Getting refocused on the return of Jesus

Most Christian people know they are supposed to believe in the return of Jesus, and yet, of the many Christian truths, this is the one we often sideline first. As we read Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians we see at least four common distorted ways of thinking about this all-important event.

Myth 1: It will be ‘pleasant’

… when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire … (2 Thess 1:7-8)

Have you ever found yourself thinking about the day when Jesus returns as being like your retirement, but better? The first false view about the return of Jesus is that it will be pleasant. By pleasant, I mean a nice event, enjoyable and relaxing.

While most Christians do not confess to holding this view, it may be true that we live as if it is the case. Our typical mindset as we long for Jesus’ return can be similar to our longings for the coming weekend, or for a holiday. We look forward to it, yes—mostly because it means we won’t have to do the things we are doing now.

In the opening chapter of 2 Thessa­lonians, Paul challenges this ‘pleasant’ view of Jesus’ return. The Thessalonian Christians have a reputation for persevering. Paul boasts about this to other churches. Nothing is ‘nice’ for the Thessalonians. Life is not on autopilot. They are forced to make decisions each day in the name of the King they follow. In Acts 17, we hear that the Thessalonians are being persecuted because of their claim that they follow a greater king than Caesar. Their loyalty to this king is causing their lives to be filled with great distress and trouble.

What would enable the Thessalonians to endure through such persecution? The prospect of the ‘pleasant’ return of Jesus? An early retirement? Surely not. Paul offers a much more polarizing and politically incorrect account of Jesus’ return than this.

The first thing Paul does is affirm that the return of Jesus will mean the end of what they are currently experiencing, which is suffering. There is a final relief provided by the return of Jesus (2 Thess 1:7). It will be given to those who are currently troubled and are persecuted in the name of Jesus.

But while there certainly is this ‘relief’ dimension to Jesus’ return, and even though Paul is very aware of the Thessalonians’ perseverance through persecution, he is more concerned to teach them of the justice of God—a part of God’s character the Thessalonians could well have been struggling to accept. The reason their hardship will end when Jesus returns is not simply because the resurrected Christ brings in the new age of no more tears, but, just as importantly, because Jesus delivers the justice of God.

Paul makes it clear that the return of Jesus will have one of two outcomes for each of us. According to the justice of God, we will either be punished with everlasting destruction, or enjoy marvelling at the glory of Jesus for all eternity. It is both more frightening and infinitely more powerful than a ‘pleasant’, nice, comfortable ending.

Those who are met with everlasting destruction experience God’s payback to the persecutors of his people. “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Thess: 1:6). It feels very uncomfortable—almost immoral—thinking of the return of Jesus as a time when those who trouble me because I am a Christian will experience payback from God. I take little comfort in it. My own conscience has been trained to be very slow to wish punishment on others since surely I, myself, deserve God’s punishment as much as the one who troubles me.

Yet Paul makes an important qualification. God will be “inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:8). In these verses, Paul gives us great insight into the nature of the Thessalonians’ persecutors. They were persecuting not because they hated the Thessalonians, but because they hated God. The Thessalonians must have been living as such visible witnesses to the Lord Jesus Christ that they were receiving the kind of hatred that Jesus himself received when he walked on earth. For those who do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus, the return of Jesus will be utterly devastating.

And for those who do respond with obedience to the gospel of Jesus? The power and intensity of that day goes far beyond the idea of a ‘pleasant’ state of being. It is to suddenly find yourself in the presence of the Holy One wrapped up in “the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:9). The Lord will be then “glorified in his saints, and … marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thess 1:10). This is a day when our deepest yearnings will be fully satisfied and our brokenness fully restored—when we will truly be who we were made to be.

Do you notice how the return of Jesus is about Jesus moving somewhere and not us? The return of Jesus is about Jesus visibly returning to the centre of reality, where he belongs. Those who want Jesus at the centre surround him, marvel at him and share in his glory. Those who do not are pushed aside in punishment, locked away from Jesus for eternity.

To be honest, my tendency to view the return of Jesus as something that is ‘nice’ and ‘pleasant’ (like eternal retirement) is probably an indication of my unwillingness to engage with the sheer intensity of that day. When I face the reality of the return of Jesus head on, without getting distracted in the details such as questions of timing, I am forced to engage with what it means for Jesus to return to earth as king. This is no easy exercise. Paul makes it uncomfortably clear that the return of Jesus will be a day of power that has never been seen before. It will be a day of decision and a day of reckoning. This reality does not always sit easily with us. Relief is digestible. Justice and punishment are not. Yet apathy about the return of Jesus is a dangerous mindset to have. A lack of concern about Jesus’ return breeds a lack of concern about Jesus himself. We can so easily see Jesus as the saviour who brings relief, and yet forget he is also the king who is returning in glory and power.

