Foundations: No.81 Autumn 2021

The Hopes and Fears of all the Years: The Future of the Church in this Present Age


My purpose in this paper is to address an immensely pressing, practical and pastoral issue – how do we who lead and teach God’s people, prepare and equip the saints to live in these last days? By the last days I mean, as the New Testament does[1], this whole period between Christ’s first and second comings. There are two things I am not doing: Firstly, I am, of course, not saying all that could be said on such a vast topic. Secondly, I am not going to unpick and critique all the different millennial views. Others have done that most competently.[2] It is impossible, however, to discuss these matters without taking some stance and, as you will no doubt detect, I would espouse what Cornelis Venema calls an “optimistic amillennialism”.[3]

Sadly, in the past, discussion about the Lord’s return has sometimes been so heated, divisive and unedifying that many have backed off the topic. When I decided in my church in 1993 to preach through Revelation I found that there had been practically no preaching on that book for twenty years because there had been such a history of contention in the church surrounding the issue. Thankfully, I think that is less a factor in this current generation. However, even the term “eschatology” sounds like something obscure and complex, best left to theologians and scholars. There is therefore a particular obligation on all of us to teach the Bible so as to show our people clearly the fantastic glory that God has promised and its daily relevance for every one of us of living in the light of it. And we need to do so in a spirit of humility. We have to remember that “now we see in a mirror dimly… Now I know in part” (1 Cor 13:12). Therefore, we should treat each other with due respect and regard, even when we do not understand everything in an identical way.

In this paper I am going to identify five aspects of what we are to expect in this present age. But, of course, none of these aspects stands alone; each is part of a bigger whole. Most of them are being worked out simultaneously right now. It is only when we see the whole picture that we can understand the perfect balance of all these truths that God’s Word sets out for us.

I. Victory Assured

I think that many believers today in the UK feel that we live in discouraging times. The hearts of people around us are hard; those coming to faith are relatively few. Our own people may feel disheartened in gospel proclamation because it may seem that it is only in other parts of the world that God is powerfully at work today. The tide in our society is increasingly hostile to Christian faith and living. We can point to all sorts of forces of darkness at work in our society such as materialism, immorality, secular humanism and militant Islam. As a result, many believers today feel at least a little intimidated. And, of course, the Scriptures do speak very realistically of the struggles of this age. The Lord tells us, “In this world you will have tribulation” (Jn 16:33); Peter warns that, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8) and in Romans 8 Paul speaks of the whole creation “groaning together” (v.22) and adds that “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly” (v.23).

Yet it is absolutely fundamental, if we are to think rightly and biblically about this present age, that we look back, look around and look ahead with the greatest confidence. Our starting point is the victory won in the past and assured in the future. We could deduce that simply from the sovereignty of our God. In Jeremiah 32:27 we read, “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” Romans 8:31 asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The answer, of course, is not that there is no one against us, but they simply do not count because God is for us! He is gloriously overwhelming!

Moreover, God has given us his promises. On the very day that sin invaded our world, God promised to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15 that an offspring of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. In Daniel 2, in the dream God gave Nebuchadnezzar, we read of a rock that hit the huge statue that represented the kingdoms of this world. And then it says, “the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” signifying that “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:34-35). Isaiah 9:7 speaks wonderfully of the Christ to come, that “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end”.

We can look ahead with invincible confidence because the promised Christ came, lived, taught, died, rose, ascended and reigns right now. This is all already accomplished. Colossians 2:15 declares of Christ that “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them”. Ephesians 1:19-22 speaks of

the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.

In the light of such promises how can we be disheartened? Before his ascension Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). When John saw the risen Lord Jesus, we read in Revelation 1, he fell as though dead at his feet because of the sheer glory of who he is. In addition, we who believe have been given God’s Spirit, who in three places Paul affirms is “a deposit, guaranteeing” what is to come and our inheritance (2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:14). As Berkhof rightly says, “The Christian hopes for far greater blessings in the future, not because he has now so little, but because he already has so much”.[4]

In Ephesians 2:5-7 Paul, says with ringing confidence, that God

made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

And Christ is not just our king but the king of the entire universe. So Philippians 2:9-11 famously declares that

God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Venema calls us to

…a lively expectation of the accomplishment of God’s purpose in Christ. The future does not loom darkly on the horizon as something to be feared. It is something to be eagerly expected and anticipated… bright with the promise of the completion and perfection of God’s saving work.[5]

Commenting on the promise in 1 Corinthians 15 of the victory of Christ over death, John Murray says, “Even now there is exultant thanksgiving in anticipation of the glory to be revealed… Pessimism contradicts the Christian faith because it knows not the believer’s hope”.[6]

Thus the Bible calls us to a robust confidence in this present age. This same point could easily be established from any number of other biblical references. Despite everything Satan throws at us, Paul concludes “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). Our hope is not based on what we see around us or the state of our churches. Our hope is based on who our God is, what God has done in Christ and what God promises to us. Satan, of course, wants to quench any such confidence and deprive believers of the oxygen of hope that God has given us. Whatever other things we also want to say about the church in this present age, it is absolutely incumbent on us as teachers of God’s Word to thrill the hearts of our hearers with the sparkling assurance of victory.

