Waiting for the 'End of the World'?

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Waiting for the 'End of the World'?

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Armageddon and Apocalypse are in the air. The coming turn of a century and a new millennium is greatly intensifying a nervous eschatological impulse. Some even expect the "end of the world" and Jesus Christ's return precisely on January 1, 2000.

Several strange events have surfaced. For instance, one small group has moved to the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem to help usher in the second coming. In a separate incident the Israeli government had to intervene and cancel a simulated "Christian" enactment of the events of Armageddon--a so-called preview of the coming catastrophe. Also, Christian groups have been funding a group called the Movement for the Establishment of the Temple. (Today, the temple area is occupied by one of the holiest spots in the Muslim world, the Dome of the Rock.) Not long ago hundreds of members of a doomsday group disappeared into the remote mountains of Colombia in South America.

Millennial madness seems to be in vogue as 1999 draws to a close.

There have always been some Christians who believed so intensely that they knew exactly when Christ must come back to earth that they tried to make it happen. How absurd this must seem to God. Christ is our Lord and Master--not the other way around (John 13:13).

Nonetheless, He did tell us to watch world events (Luke 21:36). We are to carefully assess the trends and conditions that would precede His second coming, but in a balanced and rational way--never attempting to set a date.

No Man Knows the Exact Time

When it does occur, the return of Jesus Christ is destined to be a hugely important benchmark event in world history. It will take its place alongside the Creation, Noah's Flood and Christ's first coming. The time factor is so crucial that God the Father has reserved the decision to Himself. At the time of His humanity even Christ did not know when it would be (Matthew 24:36).

But the disciples continued their persistent questioning after His resurrection to eternal life. They still wanted to know when. Christ gave them virtually the same answer that He had previously: "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority" (Acts 1:7).

Historically this reply has been very hard for us to accept. Somehow we want to circumvent Jesus' own words and figure out some way to know exactly when.

Over the last nearly 2,000 years a few have wound up with egg on their faces. From time to time the overly zealous have set dates only to see all of them come and go without the appearance of Jesus Christ. One would have thought that we would have learned the lesson by now.

Many, however, seem to be prone to this weakness. Even the early apostles weren't immune, thinking that Christ would return in their lifetimes. But later in life they came to a more realistic view (see 2 Peter 3; 2 Timothy 4).

To better understand God's thinking, let's take a brief scriptural look at Christ's first and second advents from the overall biblical perspective.

Carefully Planned Far in Advance

The first coming of Jesus Christ was a carefully planned occurrence. It did not happen by accident, or just at any time in history. "But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4).

Other translations render this expression variously as "the appointed time," "the right time" or something similar. God plans what He does in advance. The right time is that particular period most suitable to His plan and purpose.

Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God was "slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8; John 1:29), but the actual event didn't occur for several thousand years. Almost 2,000 years have now passed since His death and resurrection. But, as Hebrews 9:28 reminds us, "Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation."

Scripturally both comings are connected and intertwined (Isaiah 61:1-2), yet there is a considerable time lapse between these two separate events. Both are enormously important steps in God's plan for humanity.

Consider the words of the apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus: "In Christ our release is secured and our sins forgiven through the shedding of His blood . . . He [the Father], has made known to us His secret purpose, in accordance with the plan which He determined beforehand in Christ, to be put into effect when the time was ripe, namely that the universe, everything in heaven and earth might be brought into a unity with Christ" (Ephesians 1:7-10, Revised English Bible).

Paul here speaks of a time that certainly includes the second coming of Christ, yet extends beyond that crucial event. He is apparently primarily referring to the time of the new heavens and new earth described in Revelation 21 and 22, written several decades later by the apostle John.

A Divine Timetable

We can be absolutely sure that no major event in prophecy will ever occur without precise planning. In looking back, crucial occurrences will have happened "when the time was ripe" (Ephesians 1:10)--and not before! The Bible makes this crucial point very clear. "For this was the plan of the One [the Father] who shapes the whole course of events to His appointed ends" (verse 11, Translator's New Testament).

God the Father will send Jesus Christ back to this earth at precisely the right time. Unlike us, He is able to see the whole picture--everything that is happening in the world at any given time. He alone has perfect knowledge of the past and the future. We can only perceive a part of the overall scenario. "We know in part and we prophesy in part," wrote the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 13:9).

Yet Christ told us to pray "Your kingdom come," plainly telling us that He wants us to eagerly and enthusiastically seek the time of His direct, decisive intervention in human affairs. In the meantime we are to diligently watch world news and trends while taking care to see that our spiritual life is in order as well (Luke 21:29-36).

Sober Words of Warning

We should carefully heed Jesus Christ's own words of warning in the Olivet prophecy, given shortly before His death: "Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect... Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it" (Matthew 24:23-24, 26).

If people would only understand and heed the very words of Jesus Himself, they wouldn't be setting up residence on the Mount of Olives or trying to act out the events of Armageddon in advance. Truly the second coming is a global event (verse 30). God's angels will gather His elect everywhere on earth, wherever they happen to be (verse 31).

Jesus Christ expects His followers to carry out His work of preaching the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 24:14) and sharing His truth with the world (Matthew 28:18-20). We are to wait patiently for His return (Luke 21:19), knowing that "he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:13).