“Can we know when Jesus will return?”
That’s the answer.
How do I know? Because Jesus says so in Matthew 24:36 (and Mark 13:32): “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
Setting aside the somewhat complicated issue of how Christ’s dual natures interact in this moment, one thing is rather clear from Jesus’ statement: Nobody knows. You might think with such an obvious declaration coming from the lips of our Lord that the issue would be settled, and we’d all be content accepting the mystery that is the parousia, or Second Coming. But we all know that hasn’t been the case.
In fact, I looked up a list of all those who have stated on record the day they thought the world would end: The list was really, really long. Turns out, since the early days of the Church, there have always been those among us that thought with enough exegetical elbow grease, enough of a grasp on the latest in world news events (and usually enough knowledge about weird numerology), they could figure out the moment the final trump would resound.
The most recent example that many of us are aware of was from American radio broadcaster and evangelist Harold Camping. According to his “study of Scripture,” he predicted that a rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, and that the end of the world would soon follow on October 21 of the same year. He was so convinced of this date that he spent millions and millions of dollars on billboards all throughout the country warning us of the time to come (I remember seeing many of these billboards as I drove north on the 101 freeway in California back then). A number of his followers even left their jobs and emptied out their savings accounts so as to be ready enough for the great Day of the Lord. Of course, when the times came and went, Camping had egg on his face (at least to his credit, he did eventually publicly repent of his error). In fact, every single person throughout history who has predicted the day and time of our Lord’s coming has this one overarching commonality: They’ve all been wrong.
So, why is it that people are still tempted to figure out “the day”?
It seems to me that at least one of the reasons these predictions continue is because Jesus does say certain signs will take place before his coming. From a survey of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse recorded in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, various Old Testament prophecies, and the Book of Revelation, it seems clear that before “the end” there will be “wars and rumors of wars,” “persecutions,” “false prophets,” cataclysmic weather, natural disasters, climate issue, plagues, (Revelation 8, Matt 24:29), and even great cosmic disruption beyond our world. Put these predictions together with statements made by the Apostle Paul about “a great apostasy” (2 Thess 2:3) and evil increasing before the end, and it makes all the sense that people would be tempted to wonder if “the day” was just around the corner.
But, I would argue that is exactly the point!
In other words, the signs Jesus mentions may accompany his second coming, frankly, are signs that have been with us all throughout history.
Wars and Rumors of Wars? Been there, done that.
Persecutions? Never a time without it in the world.
False Prophets? Always in abundance.
Cataclysmic Weather and Natural Disasters? Pompeii happened, and California has been in perpetual drought for as long as I’ve lived.
Cosmic Disruption? There’s a reason dinosaurs aren’t walking among us today.
Apostasy? Read the Old Testament.
Great Evil? Read a short history of the twentieth century.
The truth is, folks, these signs have always been with us and I don’t think it’s accidental that Jesus mentions them as something to look for before he comes again. Why? Because the point is that every generation should always expect that he could quite literally come at any time. As he goes out of his way to say over and over again: he will come like a thief in the night, so be ready.
Perhaps, an illustration from history will bring the point home more clearly: In 536AD, there was a cataclysmic volcano that erupted in Iceland that led to such a dense fog that for 18 months, there was no light in Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia (the sun seemed to be darkened just as Jesus said!). This led to significant temperature drops (it actually snowed that summer in China), crop failure, mass starvation, and ushered in the bubonic plague in 541, leading to one-third to one-half of the population of the Roman Empire perishing. No doubt, from the Christian’s perspective at the time, this must have been a sign that Jesus’ coming was imminent. And yet, here we are nearly 1500 years later.
So, put down the end times charts. Don’t worry about interpreting the Scriptures through the day’s news events. Instead, live today and every day recognizing that indeed, at any moment, Jesus could return.
But even this reality brings up another troubling question: Am I ready enough?
In truth, if it were based on your own righteousness, the answer would be an emphatic, “No!”
Thankfully, the Bible declares that our salvation on that last day won’t be based on our righteousness, but Jesus’ righteousness imputed to us. The grace of God does not save us at the beginning only in order to keep ourselves in his good graces by our good enough readiness. No, the good news for his children is that he saved you and will continue to save you until that last day.
Thus, Paul writes to the Philippians in chapter 1:6: “And I am sure (certain, persuaded, convinced) of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Or check this out: To a church Paul rebuked for not being ready enough, he writes these words: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess 5:23-24).
There’s also Hebrews 12:2, where Jesus is called not merely the author of our faith but the finisher of our faith.
Or lastly, maybe this out of Ephesians 6:14-15: “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.”
You see, it is the gospel of peace that readies us. Therefore, we do not keep watch with fear of not being ready enough because we know he has made us ready enough. Jesus was ready in your place through his perfect life. He was ready in your place through his sacrificial death. Jesus was ready in your place at his resurrection. He was ready in your place at his ascension, and he’ll be ready in your place to take you home to be with him again. So we keep our eyes open for his return with great anticipation.
We look for his coming again because we know that then all fear will be alleviated and all sin will be gone, and our faith will finally be perfected. We look up because our redemption draws near!