When is Jesus Coming Back?

Matthew 24:32-51

December 28, 1997 | Ray Pritchard

“He may come at any time. He’s sure to come some time. Let’s be ready when he does come.” Andrew Blackwood

Several weeks ago (December 15, 1997) U.S. News and World Report carried a cover story called “Dark Prophecies.” In it the author reported that according to a recent survey 66% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ will return to earth some day-including 1/3rd of those who say they never attend church. This figure is up from 61% only three years ago. Why this sudden rise in belief in the Second Coming? The article attributes it-correctly, I believe-to widespread interest in the year 2000.

In just two years we will be privileged to enter a new millennium. I use the word “privileged” in a special sense, meaning that 40 generations have come and gone since the present millennium began. It would be unique enough to see a new century-something reserved for our grandparents or (more likely) our great-grandparents-but to witness the passing of one millennium to another-that is something that no one we know has ever seen and no one we know will ever see again.

Because we live at one of the rare breakpoints of history, many people have speculated on what this moment means for humanity.

Today, apocalyptic imagery is everywhere: in … corner bookstores, where the prophecies of Nostradamus, The Bible Code, and an array of American Indian and New Age books are hot sellers; and in theaters, where movies like Contact and The Seventh Sign draw viewers with their apocalyptic themes. Redemption is the topic on talk radio. And on television, glimmerings of Armageddon flicker across the screen–on Fox’s popular Millennium, for example. (From “Dark Prophecies” by Jeffrey Sheler, U.S. News and World Report, 12/15/97.)

None of this should surprise us since Christians have always believed in the Second Coming of Christ. Jesus himself declared, “I will come back” (John 14:3). And when Christ ascended into heaven, the angels promised the disciples that “this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Belief in the Second Coming has always been considered one of the fundamental truths of our faith. Even though we have often argued about the details surrounding his return, Christians of every denomination have agreed on this fact: Jesus Christ is coming again. By that we mean that Jesus himself (“this same Jesus”) is coming back to the earth. Physically, visibly, bodily, personally.

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 the 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 wept over Jerusalem 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 Mount Calvary 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 who lived 2000 years ago on the other side of the world is returning to the earth one more time.

Kind of blows your mind to think about it, doesn’t it?

Coming Soon!

Here’s an interesting corollary to that truth. Because Christians have always believed in the Second Coming, there have always been Christians who believed that Jesus would come back in their own lifetime. It’s clear that the earliest Christians expected Christ to return to the earth in just a few years. That’s why the Apostle Paul could say in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 that “the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Paul clearly believed that Jesus would return in his own lifetime. He never expected to have his head chopped off in Rome; he fervently thought that he would live to see the Second Coming.

Some Christians in every generation since then have believed the same thing. For instance, Christopher Columbus thought that his voyages were part of God’s ordained plan and that Jesus would return in the year 1650 (or thereabouts). In the 1840s a man named William Miller convinced his followers to sell all their worldly goods because he believed that the Second Coming was at hand. The 20th century has seen many similar predictions: 1914 (connected with World War 1-“The war to end all wars”) … 1975 (a date suggested by the Jehovah’s Witnesses) … 1982 (connected with an unusual planetary conjunction) … 1988 (predicted by a Bible teacher who wrote a book that sold hundreds of thousands of copies) … 1994 (suggested by a prominent radio Bible teacher).

All these dates have this in common: they were all wrong. In fact, every date for the Second Coming that has been suggested over the last 2000 years has been proven wrong. That should tell us something.

During my second year at Dallas Theological Seminary, Marlene and I served as youth directors of the Beth Sar Shalom Hebrew Christian Fellowship in Dallas. Our duties consisted mainly of taking care of the children on Friday nights while their parents attended the Bible class at the same time. One Friday night we were mobbed with children, so many that I wondered what was going on. When I went upstairs I saw that Zola Levitt (who now hosts a daily Bible teaching program) was speaking to a crowd two or three times bigger than usual. It turned out that someone had calculated that in 1982 there would be some unusual conjunction of the planets. It happened that this particular Friday night was exactly seven years to the day before that would take place. Could it be possible that the Rapture would take place that very night? Zola didn’t predict that of course, but he was speaking on the truth of the Rapture and how we should be prepared to meet Jesus whenever he comes. That night sticks in my mind as perhaps the very first time I ever truly believed that Jesus might come back soon.

Two Dangers

The same thing happened in late 1990 and early 1991 during the Gulf War crisis. I remember standing in the west parking lot with Len Hoppe talking about the massive military buildup in the Middle East. “Pastor, for the first time in my life,” said Len, “I get up each day and think, ’Jesus might come back today.’”

We face two dangers whenever we talk about the Second Coming:

1) Becoming more concerned about the date and the signs than about his return.

2) Ignoring the truth of the Second Coming and living as though he will never return.

Frankly, I don’t know which is worse.

In Matthew 24-25 the Lord Jesus Christ gives us his longest statement about the events surrounding his return to the earth. Called the Olivet Discourse (because he spoke these words while standing on the Mount of Olives), the message begins with two questions from the disciples (24:1-3). Jesus first explains the signs of the whole age between his first and second comings (vv. 4-14). He then reveals specific events that will take place just prior to his return (vv. 15-28). Then he speaks of his return to the earth in great power and glory (vv. 29-31).

In verse 32 Jesus begins to answer the question: When will these things happen? That answer continues to verse 41. Then in verses 42-51 Jesus reveals how his followers can be fully prepared for his return.