Paul’s claim is clear; in the midst of persecution, qualities of endurance and perseverance can only be truly sustained, and relief only fully attained, by the certain hope that when Jesus returns the God of justice will be made known to all in power and glory. There is a difference between the return of Jesus being a comforting thought, and it being a comfortable thought. The reality is the former, but not the latter. The ‘comfortable’ idea actually lacks power, either to comfort (when suffering is real and serious), or to motivate us to accept suffering now—that is, to live sacrificially.

Myth 2: It has already happened

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. (2 Thess 2:1-2)

The second false view about the return of Jesus is that it has already happened. Although this is not a view held consciously by most Christians today, there are various ways in which our beliefs about Jesus’ return can be so inadequate that we live as though he’s already come. We can subconsciously question the need for Jesus to return, as it seems God has done all that he is going to do.

For some, the return of Jesus is primarily a spiritual reality. He has returned to our hearts, and that is all we need. We live in the day of the Lord, and have every spiritual blessing in Christ, so we can access all of his promises now. If this is the case, then what is the relevance of a future physical return?

Others may dismiss a spiritual ‘return’ of Jesus but still doubt the need for a physical return. It is easy to feel that the world will go on much as it always has. After all, it is a good twenty centuries since New Testament times, and it’s amazing how advances in medicine and science have dramatically improved our quality of life (at least in the Western world) since then. These kinds of thoughts, consciously or subconsciously, make it easy for the return of Jesus as a real, physical and future event to completely drop off the radar.

By contrast, the Thessalonians were a people who were wide-eyed and waiting for Jesus (1 Thess 1:9-10). Yet there was some confusion circulating in Thessalonica in the form of reports and rumors, supposedly from apostolic circles, declaring that the day of the Lord had already come (2 Thess 2:1-2). In responding to the confusion, Paul argues that those who hold this view have failed to grasp the need for Jesus to return, because they are blind to the spiritual reality of the present.

To explain this present spiritual reality in 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul draws a picture of the last days, when the man known as ‘lawlessness’ will be exposed. On that day, rebellion at its highest magnitude will be revealed for all to see. Comparisons with ‘lawless’ figures over history have often been distractions for Christians, in that they miss the picture Paul sketches. But comparisons should not be totally dismissed. The global outrage at figures like Adolf Hitler is a rare opportunity to see the secret power of lawlessness brought out into the open and examined. It is a moment where the whole world stops and notices anarchy with its disguise removed. It’s a glimpse of hell.

Let’s use a musical example. The rhythm of a song is usually appreciated subconsciously. Only music enthusiasts will get excited by spotting that a song is in a 5/4 time signature. You tap your foot to a song because the rhythm moves you. This ‘lawlessness’ that Paul refers to is much like a good rhythm. It is ‘secretly’ bubbling under the surface. All of us, at times, delight in it sub-consciously, tapping our feet to the rhythm of anarchy.

What this means is that there is an evil that is operating in the world today with a veiled intensity, even to Christians. Paul says that anarchy won’t be the rhythm of the world forever. It will be exposed for what it is and what it has done. But for now many people are unknowingly dancing to the beat of their destruction.

Yet despite all this, Paul calls the Christians in Thessalonica not to obsess over unmasking evil, but to eagerly await the splendour of the return of Jesus—the great unmasker, the one who breaks down the beat of anarchy, destroys the deception of the devil’s drum machine and establishes the rhythm of his own glory and truth.

Myth 3: Death is overwhelming

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (1 Thess 4:13)

The third false view about the return of Jesus is that death is much more overwhelming. This certainly rings true for me. Death occupies my thoughts far more than Jesus’ return. Whether it is our own death or the death of a loved one, most of us tend to live as if hope ends at death.

In discussions about action on climate change, what I find personally challenging is that no matter what view you take on the issues at hand, most people agree that the catastrophic consequences of human-induced climate change won’t be fully experienced in our lifetime. The motivation to be concerned by it is for future generations. The climate change debate struggles to arouse the same sense of terror as when my own life or my family’s is in immediate danger.

I think I can have this kind of attitude towards the return of Jesus. I feel that, for whatever reason, it is unlikely that he will return in my lifetime, so the thing that I get concerned about is the question of death. What am I going to do before I die? How do I prolong my life? Hope for me is still very much boxed in by the reality of death.

Yet Paul wants to challenge this ignorance about death. Hope is not chained by death, because both the dead and the living will experience the return of Jesus. In fact, it is the return of Jesus that defines hope and releases the bonds of death. Unlike the consequences of climate change, when Jesus returns I can be sure that, whether I am dead or alive, I will be ‘awake’ to experience the full impact. And what is the impact of the return of Jesus for the Christian?