II. The Compulsion of the Gospel

God Almighty is working out in this present age his eternal plan of salvation to undo the works of Satan, the rebellion of humanity, the grip of sin and the curse of death and to bring into being a redeemed and forgiven people of God from every nation on earth, who one day will be gathered in the glory that lies ahead. The priorities of the church and every individual believer are to be shaped by God’s salvation plan.

From the beginning of the Bible, we read of God’s world-wide purposes. In Genesis 12:2-3 God promised to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. The rest of the Bible is the outworking of that promise. The prophets repeatedly anticipate the coming of a future Messiah whose rule will encompass the whole world. In Isaiah 49:6 God says to his Servant, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”.

It is therefore no surprise that before he ascended, the risen Jesus set out the abiding task for his church in this age: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). In Acts 1:8 Jesus promised supernatural enabling for this task: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. The church is not just the product of God’s saving purposes but is also his instrument to advance his saving purposes. Acts records the spread of the gospel, starting in Jerusalem and spreading across the Roman Empire and, before his death in Rome, Paul was already anticipating taking the gospel to Spain (Rom 15:24, 28).

The apostle’s zeal to take the gospel across the world is not really recorded for our admiration, but for our instruction. Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12), but he also says to his disciples “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). The most awesome thing that is going on in this world is not found in our media headlines but is that Christ is building his church, fulfilling his salvation plan. In Revelation 20, in the famous and much-discussed description of Satan being “bound for a thousand years” and thrown into a sealed pit (v.2), which I understand as symbolic of the church age, the specified purpose is “that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended” (v.3). The key characteristic of this present age is that it is the age of gospel advance across the world.

Yet when we speak of “the signs of the times” our minds tend to go to wars and rumours of wars, and famines and earthquakes which Christ tells us must take place, and of which he says, “see to it that you are not alarmed” (Matt 24:6), rather than to the compulsion of the gospel. Venema speaks of “The common failure to note that the preaching of the gospel of Christ to the nations is a sign of the period between Christ’s first and second coming”.[7] He adds that “The preaching of the gospel to all creation and discipling of the nations – these are the great tasks of Christ’s church in this present period of history and they express his present rule as king”.[8] Hoekema declares that “the preaching of the gospel to all nations is, in fact, the outstanding and most characteristic sign of the times. It gives to the present age its primary meaning and purpose.”[9] Surely these brothers are absolutely right. It is our responsibility as preachers to keep the task of taking the gospel to our nation and to the ends of the earth as the number one priority of our churches.

Moreover, in Matthew 24:14 Christ connects the timing of his return with the preaching of the gospel: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”. In a similar vein, when Peter answers those who mock the apparent delay of Christ’s return, he argues “The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). The timing of Christ’s return, when it will be too late to repent, is determined by God’s longing to save more sinners before that great and terrible Day comes. When, in that curious phrase, Peter goes on to speak of “hastening the coming of the day of God” (v.12) what can he mean in the context but that by preaching the gospel we may be agents of God’s mercy to fill up the numbers of all who will repent and believe, thus removing the reason for Christ’s apparent delay? There is something fundamentally wrong in any church today if we do not share God’s longing for the salvation of sinners across the world before it is too late. The mere fact that Christ has not yet returned is proof that there is urgent gospel work to be done, otherwise he would have already returned.

One aspect of the advance of the gospel to which the New Testament gives particular significance is the conversion of Israel of which Paul speaks in Romans 9 to 11. We have a whole paper on this topic so I will not dwell much on this. But Paul’s passion for the conversion of his people is surely not simply the product of a particular identification with his own race, but is there to instruct us in God’s salvation purposes that are yet to play out more fully among the Jewish people. The New Testament church began with Jewish believers, and through history there have always been Jews who put their faith in Christ. There is no different gospel for Jewish people. But Romans 11 clearly anticipates a massive turning of Jews to Christ before his return. So, evangelism to Jewish people has to be on our agenda.

Surely, Satan is quite happy if believers engage in debates about eschatology and even run conferences on the topic if it remains theoretical and speculative without urgent outcome. Satan will do his utmost to thwart the preaching of the gospel across the world. We see that happening in Acts, as the Judaisers try to undermine the mission to Gentiles, even causing Peter and Barnabas to stumble, as Galatians 2 records. Satan has a thousand ways to drain the church of zeal for taking the gospel to the world. He loves to drown churches in the spirit of our age. He loves to lock churches into a siege mentality where our priority is not to make Christ known but merely to survive. He also discredits the work of world mission by associating it with immature and superficial exponents who act foolishly. I come from a missionary background and I have been aware of and seen more than enough first-hand of missionary disasters. But in the face of all Satan’s attacks, God has called those of us who preach God’s Word to keep God’s salvation purposes for our nation and all nations, at the forefront of our people’s minds. Here are four practical responses.

