Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM
When you read the letters of the Apostle Paul, you may notice something surprising – he seemed to think the world would end in his lifetime. Was the Holy Spirit inspiring an error when he wrote about Jesus returning soon? It’s been two thousand years… was he crazy? What possible justification could there be for his “wrong” opinions to be codified in inspired texts? Well, I think both he and the Holy Spirit were justified in preserving these thoughts. Let’s take a few moments to consider Paul’s words, and to think about why, perhaps, we should think the same.
The End of the World As We Know It
First, let’s recognize that Paul did believe Jesus could return very quickly – possibly while he was alive. This would be the climax of history, the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of the age of the Messiah. Consider his words to the church in Thessalonica who were distressed about believers who had died. These believers were confused because they did not know what would happen to believers who had ‘gone to sleep’ prior to the return of Christ. Paul reassured them, saying:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and 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. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 NIV)
Do you see his argument? He said, “we who are still alive will be caught up.” His grammar, at least, anticipated that even he would be included in this great event.
So the question remains, was Paul wrong? Did he misunderstand the words of Jesus or the teachings of the other Apostles? And more importantly, did the Holy Spirit inspire Paul to write in error? The simple answer to each of these questions is No. Here’s why: every believer should think exactly the same thing that Paul thought and taught – that Jesus could (and would) return in their lifetime. Consider more from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-6)
In the first verse of this passage, Paul explains: “about times and dates we do not need to write to you…” Why? Because, first of all, times and dates don’t matter: we need to be ready all the time. But, second, because Paul and the Thessalonians don’t know when the return will happen.
So, while Paul expects Jesus to return soon, he understands that ‘soon’ could be quite literally any time. His emphasis is not about when Christ will return, but that we should be ready when he returns.
In several parables, Jesus tells stories of those who are waiting for their master to return (Luke 12:35-40, 42-49, Matthew 25:1-13, 14-30). He severely warns those who wait to watch at all times, expecting their master’s return at any moment. Jesus summarizes, saying: “You also must be ready because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Don’t be caught sleeping, distracted, or unprepared just because he’s been gone longer than we expected.
What’s Our Response?
Be crazy, therefore, as Paul is crazy. Expect the return of Christ in your lifetime. Live as if Jesus will return tomorrow, next week, next month, three years from now… Live like you believe what Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers say about the end of the world. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul and others to write about the return as imminent, meaning that it could happen at literally any moment. They were not wrong, they simply did not know when it would happen (and neither do we). This imminence of the return hasn’t changed even though it has been two thousand years since the time of Paul.
Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32 NIV) He also says, “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Luke 12:40 NIV) If you believe in these words, they will radically change the way you live.
Peter encourages us toward this end, saying: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:7-8 NIV)
The Holy Spirit allowed Paul’s expectations to pepper his inspired writings because this is exactly how we should think, how we should live, how we should speak. Jesus is coming back soon… are you ready and watching?
Let’s close with the words of Jesus, the very last words in Scripture, which were repeated four times in the book of Revelation: “Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20 NIV).
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