Like a Thief in the Night

April 20, 2018

Yes, someone has predicted the Second Coming of Jesus for April 2018. No, I won’t give the details or promote the speculation. There will never seem to be a lack of those who have constructed elaborate time tables predicting the Second Coming of Jesus or the end of the world. Whether they be religious fanatics, scientific quacks, or a mixture of both, Christians should remain calm.

Apparently, the Christians at Thessalonica were upset over the coming of the end, and Paul reminds them:

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 Thessalonians 5:1–2 ESV)

Thieves come suddenly without making appointments with us, and so shall the end be, the Day of the Lord.

Yes, I’m aware of the next verse: “While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ESV). Some will claim that pregnancy is a timed event. Doctors can calculate a due date, so if we can just search the scriptures for the appropriate times, we can know the due date of the Second Coming.

We should be suspicious of such thinking because it makes Paul immediately contract himself. The problem is how do we handle metaphors. We should not take every possible lesson from an image. We should use the lesson that the author intends. Paul is clear about the lesson he intends. The point is one of inevitability: “they will not escape.” Having taken Lamaze classes and been a birthing coach for my wife, I know that a woman in the midst of contractions may say: “I don’t want to do this.” It’s probably not the time to say to her, “It’s too late.” Rather, just let her squeeze your hand as she goes through the contractions. She already knows that it’s too late. The pregnancy image is not to get us to find a timetable but to realize the inevitable end.

Jesus instructs us in Matthew 24:36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (ESV). And then repeats himself in Matthew 24:42: “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (ESV). Again, it seems to me that date setters are contradicting Jesus’ own teaching.

How should Christians conduct themselves in a world that will someday come to an end? If we return to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, maybe we can receive some clues as to how we should live our lives. They were people following the instructions on how they should walk and please God. They were to live moral lives. They were to love one another. They were to have as their ambition to lead a quiet life working with their hands and minding their own business. They were to behave properly to outsiders. They were people who lived with the hope that at the Lord’s return they would come to be with him always (1 Thessalonians 4).

My complaint with date setters is simple. Failed dates bring discouragement and doubt. I’ve known some people who were convinced of a date, dressed in white robes, and spent a night in a vigil, but the Lord didn’t come. I think they lost their faith in the process, which unfortunately was misplaced faith in a date setter, but led to loss of faith in Jesus. Failed dates also bring ridicule from unbelievers and may get in the way of the legitimate message that Jesus is coming again.

The end will come like a thief in the night, but we are not to live in panic, but rather in preparation. I don’t need it scheduled on my calendar to be ready. We should live in preparation as we lead lives of faith that honor God.

The Bridesmaids

January 26, 2012

Jesus told a story of ten virgins, and immediately the modern listener may be distracted. When do we use the word virgin these days, except in the name of some company owned by Sir Richard Branson? Maybe we could hear the story better if we substitute another word. Jesus told a story about five wise and five foolish bridesmaids (see Matthew 25:1-13).

After thirty years of performing wedding ceremonies, I’ve witnessed many wedding parties. I’ve seen bridesmaids bring in so much stuff into the church building that one might suppose they planned to camp out for a week: food, water, soft drinks, clothes, make-up, hair dryers, irons, and ironing boards and who knows what else. They seem intent on being prepared for anything just like the scouts, because this is a special day. Only one time in three decades have I had a bridesmaid ask me for a safety pin, and then she was extremely apologetic because she had meant to bring some.

The first century, Jewish wedding ceremony was usually at the bride’s home. The general time of the wedding was known, but the exact time of the bridegroom’s arrival would be unknown. Following the ceremony, the wedding party would go in procession to the groom’s home for the wedding banquet. The bridesmaids would need their lamps (possibly wedding torches) for the nighttime processional to the wedding banquet.

I’ve told illustrations in sermons only to have someone come out, shake my hand, and tell me exactly the wrong point from the story. Jesus’ parable can suffer in the same way. I’ve been in many Bible classes where someone will ask, “Why couldn’t the virgins share?” The simple answer is that is not the point of this particular story. From a practical point of view, some have suggested that the wedding torch had a very short burn time before it needed more oil. In other words, there just wouldn’t have been enough oil to share. An attempt to share would have left the wedding party in the dark at some point along the trip to the wedding banquet and spoiled things for the bridge and groom. After all, we are always anxious for all the details to go just right at weddings, better five torches than no torches.

Five wise bridesmaids are prepared for the wedding. Five foolish bridesmaids are shockingly unprepared, and while they go to make themselves ready, they miss the wedding, are late for the reception, and find themselves permanently shut out. The story is about preparation for a special day The story is about the individual preparation that only each one of us can do for that special day of the Lord’s return. We do not know the day or the hour. Are you ready?

When Doomsday Fails

May 27, 2011

Unless you were in a total media blackout, you heard the predictions of Harold Camping. He predicted the rapture to occur on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at around 6 p.m. His followers sold possessions (after all they weren’t going to need them for long) in order to get the message out. I admire their boldness but lament the message wasn’t true to the Bible.

Camping believed that Noah’s flood was in 4990 B.C. He took the words from Genesis 7:4 (“Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth”) to be a prediction of the end of the world. He argued that a day equaled a thousand years because of 2 Peter 3:8 (“With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day…”). By the way, Peter is quoting from a Psalm 90, and the psalm says that a 1000 years to the Lord is also like a watch in the night. Camping takes the 17th day of the second month in Genesis to equal May 21. So 7000 years after the flood, Camping was predicting the rapture. He is now recalculating and arguing that the Judgment Day was spiritual and the new date for the rapture is October 21, 2011.

In case you didn’t notice, Camping’s argument contains many assumptions. But the biggest problem is the argument contradicts Jesus’ own clear statement:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. Matthew 24:36, ESV

Jesus had all the same biblical data that Camping has, but Jesus said he didn’t know and taught that his coming would be like the thief in the night — that is unexpected (Matthew 24:43 and 1 Thessalonians 5:2). After his resurrection, the apostles were inquiring about the times, and Jesus instructed it wasn’t for them to know (Acts 1:6-7).

Camping is not the first predictor of doomsday. Many predictions have been made since the 19th century. The new millennia brought about the feverish activity of many speculations as it did in A.D. 1000. My concern is when the prediction of doomsday fails. It may discourage faith and seeking after the truth of Jesus Christ by some, and it may encourage the skeptics to scoff even more.

The Bible does not teach us to predict dates for the coming of Jesus. But it does teach that Jesus is coming again, and a Day of Judgment lies ahead for each of us. Instead of encouraging speculation, it warns us to be prepared.