Firstly, the gospel must thrill believers’ hearts in these last days. Satan’s simplest way to destroy the work of the church is to diminish Christ and the gospel in our eyes and to distract and divert us. Paul wrote to the Galatian church “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). We must preach the gospel not just to the unbeliever but to the church, not just a simple, predictable summary of the message but the heights and depths of what God has done for us in Christ. At the Lord’s Supper we are brought back again and again to the cross, to the death of our Lord Jesus; we never move beyond this gospel. And the need for Christ-exalting, heart-stirring preaching is made very clear by Christ’s words of warning in Matthew 24:9-14 about the rising tide of hostility to God and his people and the fact that

because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Jesus speaks of what will be characteristic of the church’s experience in the world right through to the end. What is going to stop the hearts of our people growing cold? Christ-enthroning, heart-warming preaching.

Secondly, we must live out the gospel where God has put us. Jesus said in Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”. Acts sets before us churches who, with all their struggles, were living out and sharing the good news of Jesus. And our great longing must be that God may use our churches as agents of his gospel right where we live. What is the point of having a missionary weekend, if you still have one, if you have little intention of opening your mouth for Jesus where God has already put you? Those who lead churches are so to preach God’s word that, by the Holy Spirit, gospel-heartedness stays central in our churches.

Thirdly, we must actively pray for gospel advance beyond our localities, and in this church leaders should set an example. Paul several times asked churches to pray for his evangelism elsewhere. From Rome he wrote to the Ephesians, “Pray also for me that words may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly as I ought to speak” (Eph 6:19-20). Calvin wrote, “We must daily desire that God gather churches unto himself from all parts of the earth”. The Directory for the Public Worship of God produced by the Westminster Assembly in 1645, in the midst of lengthy instructions to ministers how to pray before preaching, calls them “to pray for the propagation of the gospel and kingdom of Christ to all nations, for the conversion of the Jews, the fulness of the Gentiles, the fall of Antichrist and the hastening of the coming of our Lord”.[10] What a great expression of eschatological thinking in church leadership!

Fourthly, sending people from churches to serve in gospel work elsewhere is a natural extension of our praying. Taking active steps to send some of our people to plant gospel communities in areas beyond our immediate locality, has surely been a very welcome feature of church activity in the UK in recent years. Sending people to serve gospel purposes in other countries has had a long tradition in UK church life, and whereas modern technology enables us to play a part in helping God’s work in distant countries without any travel, the long-term investment of sending people to learn to understand another culture and language, and give decades rather than weeks to such service, remains very significant.

We must not let Satan quench our zeal for serving Christ’s present gospel purposes in this present age in our present circumstances as well as around the world. Let us not lose heart. In Revelation 7:9 we read that the redeemed are “a great multitude that no one could number, from all tribes and peoples and languages”. As Venema says “There are ample biblical arguments for the most robust expectation for the success of the gospel”.[11]

III. Satan’s Counter Attacks

The Bible is deeply realistic. Alongside the realities of Christ’s victory and gospel advance, we are told in no uncertain terms of Satan’s war against God and his people. Most Christians are very aware of ungodliness, expressed in such things as unbelief, materialism, immorality, injustice and violence across the world. They are also very aware of personal sin and temptation and the battle to live godly lives. However, there are two aspects of Satan’s counter attacks which are given special emphasis in the New Testament as characteristic of this present age that maybe Western Christians are less conscious of. If that is correct, that puts our churches in special danger. These are deception, yes even in our churches, and persecution. Again and again our attention is drawn to these two things and they are very often referred to side by side, notably in the words of Jesus in Matthew 24.

1. Deception

Right from the beginning, in Genesis 3:1, Satan set out to challenge and distort God’s word. False teaching has always been a major issue. In the Old Testament, alongside the true prophets of God, there were false prophets. In the New Testament, alongside the faithful teachers, there are false teachers. When in Matthew 24 (and also Mark 13 and Luke 21) Jesus describes the features of the end of the age, he begins with, and keeps referring to, deception: “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ’, and they will lead many astray” (v.4-5); “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (v.11);

Then if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or “There he is!” do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand (v.23-25).

The most chilling word is “many” – many deceivers and many deceived. I know there are different views as to where in Matthew 24 Christ was speaking of the fall of Jerusalem and where he was speaking of this present age as a whole. I think it is primarily about the present age as a whole, with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, as Thomas Schreiner puts it, as “a pattern of the future judgement still to come”.[12]

Jesus warned in the Sermon on the Mount of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:15). Their key characteristic is that these wolves are not obvious, they appear as sheep among sheep. They are not outside the church, in obviously false religions, but as teachers within the church. Paul uses the same language in his parting words to the Ephesian elders: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things to draw the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). Warnings about false teachers run throughout the epistles. In their last letters Paul and Peter wrote urgently to alert us to false teachers:

The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Timothy 4:3).

False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality (2 Peter 2:1-2).

The same concern about false teachers is evident in 1 and 2 John and Jude and in the letters from Christ to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. As Venema says, “The church’s greatest enemy arises not from the world without… but from within her own ranks. This is an aspect of the Bible’s teaching which cannot be emphasised too much.”[13] 

The implications for us who lead and teach in churches are very pressing. In so far as persecution is as yet less overt in the West compared to the rest of the world, we should not be surprised if Satan’s primary assault on us is deception. We have churches and whole denominations that are turning away from confidence in and obedience to the Scriptures, yet still calling themselves Christian. And in the age of the internet and health, wealth and prosperity teaching on every hand, false teaching is constantly accessible.