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess 4:16-17)

It is a description of cosmic royalty. Far from missing out on the experience, the dead are the first to rise and join in the greatest of all possible reunions. The King has returned and he has brought the dead with him—not just as a token gesture, but as a testimony to the supremacy of his kingship. We see a glimpse of this in Jesus’ earthly ministry, when he tells Lazarus to get up (John 11:43). When Jesus returns all will be raised and brought together to be with their King. Forever.

So how do we deal with our fear of death, before this happens?

There is of course grief that must happen at death—death prevents loving relationships, relationships we were created to have. But for the Christian, death is a pause button. It is not ‘stop’, ‘eject’ or ‘erase’. The pause can be very painful. But we must never forget it is a pause. When Jesus returns, he fully restores his royal community—death is not the end.

After Paul’s incredible description, he simply says “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess 4:18). The community of God, when faced with the fear of death, use these words of Paul to bind the truth about eternity to their lives in the present.

Myth 4: What matters is when

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thess 5:1-2)

The fourth false view about the return of Jesus is that its timing can be predicted. We often hear that we cannot know when Jesus will return, but why is it important that we cannot know ‘when’? The problem with questions of “when?” is that they tend to minimize (not maximize) behavioural change. Why is it that people always prefer to know the date of their exams? So they can manage their time to prepare. Or, if you are like me, knowing ‘when’ allows for procrastination, until fear of the deadline kicks you into action. We find it a lot harder to deal with the idea of an exam being given at any time, and that we will be expected to be familiar with all the course material. If we want to do well in a pop quiz, we need to be on top of the content at all times.

When it comes to the return of Jesus, we’ve already seen that there will be an assessment from God. While in 2 Thessalonians 2 Paul deals with a dangerous apathy about Jesus’ return, and the suggestion that the ‘day of the Lord’ had already come, in 1 Thessalonians he seems to be addressing this obsession of when it will happen.

Paul says that the day of the Lord will be both unexpected and unavoidable. It will be unexpected like a thief in the night and unavoidable like the pains of labour. For all people, what matters is not when in history Jesus will return, but whether we are standing spiritually in the darkness or in the light.

Those in darkness are tapping their feet to the rhythm of anarchy, saying everything is “peace and security”, and there is no sense of the need for Jesus to return. But for those in the light, while there is a lack of knowledge about the timing of Jesus’ coming, the reality and the need of his return is fully recognized. Paul says we shouldn’t be surprised by the day of the Lord, but to live as people who are alert, awake and sober. What does this look like?

‘Alert waiting’ for the return of Jesus is not like waiting for a washing machine repairman to come to your house sometime between 9 am and 5 pm, staying home, knowing he is coming, but not knowing when. Christian waiting is alert, active waiting. In view of eternity, it also means being self-controlled: actively controlling our behavior so that it is shaped around the eternal reality of life with Jesus. Paul specifically warns against the danger of self-centered idleness (1 Thess 5:12-15; 2 Thess 3:6-12). This alertness involves active other person-centeredness, holding fast to the hope of eternity with Jesus.

It also means having a healthy cynicism towards the ‘peaceful and secure’ assessments of the present. Paul deliberately uses battle imagery to describe the present situation (1 Thess 5:8). Being alert means being suspicious to such comments like “we live in the best city in the world”. Remember, those in darkness tap their feet to the rhythm of anarchy, the secret power of lawlessness. We need to avoid the things that numb us to the need for Jesus’ return. Paul’s language of drunkenness (1 Thess 5:7) says something about both the nature of the spiritual darkness and the nature of the spiritual problem at the heart of drunkenness itself, which artificially strengthens the allusion of ‘peace and safety’. Drunkards take pleasure in not being alert.

So the return of Jesus cannot be a question of when but a question of where we are spiritually. In darkness or light?

Being ‘with him’

Sometimes I find myself thinking, “all I want is to be safe in the end, and trusting in Jesus seems the best bet”. I’m not often drawn to ponder the reality of Jesus’ actual return. Sometimes I can be tempted to see Jesus as the chauffeur, and I trust his great driving skills, but fail to recognize that he is also the destination! The distorted ways of thinking about Jesus’ return all stem from a failure to see the significance of what a gain it is to be with Jesus and what a loss it is to be without him.

But when we focus on the truths rather than the myths—that God’s justice is coming in glory and power, that our world desperately needs this justice, that we will all experience it, and that we should be actively living in the knowledge of what will come—then the reality begins to sink in with its amazing significance

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