wrote to tell me a bit of his story:
“I had a rough beginning in life and I always had a hard time with prayer and in faith, I was raised a Catholic but I don’t know where I stand. I am starved for faith and I envy those who have it, deep down inside I long for God to be a part of my life. Today I made a testimonial to change my lifestyle and be the person I was meant to be. Out of despair I went to the local bookstore in search of some guidance. I came across your book and I decided to buy it. I never heard of you or had a clue where your church was until about an hour ago. I don’t know if this is a coincidence but I live in downtown Oak Park and I just thought it was a little weird that I randomly pulled a book out of the Christian section at Borders and it happened to be a local (author). Every day of my life has been a battle, I am finally enjoying some success with my career but I have been spiritually empty. … I am ready to accept God and his will into my life; I have been spiritually deprived for too long. I pray that this incident is to bring me closer to God; today was the first day that I prayed with passion in a long, long time. Thanks to finding your book I am making an effort to walk towards God. Thank you for your time and I appreciate your prayers.”
His words reminded me of Ecclesiastes 3:11, which says that God has put eternity inside every heart. We were made to know God, to love him and to serve him. In the words of Augustine, “O Lord, our hearts were made for you, and we will not find rest until we find rest in you.”
B. It was the worst of times
It is not difficult to find evidence on the negative side of the ledger. Perhaps the most obvious example is the attack on marriage and the family in the form of so-called “Gay marriage.” Suppose we roll back the clock just 12 months—to Mother’s Day last year. Who would have believed how fast our nation has moved toward Gay marriage? My concern at this point is not with the people on the other side. After all, they are only acting on their presuppositions. Why should we be surprised when lost people act like lost people? Gay marriage is just the latest manifestation of humanity in full-throttle rebellion against its Creator. My greater concern is with the people inside the church who ought to know better. Too many Christians either don’t see this as a big deal (“Let them do what they want. It doesn’t affect me.”) or they don’t want to get involved (“I don’t like controversy.”). But this is a battle where Christians ought to be leading the fight for moral values in our society. Too many of us have been silent for too long.
We can add Internet pornography to the list. A woman whose family has been torn apart because a family member became addicted to Internet pornography begged me to warn people about the danger. This is a rising crisis that threatens us precisely because it happens in secret, in the home, in the privacy of a personal computer screen. We can add abortion and the legalized destruction of the unborn to the list. Then there is the growing deep divide in America—the “blue states” and the “red states.” That divide goes far beyond political parties to the division between those who believe in moral absolutes and those who don’t.
Certainly we can add the rise of radical Islam and the Age of Terror that has engulfed us all since 9/11. A few days ago Marlene drove me to O’Hare Airport so I could catch a flight to New York. When we got on River Road, I spotted a thick black cloud coming from the vicinity of the airport. What was my first thought? Terrorists had struck the airport. Before 9/11 that would have seemed farfetched. Nowadays it’s hard to know what would be truly farfetched. We live in a day where the veneer of security has been ripped away, and we have almost become numb to yet one more bombing, one more atrocity, one more picture of death and destruction.
Related to that is the prevailing theological confusion over salvation: Is Jesus really the only way to heaven? Six or seven years ago I heard Erwin Lutzer predict that this would be the dominant issue of the early 21st century. Events since then have proved him correct. Praying in Jesus’ name has been banned at many public gatherings. Now we are told that Islam, Christianity and Judaism all worship the same God, and those who say Jesus is the only way are called bigots.
Let me add one personal observation at this point. As a result of all these factors, the national blood pressure had gone up 100 points since 9/11. We are an angry, edgy, nervous nation. Our usual self-assurance has been replaced by a critical impatience. I see it every day when I drive in traffic. In the old days if you paused for a second when the light turned green, people waited patiently. Now they hit the horn and then they hit it again. We get angry quicker, and when we get angry, we really get angry. I confess that I see the change in myself as well.
The Apostles’ Creed
My friend Mary Jo Lynch asks if it’s too late for anything but the coming judgment when Jesus returns. And that brings us directly to this phrase from the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe … he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” These simple words consist of two complementary truths:
1) Jesus is coming again.
2) Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead.
The New Testament refers to the second coming of Christ in over 300 verses. That means one of every 13 verses deals with some aspect of our Lord’s return to the earth. It is so central to the New Testament that Christians everywhere have always believed that Jesus will return someday. Though we differ (and argue!) over the details, Christians of all varieties unite in believing that Christ himself will return to the earth. Jesus said in John 14:3, “I will come again.” Here are five words that help us understand what that means. His second coming will be …
Personal (It will be Jesus and not some substitute)
Literal (Not a vision or a dream)
Visible (“Every eye will see him”)
Sudden (Not a gradual return)
Unexpected (Like a thief in the night).
Acts 1:11 makes it clear that Jesus himself will one day return to the earth. It will be “this same Jesus” who is coming again. Twice in one verse Luke uses the word “same” to tell us something crucial about the Second Coming. The same Jesus who left will one day return. And he will return the same way that he left. If plain English can have any meaning at all, those words teach us that Jesus is coming back personally, literally, visibly and bodily. We might also add that his coming will be sudden and unexpected. Luke 24:50-52 informs us that as Jesus reached out his hands to bless his disciples, he began to rise from the face of the earth—evidently without any warning whatsoever. We can assume that his return to the earth will be no less astonishing and no less surprising.
This Same Jesus
This is truly an astounding thought. The same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem is coming again. The same Jesus who grew up in Nazareth is coming again. The same Jesus who turned water into wine is coming again. The same Jesus who walked on water is coming again. The same Jesus who healed the nobleman’s son is coming again. The same Jesus who raised Lazarus is coming again. The same Jesus who entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is coming again. The same Jesus who was betrayed by Judas is coming again. The same Jesus who was whipped, beaten, scourged, mocked, and condemned to death is coming again. The same Jesus who died on Skull Hill is coming again. The same Jesus who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning is coming again. The same Jesus who ascended into heaven is coming again.
That’s what we mean when we say that Jesus is coming again. The actual, historical figure that lived 2,000 years ago on the other side of the world is returning to the earth one more time. Kind of blows your mind, doesn’t it? There awaits in the future an event more marvelous, more startling, more amazing, and more blessed than anything that has happened in the last 2,000 years. I speak of the literal, visible, bodily return of Christ to the earth. No event may seem less likely to modern men and women; no event is more certain in the light of inspired Scripture.
Keep Your Eyes on the Middle East
That brings us to an important question: Where are we on God’s timetable? I give two simple answers. On one hand, no one knows the day or the hour of his return, and it is dangerous to be overly dogmatic regarding the “signs of the times.” On the other hand, the Bible gives a detailed picture of the events surrounding the Second Coming. God has revealed to us the general picture of world events in the days leading up to Christ’s return. The simplest thing I can say is, Keep your eyes on the Middle East. That’s where the story started, and that’s where it will come to an end. It is no coincidence that the eyes of the world are riveted on the Middle East at this very moment. The final great act of human history will take place—not in Tokyo, New York or London—but in Jerusalem, and in the nations surrounding Israel. Are we living in the last days? No one knows for sure. But consider these facts:
1. There is a clear pattern of events laid out in the Bible concerning the last days. If you put together the various strands of prophetic teaching from the Old and New Testaments, you discover a fairly detailed picture of the end-time landscape—morally, politically, spiritually, militarily and economically.
2. There is an amazing similarity between our world and the world the Bible describes at the end of time. If you doubt that, take your Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. See how well they fit together.
3. If that is true, then we may indeed be the generation privileged to see the coming of Jesus Christ.
4. Every sign points in one direction—it won’t be long now.
A Word from Peter
But before we sell our houses and move to the mountains to await the Lord’s return, as some misguided souls have done in the past, let us heed the words of II Peter 3:3-10. In this passage Peter addresses a puzzling question—one that bothered believers in the first century and troubles thoughtful people today. Why hasn’t the Lord returned already? What is he waiting for? Does the 2,000-year delay mean that he isn’t coming at all? Should we give up our Christian hope? Listen to Peter’s answer:
“First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (II Peter 3:3-10).