When is Jesus coming back? Here are four facts to consider from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

I. We can know the general time but not the precise moment (v. 32-36).

Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

The story of the fig tree works on two levels. First, it is a truth from nature. When the leaves first begin to come out in the springtime, we know that the summer is near. By the same token, when the signs of Matthew 24 begin to take place, then we will know the return of Christ cannot be far away. Second, the fig tree is a common biblical symbol for the nation of Israel (Hosea 9:10; Matthew 21:18-22). It may be that Jesus is here alluding to the restoration of the nation of Israel in the end times. Historically, Israel ceased to exist as a nation after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. But in 1948 Israel became a nation once again. I personally believe that this restoration (though it is in unbelief) is the first step in the fulfillment of the prophecies of Ezekiel 36-39, Daniel 9:24-27, and Romans 11:26.

When Jesus says that “this generation” will not pass away until all the signs are fulfilled, I think he means that when the signs of the end do begin to occur, they will all come to a conclusion within the span of a generation. It helps to think of the signs of the Second Coming like streams flowing in a great river. If you go to northern Minnesota, you will see various streams and springs that are the headwaters of the Mississippi River. “But these are so small,” you say. Indeed they are, but as other streams and tributaries feed into them they will become the mighty Mississippi River that flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the same way one “sign” may not mean very much. But as more and more of them come together, they form a river which leads us to the climax of human history. Those signs-which in some ways have always been present-will become more evident in the last days. In short, the generation that sees the predicted events of Matthew 24 begin to unfold will also see his return.

Date-Setters Beware!

However, no one will ever know the precise moment of his return. No one can know the day or the hour. The best we can do is to read the signs and know that the time is at hand. If anyone ever 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.

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 Word-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. Jesus will return at a time when the world is completely unprepared

(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.

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. 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.

These verses teach us that this present age will end in sudden, dramatic judgment and a complete and final separation of the saved and the lost. And the world will not expect it and will therefore be completely unprepared.

III. We are called to be ready because Jesus 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.

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, he certainly could come tomorrow.

How does a thief come to your house? Sudden and unannounced. After all, if you knew a thief was coming at 3:15 AM 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 four 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 1000, 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.

IV. While we wait, we are to be faithful in doing the tasks the Lord has given us

(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.

In verse 45 Jesus uses the “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 2000 years. How serious can he be about coming back?

But one day-sudden 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.

Back to the Main Question

I’m coming now to the end of my sermon and I realize that some of you may feel that I’ve not answered the main question: When is Jesus coming back? Well, if you wanted a date, I’m sorry to say that I can’t give you a date. If I did, I’d lose my job!

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 in 1998. He might come today.

I do know this: Jesus will return when everything is ready in God’s plan. Matthew 24 teaches us that there are many different things that will happen in the days leading up to Christ’s return. Those signs are like the little streams that lead into the big river that I mentioned earlier. When everything is in place according to God’s plan, Jesus will return. Not a moment earlier, not a second later.

How close are we to that moment? Perhaps very close. Certainly closer than we think.

Seven Signs of the Last Days

Let me wrap up this message by sharing with you seven signs that lead me to believe we are indeed living in the last days before the return of Jesus Christ to the earth.

Sign #1: Fig Tree Blossoming: Israel in the land since 1948. In my mind this is the most important prophetic event of the 20th century. After 2000 years the Jews are back in their own land.

Sign #2: The rapid move toward a united Europe. We used to talk about the Common Market; now we speak of eurodollars, a united currency, a European Parliament, and the establishment of a united European trading bloc. This seems to correspond with the prophecies of Daniel 2, Daniel 7 and Revelation 13.

Sign #3: World attention focused on the Middle East. I simply point out that the Bible clearly tells us that history both begins and ends in the Middle East-not in Africa, Asia, Russia, Europe, or North America.

Sign #4: Global computer/communications network. The whole trend toward globalization seems to be leading to a situation where one person could control world communication and ultimately the entire world economy, as predicted in Revelation 13.

Sign #5: Vast spiritual apostasy. Second Timothy 3:1-9 tells us that in the last days “terrible times” will come as men become lovers of pleasure instead of lovers of God. They will turn away from the truth because their minds are depraved. Such men will lead many others astray. Truly those “terrible days” are upon us-in Oak Park and in every other community in America. We now see how so-called ministers of the gospel can deny every tenet of the Christian faith and still remain in the pulpit. They can even justify gross immorality because they have rejected God’s Word. The worst is yet to come.

Sign #6: Worldwide preaching of the gospel. Here is one positive sign. Matthew 24:14 predicts the worldwide preaching of the gospel in the last days. And I am glad to say that more people are preaching the gospel in more places with greater results than ever before.

Sign #7: Growing movement of political correctness. This includes the mania for multiculturalism and the increasing enshrinement of “tolerance” as the chief American virtue. In the name of “tolerance” we attack those who proclaim absolute truth, which is why persecution of Christians is on the increase around the world. I would include in this final sign the ecumenical movement and the willingness of many people-including some evangelicals-to sacrifice truth on the altar of peace and friendship. These things are simply setting us up for the rise of the one final great world ruler whom the Bible calls “the antichrist” and “the beast” and “the man of lawlessness” (1 John 2:18; Revelation 13; 2 Thessalonians 2:3).

“Maybe Today. Are you Ready?”

I would suggest to you that all these things are happening in the world today and I would suggest that all of them are signs of the last days. However, that is as far as I am willing to go. 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, that the table is set, that 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.

(At this point in my sermon I asked each person to turn to someone on their left or right and say, “Maybe today. Are you ready?” I challenge each person reading this sermon to do that right now.)

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. 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:

Live each day as though it might be your last-and one day you’ll be right. That by the way is a good rule for the new year.

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.

One final word. If Jesus were to come back today, would you be ready to meet him? Let me speak to those who aren’t sure how to answer that question. 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. As I have said so many times this year, I now say for the last time in 1997: 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.

Jesus is coming again. Maybe today. Are you ready?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?