This should make us firstly look to ourselves, remembering the command and promise of 1 Timothy 4:16: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers”. One feature of the false teachers that is especially emphasised in 2 Peter 2 is that their behaviour is bound up with their false teaching. Not only do they bring in “destructive heresies” but also “many will follow their sensuality” (v.1-2). Peter is unsparing on this point. He describes the false teachers as “those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion” (v.10); “they have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin” (v.14) and “they themselves are slaves of corruption” (v.19). I take it that these matters are set before us for our warning now, because Satan repeats himself and does the same thing in every generation. Those of us who teach are most likely to be moved from faithful teaching by moral failure, so we need to watch our own lives, aware of our vulnerabilities as well as our doctrine. But also, of course, we are to heed the command of 2 Timothy 2:15 “to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” and to remember the fact that “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Cor 3:13).

Secondly, we need to alert our people to the fact that deception is a clear and present danger because Christ and his apostles teach us that so clearly. We need in our preaching to directly address unhelpful ideas we believe are infiltrating churches. This is not to make them paranoid but to make them quick to do as the Bereans did, “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). We should go out of our way to preach some of those less preached books that are full of warnings such as 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 John, 2 Peter and Jude.

2. Persecution

Persecution is to be expected by Christians. Jesus was very explicit in John 15:20. “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master’. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you”. Jesus makes a very strong connection between what happened to him and what will happen to us. He says in Matthew 24:9, “They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake”. He said in the Sermon on the Mount,

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5:11-12).

He connects sufferings now with glory ahead. Paul makes the same connection when he talks about suffering, saying in Romans 8:17 that as children of God we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him”. Peter uses the same language:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:12-13).

John introduces himself in Revelation 1:9 as, “I John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are ours in Jesus”. He sees tribulation as an inescapable part of following Christ. This is no less than what Jesus said in John 16:33. “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world”. Shortly after being stoned and left for dead, Paul told the Gentile churches, that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), for it is not just the apostles who are called to suffer. Paul told Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

Revelation, too, has repeated descriptions of the persecution of believers. For example, we read of a victory in heaven when

the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come” (Rev 12:9).

This image clearly expresses the triumph of Christ over Satan in his incarnation, death and resurrection. But it does not mark the end of Satan’s activity. Quite the contrary, for we read that the devil comes down to earth in great wrath “because he knows his time is short” (Rev 12:12) and is “furious with the woman”, who here symbolises the people of God, and then the dragon “went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (v.17). This a picture of the on-going attack of Satan on the church of Jesus Christ in this present age.

Now in our country we have had an unusual period in the last two hundred years where, due to the impact of Christian faith on our society, overt persecution – Christians being put in prison or being in danger of their lives on account of their faith – has been virtually non-existent. I am not saying there has been no hostility to Christians, but that the severity of that hostility has been relatively mild compared to the experience of the early church and many believers both through the centuries and in many parts of the world today. Now this situation, one imagines, is unlikely to continue. The abandonment of Christian values in our society is such that discrimination against Christians on account of our faith will almost certainly escalate, which may well be the beginnings of much more overt persecution.

But are our people prepared for it? Peter tells us not to be “surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet 4:12), but I suspect many will be surprised. And it is essential that those of us who teach God’s Word prepare our people for likely persecution, the scale of which we have not seen for centuries. I have quite often attended a pastors’ conference in India, at which, each year there is a session on being prepared for and facing persecution. I have certainly never been to a pastors’ conference in the UK with a whole session devoted to persecution. In India, persecution for many is not a vague possibility but a present reality. They are so much more aware than we are of descriptions and teaching about persecution in the Bible. To prepare our people to face likely future persecution seems to me an essential part of teaching God’s word in our land. This is no more than teaching what the New Testament has always said.

And what is at stake is enormous. Listen to a sample of what Jesus taught in Matthew 10: “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (v.22); “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (v.28); “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (vv.32-33);

a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (vv.36-39).

But in the midst of all this, Jesus repeatedly encourages us: “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour” (v.19); “have no fear of them” (v.26); “do not fear” (v.28); “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore” (v.30-31). That sort of teaching about the severity of likely persecution and the sufficiency of God for us in facing it, needs to be written into our hearts in advance so that we may not be like “the one who… endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matt 13:20-21).

3. The Antichrist

These realities in our present age of Satan’s attack in deceptions and persecutions reach their climax in the “man of lawlessness” as he is called in 2 Thessalonians 2, or the “antichrist” as John calls him (I think the same person), in 1 John 2:18. The Bible is clear that deception is a feature of the whole of the present age. 2 John 7 tells us that “many deceivers who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist”. In 1 John 2:18 we read, “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour”. John distinguishes between the presence of many antichrists now and the antichrist that is coming in the future and that corresponds with what is said in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 where we read that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” and yet there is a future event when “then the lawless one will be revealed” (v.6).

It has been a matter of debate as to whether this language of the “man of lawlessness” refers to an individual human being or not. Berkouwer, for example, argues against a personal Antichrist.[14] However, it seems to me, as most evangelical commentators argue, that the use of the word “the man” in v3 and the personal language of “he, himself and him” in verses 4 and 6, most naturally suggest an individual. Yet there is much more than just an individual man involved.

