Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? Why Christ May Come at Any Moment
November 11, 2001
Whenever I speak on Bible prophecy, one question always comes up sooner or later: When is Jesus coming back? No matter what else people want to know, it always comes back to a question of timing. “How close are we to the Second Coming? Do you think these are the last days? Could the Rapture happen soon? And how do recent world events fit into the bigger picture of the end times?” Those are fair questions and I can’t blame anyone for asking them because I ask them myself. You can hardly study passages like Matthew 24-25 without wondering how near or how far we may be from the return of Jesus Christ. And certainly the events of September 11 (up to and including the crash of the American Airlines jet yesterday in Queens, New York) make us all realize how unstable the world situation is and how quickly things can change for any of us.
So it’s a fair question, and not just for 21st-century Bible students. The disciples had the same question (“When will all these things happen?”) 2,000 years ago when Christ first gave the Olivet Discourse two days before his crucifixion. And despite his answer (“You can’t know the time so you must be ready at all times”), they never stopped wondering about it. In fact, the last recorded question they ever asked Jesus dealt with the time question: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6 ESV). Just a few seconds later Jesus ascended into heaven and has not been seen on earth since then. I find it striking (and instructive) that the disciples never lost their interest in the “time” question. You can hardly blame them for asking the question. After all they had been through with Jesus, it was perfectly reasonable that they should wonder when he would establish his kingdom and rule over Israel from David’s throne in Jerusalem. If they wanted to know, it can’t be that wrong for us to want to know either. But we must also notice Jesus’ very crisp answer in Acts 1:7, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” Note the phrase, “It is not for you to know.” While that may sound like a gentle put-down (and perhaps it is), it is also a reminder that some things simply are not revealed to us no matter how much we ask or beg or plead or pray. The future is hidden in the heart and mind of God, and he does not reveal the future unless he chooses to do so. There is also in Jesus’ words a reassuring note that the future will not happen willy-nilly (contra certain modern theologians who claim God does not know or ordain future events), all things (“times or seasons”) are fixed by Divine Authority. The truth looks like this:
God knows the future because he has ordained the future.
God reveals the existence of certain future events. (Bible prophecy)
God chooses not to reveal the timing of those future events.
No matter how many times we may ask the question, God’s answer is always the same: “It is not for you to know.” What is left for us is to know as much as we can know and to trust God for the rest. That perspective comes through clearly in Matthew 24. In verses 32-33 Jesus twice says, “You know,” referring to the “signs of the times.” When we see the things Jesus prophesied, we can know that “it” (his coming) is “at hand.” But in verse 36 he warns us that “no one knows” the day or hour of his coming. And he says it explicitly in verse 42, “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (ESV). Some readers may see a contradiction here. Twice Jesus says, “You know,” once he says “No one knows,” and once he says, “You do not know.” So which is it, do we know or do we not know? The answer, of course, is yes! We know some things and we don’t know other things. We know the signs of the times. That means we can study the course of this age and see the “signs” mentioned in Matthew 24:4-14. As we observe the tempo of events across the centuries, we can reasonably conclude that this age is building to a climax and that the coming of Christ is drawing near. And the generation living in the final days will come to a settled assurance about some things that other generations will not have. But when all is said and done, we are still making guesses and inferences as we study the course of history and attempt to read the “signs” as they multiply around us. We do not know and cannot know the exact time of the Lord’s return. All speculations in that area are useless and often spiritually dangerous.
We can summarize things in three simple statements:
A. Jesus is coming again.
B. We can’t be certain when he will return.
C. We should always be ready because he may come at any moment.
It’s like taking a college course where the teacher announces the grading plan this way: “Your entire grade will be determined by a series of pop quizzes. I can’t tell you when or how many pop quizzes there will be. I may give you one every week or I may skip four weeks and then give you five in a row. Since you don’t know when or how many I’ll give, you must come to class always ready for a pop quiz. If you are always ready, you’ll get a good grade no matter how many pop quizzes I give.”
When we think about the Second Coming, we ought to adopt the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. Jesus is coming. No one knows the day or the hour so be ready, be prepared, live as if it might be today and you’ll be glad to see him when he arrives.
We face two dangers whenever we talk about the Second Coming:
A. Becoming more concerned about the date and the signs than about his return.
B. Ignoring the truth of the Second Coming and living as though he will never return.
Frankly, I don’t know which is worse.
In our text Jesus gives us four truths about the timing of his return. Each one teaches us something important about how we are to live as we wait for Christ to return.