This passage is full of important truth that deserves close consideration. Here are three points to ponder:
1) Despite what the scoffers think, the Second Coming is certain because God promised it.
The scoffers will always be with us. They will say, “Twenty centuries have come and gone and still Jesus has not come. Give it up. He’s not coming back.” To which Peter replies, “Think about Noah’s flood.” Before the flood, men lived in reckless disregard for God. They lived as if tomorrow would never come. They sinned in every way possible. But one day the skies poured forth water and the fountains of the great were opened, and water covered the entire earth. If God could do that once, he could do it again—only this time the coming of Christ will bring a judgment of fire to the earth.
2) The Second Coming will usher in a day of judgment for the ungodly.
Notice the sequence of words: water, destruction, judgment, fire. Just as God destroyed the world once with water, the next time he destroys it with fire. For the ungodly, the Second Coming of Christ will be bad news indeed.
3) The Second Coming is delayed to give people a chance to come to Christ.
Here is the good news. The “delay” the scoffers talk about is actually God’s gift to them. He purposely delays the Lord’s return in order to give men and women more time to repent. Verse 9 reveals God’s tender heart toward the lost. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He does not enjoy sending people to hell. Contrary to popular opinion, he is not some crazed old man in a white beard, laughing while he hurls lightning bolts to the earth. For 2000 years he has held back the final judgment in order to give rebellious men and women a chance to surrender their arms and yield allegiance to Jesus Christ.
As the Creed says, Christ will eventually judge the living and the dead. All must stand before him and give an account. No one can escape that day. Not long ago I talked with a retired military man who served in combat in the US Armed Forces. He has served his nation in dangerous places around the globe. When I asked his opinion of the current world crisis, he offered a surprising comment. “Americans are not afraid to fight. We’ve got the best trained, best equipped, finest fighting force in the world. Our soldiers are ready to fight anyone, anywhere. But our basic problem is different. We’re afraid to die.” When I pressed him on the matter, it became clear that he didn’t really mean our soldiers (many of whom have already made the supreme sacrifice). He was talking about America as a nation. We’re afraid to die because we are so prosperous that this world has become like heaven to us. We love our wealth so much that we can’t bear to let it go. Thus we can’t relate to someone who, having nothing to live for, blows himself up for the promise of a few virgins in the afterlife.
But death comes to all men sooner or later—and it comes to some of us sooner than we expected. Terry Platt passed away early Thursday morning. When he was diagnosed with leukemia a few months ago, he knew he had a rough battle ahead of him. Since January he had endured three extremely difficult rounds of chemotherapy—each one had caused intense sickness of varying kinds. He was in the hospital for the fourth round (of eight) when he died. Terry served on the Calvary pastoral staff in the 80s as the Pastor of Christian Education. Later he had a very successful career working for Gospel Light. His job took him all over the eastern United States, speaking, teaching and leading seminars. Very early in my ministry at Calvary he befriended me. During my first few years here we ate lunch together every few months and I got to know him well. Later he and Barb returned to Calvary and every Sunday that he was in town, he and Barb would be in the same pew, the last one in the middle section, on the east side, near the door. Often I would stop and chat with him between services. Always Terry had a joke, a quip, a story, and always there was a smile on his face.
As Marlene and I were walking into the first Christmas Eve service last December, we saw Terry and Barb. “I thought I heard your voice,” he said with a chuckle. When I asked him how he was doing, he turned serious and said, “The doctors tell me I have less than a year to live.” He was wrestling with the big decision about whether to undergo the incredibly difficult chemotherapy when there was a possibility it would kill him. He and Barb eventually decided to go ahead, and having decided, Terry never looked back. At times—many times, in fact—his pain was excruciating. Every bad thing that could happen, happened to him. Double pneumonia, sores in his mouth and throat, high fever, bad blood counts, his body becoming ice cold and then fiery hot, and much more. But he never complained. He told me on more than one occasion that he had said to his oncologist, “I’d like to stay alive as long as I can because I’m going to be in heaven for a long, long time.” When the doctor asked him how he knew he was going to heaven, Terry laughed and said, “Now you’re in my territory.” And proceeded to share his faith in Christ. Every time Terry mentioned that story, he smiled at the thought. Early on he continued to work and strategize from his hospital bed. As he grew sicker, he had to lay his work aside.