There are several indications in the New Testament that the things that characterise the whole current age – deception and persecution – will find an almost overwhelming final expression. Revelation has a number of references to a great final battle as the forces of evil come together against the Lord and his people: “demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty” (16:14); “the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army” (19:19); “Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth – Gog and Magog – and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore” (20:7-8). 2 Thessalonians 2, I believe, also describes a moment of final confrontation.

Whether the man of lawlessness is understood as fulfilled in an individual person or not, this is Satan at work. So, vv.9-10 tell us that “the coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception”. The endpoint is reached when Christ returns in v.8. The “day of the Lord” (v.2), when Christ returns, will be the day of reckoning. “By the appearance of his coming” (v8) the Lord Jesus will “kill” and “bring to nothing” the man of lawlessness and end “the apostacy” or “rebellion” (v.8). While we are told the day of Christ “will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (v.3), it is equally certain that then, after the man of lawlessness has come, Christ will return. That is the great Day, the climax of everything God has promised.

There is reason to identify here a particular attack on the church. The man of lawlessness will, of course, deceive humanity in general. Verse 10 describes “the wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved”. Indeed, God’s hand of judgment is seen in sending on those who have “refused to love the truth and so be saved… a powerful delusion, so that they may believe what is false” (v.11). However, it seems that at the heart of the wicked activity of the man of lawlessness is an attack on God’s people. He is not a secular figure, he takes over “the temple of God” which seems to be the institution of the church itself, indeed he “exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (v.4). And it is striking that the same words used of Christ’s “coming” and being “revealed” are used of the “coming” (v.9) and being “revealed” (vv.3, 6, 8) of the man of lawlessness. If Jesus’ coming is personal, so will his be; if Jesus’ coming is powerful so will his be; if Jesus’ coming is God coming to us, that is how he presents himself. As John Stott writes, it is “a deliberate and unscrupulous parody of the second coming of Christ”.[15] Here deception and persecution reach their climax. And the most terrifying evil supernatural forces are at work.

Yet it is important to identify that all the way through this alarming account, the sovereignty of God is asserted. The man of lawlessness is introduced in verse 3 as “the son of destruction”, which is to say that his very nature is that he is doomed. While there is some mystery as to who or what is “restraining” the man of lawlessness at present (v.6), it is significant that he is restrained and will only be revealed “in his time” (v.6). He is not a free agent; his time is set by Another. And what does the final conflict with the Lord Jesus look like? It is a non-event! The Lord Jesus will destroy him, merely by “the breath of his mouth” and “the appearance of his coming” (v.8). In each image of the final battle in Revelation, the forces of evil are completely destroyed and the devil, beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10). At the end of his discussion of Revelation 20, Berkouwer makes a comment which could equally be applied to 2 Thessalonians 2: “[H]ow powerless Satan really is, how short the time of his freedom, how really minor this war, how ridiculous in the face of Christ and His triumph”.[16]

There has been no shortage of attempts through church history to identify the man of lawlessness with a particular person. You can understand why people looked at some Roman emperors, Mohammed, the papacy, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and others and asked, “Is this him?”. However, we should not scorn past believers too readily over what has so far proved to be wrong identification. As Paul says, “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (v.7), and as John says “even now many antichrists have come” (1 John 2:18). The spirit of antichrist is already at work. The features that will mark the final man of lawlessness have already been evident to some degree in many others. We need therefore to be constantly on our guard.

However, despite the graphic note of warning in the New Testament about deception and persecution, we should not leave our hearers in any doubt as to Christ’s sufficiency to sustain his people. After the fearsome description of the man of lawlessness, Paul wrote “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thess 3:3). Jude is full of warning and yet concludes with the glorious affirmation:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (vv.24-25).

IV. Watchfulness

1. The Command

The repeated command of the Lord Jesus to us in the light of his coming is that we should “keep watch” or “stay awake” or “be ready”. Berkouwer says “The New Testament places such strong emphasis on the Christian’s being ready at all times for the return of the Lord that one might wonder whether the whole essence of the faith is summed up in the word ‘watchfulness’”.[17] In Matthew 24:42-44 (and in the parallel passages) Jesus says

Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

After the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Jesus sums up the message: “Watch therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13). In Revelation 16:15 Christ says, “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”

Consistently Christ’s command to be awake and ready for his return is based on the fact that we do not know when it will happen. And it is not just that we don’t know when it will be, but we cannot know. Christ makes this crystal clear: “Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt 24:36). Jesus, shortly before his ascension, said to his disciples: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Despite this, sadly, there have been all sorts of foolish, ungodly and fruitless attempts to work out the specific timing, with which we must have nothing to do.

The image that Christ uses of his coming is that of a thief in the night who gives no advance warning, whom no one is expecting (Luke 12:39, Rev 3:3, 16:15). So well understood was this by the early church that Paul could say to the Thessalonians “You yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night… But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief” (1 Thess 5:2, 4). We will not know the day in advance, but thanks to God’s Word we need not be surprised by it or unready for it.

