It was the end of the world! Tens of thousands of people believed that Jesus was about to return. Farmers released their livestock, people literally threw away their money, thousands gathered in churches and homes and camped in meadows, anticipating the most dramatic event in history.
As night fell, the excitement and anxiety was intense. Believers sang hymns, prayed, talked with each other about what it must be like in heaven. As midnight neared, the feeling of expectation was almost unbearable.
Then midnight passed. Confused and stunned, people waited through the early morning hours until dawn revealed that Jesus hadn’t returned.
We have to put on the character of Christ, and be doing those things that He did. As Paul said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”
The date was October 22, 1844. The event is known as the Great Disappointment, and it contains lessons for those who are still waiting for Christ’s return.
Are you anticipating the return of Jesus Christ? Are you struggling with how to live day-by-day while maintaining focus on His return? How are you preparing?
The Great Disappointment
We can learn a lot from those who experienced the Great Disappointment, especially from their misunderstanding of biblical prophecy and the events that will lead up to Christ’s second coming.
Those anticipating Christ’s arrival, or advent, in the mid-19th century became known as Adventists. It was a major religious movement that crossed denominational boundaries. The aftermath was devastating on many of those who were anticipating Christ’s return.
One despondent believer, Henry Emmons, wrote:
“… And dear Jesus did not come—I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for two days without any pain—sick with disappointment” (quoted by George Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World, 1993, pp. 217-218).
Another disappointed believer whose faith was shattered was Hiram Edson. He said:
“Our fondest hopes and expectation were blasted. And such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed [as though] the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawned” (quoted by Knight, p. 218).
Many of those who believed that Jesus would return simply went back to their old lives. Some lost their faith entirely. Others searched the Scriptures to find out where had they gone wrong.
If those involved in the Great Disappointment had had better prophetic understanding of what the Bible teaches about Christ’s return, they would have known that it wasn’t going to happen in October 1844.
What does Bible prophecy say about the second coming?
Let’s look at some prophecies concerning Christ’s second coming. An important place to start is what is called Jesus’ “Olivet Prophecy” recorded in Matthew 24.
Here we have the often-quoted description of what Jesus said it would be like before His return: “For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:7-8 Matthew 24:7-8 7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.
American King James Version×).
Throughout history, people have observed wars, famines and disease epidemics and claimed that Jesus’ return was imminent. Many Europeans in the Middle Ages looked at the Black Death, economic troubles, famine and unending wars and concluded that Christ’s return was looming on the horizon.
But one specific statement of Jesus supplies vital information about the time before His return. We read this in Matthew 24:21-22 Matthew 24:21-22 21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
American King James Version×: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved [alive]; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.”
It is this global collapse into war, famine, disease pandemics and natural disasters that hadn’t happened in 1844. Actually, it’s easier to see how Europeans in the Middle Ages, faced with the devastation of the Black Death, thought that they were living in the time of the end. But even the horrendous events of disease, wars and famine that swept across Europe in those days pale when compared with the disasters of the Olivet Prophecy.
Global collapse into chaos
Here’s one point those involved in the Great Disappointment misunderstood: Christ’s return is preceded by global catastrophes.
The world that you and I live in today is unprecedented in history. The destructive power of nuclear and biological weapons, the speed at which diseases can be spread through mass transportation, the uneasy global economy where an event in one part of the world can affect everyone, the concentration of millions of people in tightly packed cities with limited food supplies—these all point to conditions preceding what Jesus foretold would be like no other time.
A time is coming, commonly known as the Great Tribulation, in which the world will be engulfed in such chaos and violence that humanity will be on the brink of total annihilation.
The Olivet Prophecy and the book of Revelation show that during this time of global disaster, people throughout the earth—from the crowded cities to the dirt farmer in the most remote area—will see Christ coming in the sky. It will be the most dramatic and frightening event in history.
Fierce resistance to Jesus Christ
According to the book of Revelation, armies will gather to repel this invasion from outer space. Which brings us to a second point the people of the Great Disappointment misunderstood: Human beings will fiercely resist Jesus Christ at His return.
The apostle John records his vision of this event in Revelation 19: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.
“And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God” (Revelation 19:11-15 Revelation 19:11-15 11 And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he does judge and make war.
12 His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself.
13 And he was clothed with a clothing dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God.
14 And the armies which were in heaven followed him on white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.
15 And out of his mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treads the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
American King James Version×).
John received an amazing vision—Christ in all of His glory, shining like the sun, destroying the armies gathered to resist Him!
Now we are faced with a question that eluded the seekers of the Great Disappointment: Where will these armies gather to fight against Christ?
Preparing for the return of Jesus Christ
The Adventist movement of 1844 wasn’t a denomination, but an ecumenical movement. Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and other participants were not only disheartened when Jesus didn’t return, but some of them found themselves ridiculed by their neighbors. In New York, some Adventist meeting halls were destroyed.
Where had their calculations gone wrong?
This brings us to a third prophecy that is central to understanding Christ’s second coming: Jesus is returning to the Mount of Olives to establish God’s Kingdom on the earth.