I. We Cannot Know the Precise Moment When Christ Will Return. v. 36
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
This verse plainly says that no one will know the precise moment of Christ’s return. No one can know the day or the hour. The best we can do is to read the signs of the time and conclude that we may be nearing the end of the age. But even then we can’t be certain. If anyone tells you that they have pinpointed the year or the month or the day or the hour of Jesus’ return, do not believe him. That person is either a false prophet or a seriously deluded Bible student. Jesus strictly forbids setting dates for his return.
As much as we might like to know when Christ will return, it is better that we don’t know. If we knew the precise date, it would tend to make us proud and arrogant because we would possess knowledge others do not have. And it might make us spiritually lazy. Most of us tend to put things off till the last minute. Last month Marlene and the teachers from Oak Park Christian Academy traveled to a conference in South Bend, Indiana. They left on Wednesday afternoon and returned on Friday afternoon. Marlene told me she would be back about 3:00 p.m. on Friday. That meant that Nick and I were living in a “Bachelor’s Paradise” for about 48 hours. It was ice cream for breakfast, cake for lunch, and brownies for supper. We could eat in front of the TV and leave our stuff there when we finished. On Wednesday night I didn’t worry about a thing. On Thursday morning things were going great. On Thursday night Marlene called to see how things were going. I told her fine and asked again when she would return, just to make sure her plans hadn’t changed. On Friday morning I got up and went to work. At about 2:00 p.m. I left the church, went home, and started cleaning up. I picked up the dishes from the living room, took them to the kitchen, and started the dishwasher. I grabbed the dirty clothes and took them to the laundry and started a load of wash. I picked up the trash, cleaned off the tables, and I made sure everything was straightened up. Working at a furious pace, I managed to finish just before 3:00 p.m. When Marlene got home, things were reasonably in place. (When I told this story on Sunday morning, someone asked her if it was true. She laughed and said it’s been like that for the last 27 years. That’s also true.) And that illustrates the point that, for some of us at least, it’s better not to know when Jesus is coming back because we’d try to get our lives completely in order in the last 24 hours.
So we don’t know and can’t know the precise time. But of this much we may be sure: Jesus Christ is coming to earth again. You can take that to the bank. His return is more certain than the existence of the universe. Heaven and earth may pass away, but his words—which in this context means the announcement of his return—will never pass away.
We can trust Jesus Christ to keep his word. He is coming back.
II. The World Will be Completely Unprepared for His Coming. v. 37-41
“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left” (Matthew 24:37-41).
Here Jesus makes a very simple comparison. As it was in the days of Noah, so it shall be when Jesus returns. What was it like in Noah’s day? It was “business as usual.” While Noah patiently built the ark and warned men of coming judgment, they laughed at him and said, “It will never happen.” Noah’s day was like our days—an age of skeptical unbelief and casual unconcern. The more Noah preached, the more his contemporaries mocked him. They refused to believe that anything like a worldwide flood was possible. The notion was so ridiculous that they could not take Noah seriously.
So for years and years life continued without a change. Eating, drinking, marrying, giving in marriage. With each passing day old Noah looked like more of a fool than the day before. But finally the heavens opened and the rains came down. When Noah entered the ark, I’m sure his friends pounded on the door and said, “Noah, we’re sorry. You were right and we were wrong. Open up. Let us in.” But it was too late.
“The flood came and took them all away.” Think of it. An entire generation wiped out by the hand of God. One moment you’re sitting down to eat supper, the next your home has been washed away. Perhaps you’re at work in the field, then suddenly the field has disappeared under a wall of water. Where once there was a world, suddenly the world you knew has perished beneath the waves. And it happened so suddenly that no one except Noah and his family were ready. Out of the whole world, eight people—and only eight—were saved. Everyone else perished as the floodwaters rolled across the surface of the earth.
This is what the Second Coming will be like for an unbelieving world. It will be business as usual until the very day Jesus returns. Just as the antediluvians did not believe Noah, even so the world mocks the idea that Jesus will return. They call it a myth, a legend, a nice fairy tale, but they don’t believe it will really happen.
And just as the flood brought sudden judgment to the world, the return of Christ will do the same. When the waters came, the unbelievers were “taken” in sudden death so that only Noah and his family were left. When Jesus returns to the earth, unbelievers will once again be “taken” in death and judgment and only believers will be preserved by God. And just as the ark saved Noah, even so Jesus Christ is the “ark of safety” for those who believe in him.