2. The Nearness

The question of the nearness or imminence of the Lord’s return, for which we are watching, has occasioned a lot of debate. What is clear is that in terms of salvation history the next event will be the return of Christ and the New Testament uses language that presses on us the expectation of that return: “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7); “The night is far gone; the day is at hand” (Rom 13:12); “The appointed time has grown very short… the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:29, 31). Particularly striking is the language of Revelation: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (1:1); “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (1:3); “I am coming soon” (3:11); “The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place” (22:6); “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (26:10); “And behold, I am coming soon” (22:7); “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me” (22:12); “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20). That is the note on which the whole Bible ends.

Yet alongside this repeated emphasis on the nearness of Christ’s return there are also passages that teach unequivocally that certain things must happen before that day. In Matthew 24 when Jesus speaks of wars, rumours of wars, famines and earthquakes he adds, “But the end is not yet” and “All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (vv.6, 8). In verse 14 he says the end will only come when the gospel has been “proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations”. We are in no position to judge when that moment has come, but he is. Luke 21:24 says “Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” and Romans 11:25-26 foretells a major future turning of Israel to Christ only after “the fulness of the Gentiles has come in”. In the sequence of parables Jesus told about his return in Matthew 24 and 25, there is the note of delay in the master returning (24:48), a delay in the bridegroom arriving (25:5) and the master comes back in the parable of the talents “after a long time” (25:19). And in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 Paul assures us, “That day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed”.

In the light of those things which are to happen before Christ’s return, John Murray says that if we are to speak of the “imminence” of the second coming, it is “the imminence of eschatological perspective, the imminence of the next and final event… an imminence compatible with the elapse of millennia”. A few pages later Murray argues against the use of the term “imminent” which means, “just at hand”. He writes that “the insistence that the advent is imminent is without warrant… the use of the proposition is misleading and improper”.[18] Don Carson takes a slightly different view: “The truth is that the biblical evidence nowhere unambiguously endorses the ‘any second’ view and frequently militates against it… Yet the terms ‘imminent’ and ‘imminency’ retain theological usefulness if they focus attention on the eager expectancy of the Lord’s return characteristic of many NT passages, a return that could take place soon”.[19]

One dead-end approach is to argue that the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul at first expected an almost immediate return in that first generation, which proved false. This is manifest nonsense and contrary to the whole revelation of Scripture about Christ and his apostles. Those verses used to argue that case do not bear the interpretation put on them. Let us take three examples.

Firstly, Jesus says in Matthew 24:34, “Truly I say to you this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened”, when he is answering two questions, one about the destruction of Jerusalem and the other about “the sign of your coming and of the end of the age” (v.3). The fact that two verses later Jesus says that no one knows the time of his return strongly suggests that he did not mean in verse 34 that his return must be in that first generation. The fact that he did not return in that generation is decisive evidence of that! Carson helpfully comments “all that v.34 demands is that the distress of vv.4-28, including Jerusalem’s fall, must happen within the lifetime of the generation then living. This does not mean that the distress must end within that time but only that ‘all these things’ must happen within it”.[20]

Then there is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:28 (also Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27) that “Truly I say to you there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”. This cannot be a reference to his return which he says will be visible to all mankind (Matt 24:27, 30). In each of the three parallel passages there is the same pattern: Jesus speaks of his coming with his angels in glory, then says that some of them would not die before seeing “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” and then follows an account of the transfiguration when Peter, James and John see the stunning glory of Jesus temporarily revealed. In 2 Peter 1:16-18 Peter directly connects “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (he uses the word “parousia” which is a major topic in chapter 3) with the transfiguration:

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”, we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

In other words, the transfiguration was an event in Jesus’ first coming that was a foretaste of his second coming and very satisfactorily explains what Jesus meant in those passages in the gospels.

A third example is the suggestion that Paul is asserting that he would still be alive when Christ returns: “…we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:15). Paul is making a general statement, as a believer living at the time of writing, about those believers alive when Christ returns. He is not making the specific claim that he will definitely be among them. As Hoekema says, “Any believer from Paul’s time until today could use similar language without implying that he is certain he will still be living when Christ returns”.[21]

The two strands of teaching, that the Lord is returning soon and that there are things that must happen before he returns, are both in the Scriptures, sometimes in the same passages. They are not in contradiction to each other. We need some humility here; woe betide us if on the basis of our understanding we say that the Lord cannot return yet. Jesus says that he will come like a thief comes, precisely when we do not expect him. The Lord alone is the perfect judge of when the time will be, our job is to be ready for him. The Lord, in his perfect wisdom, means every generation of believers to live constantly alert, constantly watchful for that Day. Berkouwer writes, “the believer is called to an attitude that does not reckon but constantly reckons with the coming of the Lord”.[22]

3. The Consequences

Watchfulness is not simply a matter of a private eschatological perspective; watchfulness is demonstrated in our lives. If we are really alert to the Lord’s coming, we will live like it. The New Testament sets out a number of key markers of watchfulness. Those of us who teach God’s Word must press these challenges and realities into our own hearts and into the hearts of our hearers.