A Personal Version of John 14:6
Knowing that he was in the hospital, I called him on Easter morning from my office at church, just before the first service. His voice was weak when he answered the phone, but when he realized it was me, he immediately said, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” And then “Happy Easter, pastor.” He was so full of faith and hope in the Lord. Before we hung up, Terry shared with me his own personal translation of John 14:6, based on his study of the Greek text. Later he wrote me a note that turned out to be his final e-mail to me:
“April 24, 2004
“Good Morning Ray,
“I am home from the hospital for a few days. Can’t believe the year is 1/3 over. I was so blessed weeks ago when I attended church. Along with your sermon I thought you might like the expanded version of John 14:6. This is a personal translation from Greek studies when [I was] in Bible College.
“’Jesus Christ Himself said, I am the way, and that is to say the only way, I am truth, and that is to say the only truth, and I am life, and that is to say the only life. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to go where the Father is unless they go through me.’ That makes it pretty clear!
Blessings on you,
He’s right. That does make it pretty clear. Terry staked his life on the truth of those words—and now he has met the Lord face to face. Sometime in the early hours of Thursday morning, he closed his eyes on earth and opened them in heaven. He is more alive today than he has ever been.
He lived as a Christian, he died as a Christian, and now he has gone to heaven. He was a man of faith who died full of faith. He often said, “I’m ready to die if that’s what the Lord wants.” When the Lord said, “Terry, time to come home,” he didn’t argue. He just went home to be with Jesus.
Barb told me, “I’m so glad his suffering is over.” Thank God there is no chemotherapy in heaven, no cancer, and there are no hospitals. There are no graveyards dug into the hillsides of heaven. For Terry, the worst is over, the bright sun of eternity now shines in his face, and somewhere up there, he is holding court, telling stories, laughing, singing, praising, and saying to all of us, “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’ll see you soon.”
Are You Ready?
My friend Gary Olson liked to greet people with these words: “Jesus is coming. Are you ready?” I wear a little pin on my lapel with the words “Are you ready?” to remind myself that I won’t be here forever. Terry Platt was ready when the Lord came for him on Thursday morning. What about you? Are you ready?
I agree with Mary Jo Lynch. These are the best of times; these are the worst of times. And I think the situation for believers will get simultaneously better and worse as we march toward the climax of human history. Let me say plainly that I don’t know when Jesus will return. I don’t know and I won’t set a date. I hope he comes soon. He might come today. I do know this: Jesus will return when everything is ready in God’s plan. Not a moment earlier, not a second later.
How close are we to that great day when the trumpet will sound, the dead in Christ will rise, and we will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air? Perhaps very close. Certainly closer than we think.
One final word. If Jesus were to come back today, would you be ready to meet him? If you say “I hope so” or “I’m not sure,” you really aren’t ready at all. If you don’t know him, you aren’t ready to meet him. But you can be ready by opening your heart and trusting him as your Savior and Lord. Run to the Cross. Lay hold of the bleeding form of the Son of God. Rest all your hope in what Jesus Christ did when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. Rest your full weight on Jesus—pin all your hopes on him. Lay aside your trust in anything you have done and trust in Jesus Christ alone.
We ought to face the future with optimism. The world looks at all the problems and says, “Is there any hope?” For those who know Jesus Christ, there is enormous hope. If he comes today, we win. If he comes in 50 years, we win. If he comes in 1,000 years, we win. These are great days to be alive, the greatest days in all human history. Think of it. We may well be the generation privileged to see the return of Jesus Christ. If this really is the terminal generation, the smartest thing you can do is to give your life 100% to Jesus Christ. Trust him completely so that if he comes today or tomorrow or next week or in a hundred years, you will have no regrets but will be ready to see him when he returns. Amen.