Jesus tells us that this present age will end in sudden, dramatic judgment and a complete and final separation of the saved and the lost. The world will not expect it and will therefore be completely unprepared. We should learn from this that the world will not be converted before Christ returns. While it is true that the gospel is going forth in more places and in more languages than ever before, it is also true that persecution and anti-Christian hostility is also on the rise. This should not surprise us. The Bible says that in the last days “perilous times” will come. As we approach the end of the age, people will be “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (II Timothy 3:2-4). In the last days there will be an outbreak of evil unmatched in world history. To say this is not to be pessimistic but utterly realistic.
Today the godly and ungodly are mingled together. We live together, eat together, work together, play together, and go to school together. We live in the same towns, go to the same restaurants, cheer the same sports teams, wear the same clothes, read the same books, and in a thousand other ways, the saved and lost seem so much alike. But that is how Jesus said it would be. If you study the two men “in the field” or the two women grinding at the hand mill (probably a mother and daughter), they seem exactly the same. There is no obvious outward difference. Yet the true difference between them is the difference between heaven and hell.
One will be taken, one will be left. When Jesus comes back, the most intimate relationships will be severed.
Husbands taken, wives left.
Sisters taken, brothers left.
Uncles taken, aunts left.
Grandchildren taken, grandparents left.
One friend taken, another friend left.
One neighbor taken, another neighbor left.
The separation will be sudden, definite, final, and eternal. There will be no appeal of the decision, no request for a rehearing, and no possibility of repentance. This is a sobering truth to consider. Let us learn from this the utter folly of universalism, the dreamy theory that suggests that everyone will be saved in the end. Common sense tells us it cannot be true. And the words of Christ provide an absolute refutation. Some will be saved, others lost.
And no one will be saved simply by being close to a saved person. You aren’t saved because your husband or wife is saved. If you neglect to come to Christ, when he returns you will be eternally separated from your loved ones who truly know the Lord. “Close” may count in horseshoes and hand grenades but it doesn’t count at all when it comes to salvation.
III. We Must be Ready Because Christ May Return at Any Moment. v. 42-44
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:42-44).
Notice the phrase in verse 42: “Keep watch” and the command in verse 44: “Be ready.” This summarizes how believers should view the Second Coming of Christ. Theologians often speak of the imminent return of Christ. The word “imminent” means at any moment. He could have come yesterday, he might come today, and he certainly could come tomorrow.
How does a thief come to your house? Suddenly and unannounced. After all, if you knew a thief was coming at 3:15 a.m. on Thursday morning, you would be ready for him, but thieves rarely call and make appointments in advance. “I’ll try to be there by 3:15 but it might be closer to 4:00 because we’ve got two other houses to rob, but it would help if you would just pile the stuff in the middle of the floor so we don’t have to search through all your drawers. And if you wouldn’t mind leaving the door unlocked, it would save us some time.” It never happens that way, does it?
Suppose that thieves have been working your neighborhood. How would you protect yourself against them?
Lock the doors.
Close the windows.
Set the burglar alarm.
Call the security service.
Get a hungry Doberman.
You might even buy a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun so you can give the burglars a personal greeting. Now after you do all that, the burglars probably won’t come for many nights. In fact, you’ll probably not need those precautions for 999 days. But on Day 1,000, you’ll be glad you were ready.
Jesus is coming like a thief in the night. When we least expect him, he’ll return to the earth. Therefore, keep your eyes on the skies and be ready at any moment to meet the Lord face to face. That leads me to ask a simple question: When was the last time you got up and said to yourself, “Jesus may come today?” For most of us, it’s been a long since we thought about his return. We’re not ready because we’re not sure he’s really coming back.
In the last month the government has issued two “terrorism alerts.” Americans have been asked to be on the “highest alert” for suspicious people doing strange things. On one hand, one wonders how much more alert we can be. On the other hand, the alerts remind us that by nature we are sleepy people, easily distracted and quick to lose interest and let our minds wander. These verses are like a “Second Coming Alert” by our Lord. We must be always on guard, eyes wide open, recognizing that we live in enemy territory, always watching, looking, and waiting for our Lord’s return.
IV. While We Wait, We are to be Faithful in our Assigned Tasks. v. 45-51
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:45-51).
In verse 45 Jesus uses the word “faithful” to describe the proper attitude of his followers while we wait for his return. Then he told a most instructive story. There once was a rich man who owned a vast estate. Before he left, he appointed one of his servants to run the estate while he was gone. That man was to handle all the money and oversee all the other servants until he (the master) returned from his journey. He didn’t say how long he would be gone, only that one day he would return.