a. faithful service

In Matthew 24 the first parable Jesus tells in applying his commands to “stay awake” (v.42) and “be ready” (v.44) is about the servant who is faithful and wise: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes” (vv.45-46). In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 the returned master rewards those who been faithful while he was away: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (25:21,23). At the end of 1 Corinthians 15, in the light of the certainty of Christ’s return and our physical resurrection and the overthrow of death itself, Paul wrote, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain” (v.58). Faithful service now will have significance when Christ returns. Peter says to those elders who shepherd the flock willingly, eagerly and being godly examples, “when the chief Shepherd appears you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet 5:4). If we really believe the Lord is returning, we must get on with serving him faithfully, earnestly and joyfully here and now. However, some of our hearers may have been influenced by an eschatological perspective which puts such a stress on what is done and achieved now in this present age suggesting that some of the specifics of what we create, even works of art and literature, may last into the new heavens and earth. This is argued by some on the grounds of the reference in Revelation 21:24 to the New Jerusalem that “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it”. Some even see themselves playing a role now in bringing into being the new creation. This seems to me to go well beyond the evidence of Scripture and can impose a burden of perfectionism on some in our churches. It distracts from what is unseen and eternal (2 Cor 4:18) in favour of what is seen and actually temporary. It seems to overlook the fact that “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire” (2 Pet 3:7). While we should do all things seeking God’s glory, it is faithful service, not the product of our hands, that God treasures and looks for.

b. holiness

This is a major outcome of taking the Lord’s return seriously. Peter, in particular, strongly connects personal holiness with the anticipation of Christ’s return. In 1 Peter we read,

Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1:13-15).

In 2 Peter 3 after describing the awesome fact that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved”, Peter goes on to spell out the implications: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness!” (vv.10-11). And then having spoken of the promise of new heavens and a new earth he adds, “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (v.14). In the light of the destruction of this present world as it is, be holy now because if we are not holy we will be swept away in “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (v.7). And in the light of the renewed world to come, “in which righteousness dwells” (v.13), be holy now, because only then will we be able to belong in that new heaven and new earth.

Your eschatology determines your morality. That is one of the main points of 2 Peter. The false teachers dismissed the Lord’s return and future judgment and then felt free to live ungodly and immoral lives. We must head in the opposite direction. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). Paul makes the same connection between what we hope for then and how we live now in Titus 2:

…the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (vv.11-13).

c. patience

Patience is essential for those who sets their sights on glory ahead. At the beginning of James 5, he writes about injustices in this world and the judgment to come. Then he adds,

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (5:7-8).

Twice he commands patience until the coming of the Lord. He asserts both that it is “at hand”, but also that we must be patient. He likens that patience to the farmer patiently waiting for harvest. This is patience because you know what is coming and that it is abundantly worth waiting for. This patience is a perseverance through time because of a settled conviction about the glories that lie ahead. As Hebrews 10:35-36 says, “do not throw away your confidence which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised”. It is all going to be abundantly worth it! Paul uses similar language in Romans 2: “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life” (vv.6-7).

d. love

At the conclusion of his block of teaching about the end of the age, Jesus in Matthew 25 gives the striking account of the sheep and the goats:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (v.31).

The criteria for judgment according to the King is this: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (v.40). And those who have lived this way will inherit the kingdom prepared for them. Equally, the grounds for judgment when the King will say “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” is this: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (v.45). We will not be ready for Christ’s coming, we will not have been watching for it as we should, if we have not shown love now towards those he calls “my brothers”, because how we have treated other believers is how we have treated him. As Carson says,

Good deeds done to Jesus’ followers reflect where people stand in relation to the kingdom and to Jesus himself. Jesus identifies himself with the fate of his followers and makes compassion for them equivalent to compassion for himself… The reason for admission to the kingdom in this parable is more evidential than causative.[23]

It is not that we thereby earn our salvation, but that our love for others shows where our heart is. James 5:9 warns us, “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged: behold, the Judge is standing at the door”. In Philippians 1 Paul prays for their love to abound, as his does for them, so that they will be ready for the day of Christ:

God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ (vv.8-11).

The outworking of watchfulness for the return of Jesus is not optional but essential and we who preach must bring that home to all our people constantly.

V. Glory Ahead

The return of the Lord Jesus in his glory is, as John Murray says,

the consummating act of the whole process of redemption, the event that will signalise the cosmic renovation when the creation will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God and the present order will give place to the new heavens and the new earth.[24]

 There are many aspects of that awesome event, such as our physical resurrection, our transformation as we meet the Lord, final judgment and the new earth and the new heavens, which others will be considering in their papers.

What is certain is that Revelation chapters 20 to 22 should be written into the hearts and minds of every believer. We cannot afford for a moment to back off from chapter 20 because of controversies about the millennium. The message of the chapter is that all the forces of evil are entirely subject to God and that the devil and all his agents will be totally defeated and “thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur forever and ever” (v.10). There will be universal judgment that will be entirely just, inescapable and permanent. Sobering as that scene is, we cannot possibly be true to our God and fail to teach it.