The believers in the Great Disappointment thought Christ was going to take them to heaven and immediately destroy the earth with fire. But an important Old Testament passage that when coupled with the Olivet Prophecy and the book of Revelation gives us a clear picture of Christ’s return. Here’s what it says:
“Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, and your spoil will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem … Then the Lord will go forth And fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east” (Zechariah 14:1-4 Zechariah 14:1-4 1 Behold, the day of the LORD comes, and your spoil shall be divided in the middle of you.
2 For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city.
3 Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle.
4 And his feet shall stand in that day on the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall split in the middle thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.
American King James Version×).
Here we discover exactly where Jesus Christ is going to return—the Mount of Olives and Jerusalem. It is outside Jerusalem that the armies will gather to fight against the Prince of Peace. Zechariah 14 reveals that Christ won’t destroy the earth, but will set up God’s Kingdom in Jerusalem to rule over all the nations on the earth.
Disappointment and disillusionment
Those involved in the Adventist movement of the mid-19th century could’ve avoided their error if they had understood just these three biblical prophecies (and there are many more).
After the Great Disappointment, they returned to everyday life. It wasn’t easy. They struggled with their faith. Many had closed their businesses, taken their children out of school and sold their property. They faced scorn from neighbors. Picking up the pieces of their lives was a hard struggle.
Those who suffered through the Great Disappointment aren’t the only ones who have expected Christ’s return and were disillusioned when it didn’t happen.
So how do we, those who are still looking ahead to the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth, keep our focus on that future while living in an increasing secular and anti-biblical society? How do we stay focused while dealing with the day-to-day issues of family, job, finances and the stresses of the modern world?
Steps to stay focused and engaged
Here are three steps you can take to stay focused on God’s future while staying engaged in daily life:
When Jesus was eight days old, His parents took Him to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised. There they encountered an old man who was eagerly anticipating the coming of the Messiah. His name was Simeon. God revealed to Simeon that he would see the Messiah before he died. When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple, Simeon knew that God had kept His promise.
Simeon walked up, took the infant Jesus in his arms, and praised God, saying: “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:25-32 Luke 2:25-32 25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was on him.
26 And it was revealed to him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,
28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,
29 Lord, now let you your servant depart in peace, according to your word:
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 Which you have prepared before the face of all people;
32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.
American King James Version×). Simeon is an example of someone who anticipated the first coming of the Messiah.
You and I live in a wondrous time. We live between the two great salvation events—the first coming of Jesus the Christ as the Redeemer for humanity and His second coming to set up God’s Kingdom on the earth. Understanding our time in history needs to be central to our daily lives.
When faced with the injustices and sufferings of daily life, we should remember that the time is coming when Christ will stand on the Mount of Olives to bring mercy and justice, to eradicate poverty and violence, to bring all humanity to God. You can experience hope by anticipating the future. And you can only maintain that anticipation now properly through daily prayer and Bible study. Anticipation is flamed by daily communication with God.
The second coming is far more than just a nice idea of a fantasy future. You must be spiritually preparing for that event. What you learn from the Bible must become an integral part of your daily life.
Jesus taught: “Blessed are those [servants] whom the master, when he comes, will find watching … But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour [when] you do not expect” (Luke 12:37-40 Luke 12:37-40 37 Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he comes shall find watching: truly I say to you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.
38 And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.
39 And this know, that if the manager of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through.
40 Be you therefore ready also: for the Son of man comes at an hour when you think not.
American King James Version×).
This is a stern warning from Jesus Christ. Many people will believe in His return but will not be prepared for it.
Let’s face it. Are you living a pseudo-Christian lifestyle, a little Christmas, a little Easter, a little gospel music, but when it comes to honesty, your marriage, your Friday night partying, your real, daily obedience and worship of God, you are in fact no different from the non-Christian who lives next door?
If this describes you, Christ’s return is going to catch you unaware. It is time to wake up, watch and be prepared. It’s time for a major spiritual lifestyle change!
What do I mean by declaration?
I’m not saying that you should go door to door and try and convert all your neighbors. But if you are truly anticipating and preparing for Christ’s return, you will by your very actions declare that you are a citizen of the coming Kingdom of God.
You can’t hide your light under a bushel. We must, through our Christian example, declare Christ’s return until He stands on the Mount of Olives.
We have to be developing the character of Christ. We have to be doing those things that He did. The apostle Paul said, “Imitate me, just as I also as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 1 Corinthians 11:1Be you followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.
American King James Version×). We need to look at ourselves and say: “Where am I? Am I really preparing to be with Him? I’d better be acting like Him now if I’m going to be there.”
We declare that we believe in the return of Jesus Christ by our example. How do you live your life? What is your mindset? How do you treat others? Are you exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 Galatians 5:22-23 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
American King James Version×—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?
We should be righteous people striving to obey God and love our fellow man, developing righteous character and doing those works in our own lives that reflect the Word of God and His law and teachings. When we do that, the rest will take care of itself, and we will be prepared to meet Jesus Christ at His return.