It turned out that the master was gone for a long, long time—much longer than anyone expected. But the servant he put in charge kept saying to himself, “My master is coming back someday—it might be today. I’ve got to keep things running well so my master will be pleased when he finally returns.” One day the master did return, saw that his servant had been faithful, and gave that servant a vast reward.
But suppose the servant didn’t believe the master or suppose he believed at first and then lost hope because the master was gone so long. Days become weeks, weeks become months, months become years, and years become decades. Finally the servant says to himself, “My master is never coming back. He lied to me or he forgot or he changed his mind. Maybe he never meant to come back at all. Maybe it was just a story he told to keep me busy.” So the servant begins to beat the other workers, he starts drinking and carousing and spending the master’s money. After all, the master’s been away for 2,000 years. How serious can he be about coming back?
He rationalized—”My master is never coming back.”
He demoralized—He beat his fellow servants.
He compromised—He ate and drank with the drunkards.
But one day—suddenly and unannounced—the master returned but this time there would be no reward. When he saw how that wicked servant had doubted his word, he ordered him cast out of the house and cut into pieces. He was no different than the hypocrites and unbelievers.
So it will be when Jesus returns. Those who remain faithful will be rewarded; those who doubt his word and squander their opportunities will be greatly punished.
How can you be ready for Christ’s return? Some Christians have answered that question by selling their goods and moving to the wilderness to wait for the Lord. However, Jesus never calls his followers to do such a thing. Instead, he calls us to be faithful in doing whatever he gives us to do.
Your job may be big or small, but whatever it is, do it to the best of your ability and you’ll be ready when Jesus returns.
Be faithful today and you’ll be ready today.
Be faithful tomorrow and you’ll be ready tomorrow.
Be faithful next week and you’ll be ready next week.
Be faithful next year and you’ll be ready next year.
Someone once asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming back tomorrow. “I would plant a tree,” he replied. Just keep on doing what you know to be right and whenever Jesus comes, you won’t be disappointed.
Here is the biblical balance for all of us as we await the return of the Lord:
Live as though he might come today.
Plan as though he won’t return for a thousand years.
“Maybe Today. Are You Ready?”
I do not claim to know when Christ will return. But I hope and pray that it will be soon. It seems to me that many of the pieces are in place, the table is set, and we are not far from the moment when the curtain will rise on the final act of human history. Of this much I am sure, Jesus Christ is coming back to the earth. It may be soon. Maybe today.
Although I don’t know when Jesus is coming, I want you to know that I fully expect that he will return in my lifetime. I’m not looking for the undertaker; I’m looking for the Lord to return from heaven. I don’t want to spend any “box time” in the ground; I’m looking for the Lord to return before I die. If I’m wrong about that, I hope you won’t hold it against me at my funeral service. But if I’m wrong, at least I’m in good company because the Apostle Paul expected Jesus to come in his lifetime too (see I Thessalonians 4:13-18). I’d rather be wrong because I expected Christ to return than to think he won’t come back for 10,000 years.
Run to the Cross
In the meantime, what should we do to be ready for his return? Matthew 24 has the answer:
A. Live each day as though it might be your last—and one day you’ll be right.
B. Be faithful to do each day what God gives you to do, and if Jesus comes back on that day, you’ll be ready to meet him.
There is an old fable about a time when Satan was training three apprentice devils. He asked the first one how he proposed to deceive people. “I will tell them there is no God.” “That will never work,” Satan replied, “for everyone knows there is a God.” The second one volunteered that he would tell people there is no hell. “That won’t work either. Everyone knows there must be a hell.” Then the third apprentice devil spoke up. “I will tell them there is no hurry.” Satan smiled and said, “You will deceive millions.” And that has indeed been one of Satan’s chief tactics. He wins multitudes by convincing them there is no hurry, they have plenty of time to think about God, plenty of time to come to Christ, plenty of time to be forgiven. But it is not true. Today is the only day you have. And it may be the only day you ever have. There has never been a better time for you to come to Christ.
One final word. If Jesus were to come back today, would you be ready to meet him? Are you ready to meet the Lord? If you say, “I hope so” or “I’m not sure,” you really aren’t ready at all. Remember what Jesus said would happen when he returns:
One taken—one left. Which group will you be in?
One preserved by God—the other taken in judgment.
What will happen to you when Jesus Christ returns? 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. 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.
Jesus is coming again. Maybe today. Are you ready?