Paradoxically, God’s judgment is also the hope of the world, it is the assurance that evil and all injustice will be dealt with and punished, which is what human hearts ache for. Only because judgment will be real is a new world of future glory and perfection possible. Chapters 21 and 22 set before us the glories of the new heaven and the new earth and above all the surpassing beauties of the new Jerusalem, the holy city, the Bride, the perfected people of God, with God himself dwelling among us forever. At last there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain. There is the river of the water of life and the tree of life, light, holiness, worship and image after image, picture after picture, reality after reality that speak of that which takes us beyond the bounds of what we can fully presently comprehend.

But these things are not a mirage to deceive us. We have God’s own guarantee: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold I am making all things new’. Also he said ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true’” (21:5). And again in chapter 22 “He said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true’” (v.6). And the climax of these chapters is the Lord Jesus himself; everything hangs on him and his promises and his coming: “Behold, I am coming soon” (v.7); “Behold I am coming soon” (v.12); “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (v.13); “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify… I am the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star” (v.16); “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon’. Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” (v.20).

The glories set before us at the end of our Bibles are not a novel focus on the eternal future, as if, finally, the Bible gets around to the topic. The whole of Scripture testifies of glory to come. Peter wrote of the Old Testament prophets who “predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet 1:11). Again and again the prophets lift our eyes to the ultimate horizon. The Day of the Lord, bringing both judgment and salvation, is a major theme in prophecy. Isaiah 11 speaks of the day and place where the wolf, lamb, calf, lion, cow, bear and the little child will lie down together:

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples – of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious (v.9-10).

Isaiah 25 tells us that the Lord of hosts “will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces” (v.8). In Isaiah 65:17 we have the promise, repeated in Revelation 21: “For behold I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind”.

Christ’s whole ministry was framed by the future: Hebrews 12:2 speaks of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God”. Jesus prayed in John 17:24, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world”. Jesus comforted his disciples with the words,

In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:2-3).

Jesus scandalised the Sanhedrin at his trial with his assertion “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64).

The apostles never weary of reminding us of the future. As Paul says we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). He writes to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (3:20-21). In I Corinthians 15 Paul is graphic in his description of our resurrection hope and in Colossians 1:27 he speaks of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. John assures us in 1 John 3, “Beloved, we are God’s children now and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (vv.2-3). And Peter rejoices in 1 Peter 1:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (vv.3-4).

However, the New Testament does not just inform us of Christ’s return and the glories ahead. It commands a response from us now to these facts. And if we are teachers of God’s people, it is no good for us just to have a correct eschatology; our preaching must set forth a vison of glory that lays hold of us and our hearers in at least two ways:

1. It Must Arrest Our Attention

Satan loves to grab our attention with the concerns of this world, so that which is to come, to which we still happily give lip-service, becomes vague, remote and irrelevant to our present lives. But Paul appeals to us in Colossians 3:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (vv.1-4).

There is here the assurance of what is to come, but also the present challenge to us therefore to “seek” the things above and to “set our minds” on what lies ahead. There is a response to be made now. Paul says something similar in 2 Corinthians 4:

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (vv.16-18).

That is how Paul survived the many trials and afflictions he faced. Where he looked made all the difference – beyond what is seen today, beyond the prison cell, beyond the shouting mob, to the eternal unseen glories ahead. Peter calls us to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13). There is pause for thought in that word “fully”. What you set your hope on fully is something you give your attention to, something you will not be distracted from and something central in your thinking, praying and talking. It is a hope fully shaped by and fixed on the grace and the glory ahead and the person of Jesus coming to us. 

2. It Must Move Our Hearts

Paul in some of his wonderful final words wrote,

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Tim 4:7-8).

What is arresting here is that the crown of righteousness is not just the richly deserved reward of a great apostle, but also for “all who have loved his appearing”. Loving his appearing is the defining feature of the true believer; it is more than just agreeing it will happen. It is loving it, longing for Christ to come: “Come Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20). There is to be a passion about our longing for Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:2 Paul says, “In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling”. The sorrows of this world and our mortality, every funeral we go to, every death we hear of should stoke our hearts’ passion for the promised future. Romans 8:23 says “We ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”. Hebrews 9:28 promises, “Christ will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him”. We are not just to be waiting, but “eagerly waiting”. That particular Greek word comes seven times in the New Testament and every time it is in relation to Christ’s return and the glories ahead. This focus on what lies ahead and above is what has always marked the saints. In Psalm 73:24-25 Asaph wrote “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you”.

That is the heart we need, a heart that is not in love with this world. Hebrews 11 speaks of the patriarchs’ example to us, dying in faith, with their eye fixed on a better future beyond their own times: “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God for he has prepared for them a city” (v.16). The word “desire” means to set one’s heart on or to long after; in a negative context it is translated “craving” (1 Tim 6:10). What are you and your people’s hearts set on? What are you as pastor going to do to set their hearts in the right place, to have hearts craving for glory?

In the Lord’s Prayer the Lord Jesus teaches us to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). All through the centuries that is how disciples have prayed. That is no vain repetition. That is what Jesus teaches us to pray daily. As Berkouwer writes, “Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer there is reason for us to go and stand at the window of expectation”.[25] That is where we need to be every day of our lives, at the window of expectation, until he comes.


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