John 14: 2-3; I Corinthians 3:10-15; Psalm 94:1-7
I imagine one experience we all go through from time to time that we do not find at all enjoyable is waiting. Whether we’re a student waiting for the end of the school year, expectant parents waiting for the birth of our child, unemployed and waiting to be hired, sick and waiting for our health to return, or perhaps waiting for the coming an old and dear friend we haven’t seen in years, waiting can be unpleasant to say the least, and even a real struggle.
It is especially difficult when the thing we are waiting for is completely out of our control; there is nothing we can do to speed up the process. And it becomes even more difficult when there is no set deadline; we have no idea when the thing we are hoping for will come to pass.
There is something the church has been waiting for now for some 2,000 years. We can be sure it will come to pass for Jesus promised us it would and Scripture assures us of its certainty. But Jesus also said no one knows the day or hour of its coming. Jesus said that not even He knew, but only His Father in heaven knew (Mk. 13:32).
I’m referring, of course, to the second coming of Jesus. In our study of the basics of our faith as illustrated in the Apostles’ Creed, today we come to the phrase that asserts, “He (Jesus) will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
Having talked about Jesus in the past and present, the Creed now points to the future. Jesus will return. In other words, this is the sequel to Christmas. It’s the coming of Jesus – Part II. Having once come to earth in great humility – as a human being, even more so as a baby born in animal stable, His second coming will be marked by great power and glory. His second coming will be as glorious and spectacular as His first coming was lowly and obscure. And then God’s plan of salvation will reach its conclusion.
In this statement from the Creed we find two affirmations. First – Jesus will return. Second – all people will give a final accounting to Him, for He will come to judge the living and the dead. The first is an affirmation of hope. The second is a call to responsibility.
That Jesus promised He would come again there can be no doubt. He made a number of references to His return. One of the clearest is a passage we read last time - Jn. 14:2-3: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Immediately following the ascension of Jesus into heaven, we read in Acts 1:11 that two angels appeared to the disciples and said to them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”
And the return of Jesus was also proclaimed by the apostles. One of many examples is I Thes. 4:16-18, where Paul writes: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.”
So there is yet a day when Jesus will personally return and all will see it. As this passage concludes, we are to encourage each other with these words. That Jesus will return should fill us with hope and gratitude and joy.
Now, one mistake we need to be sure to avoid when it comes to the return of Jesus is trying to know more than God has revealed. Throughout the history of the church there are countless examples of individuals or groups claiming to know the time and place of Jesus’ second coming. People have sold their homes and businesses because they were certain Jesus was coming right then. Others have claimed to know the identity of the anti-Christ. Yet others have detailed charts and timetables in which they lay out the exact sequence of events leading up to Christ’s return.
All of that may make for exciting study – as well as divisive study. And it certainly has made a lot of money for those who write books on these topics. But in asserting such things people are claiming to know more than God has revealed.
Will Jesus return? Absolutely! We can bank on that.
Can we know very much about the circumstances leading up to and surrounding His return? No, we will never know a lot of those details. I’m sure much of it will come as a surprise, just as the details of His first coming caught everyone off guard. Only after His coming were people able to look back, put the pieces together, and make sense of the Old Testament prophecies pointing to His birth.
Besides, all that misses the point. The point of what we read in Scripture concerning the second coming of Jesus is to give us hope and encouragement, as well as to inspire us to remain faithful until He comes. We’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
Now, what will happen when Jesus comes back? Well, as the Creed affirms, Jesus will judge both the living – that is, those who are alive at His coming – and the dead. In Acts 10:42 Peter proclaimed: “He (Jesus) commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.” Perhaps we don’t find that to be a very comforting thought. Standing before a judge is not what most of us think of as being a good time! And to be judged for the entirety of our lives would certainly be daunting. However, we must keep several things in mind as we anticipate the final judgment.
In the first place, we will be judged by One who knows us completely. Human beings tend to judge on the basis of appearance, as well as with limited knowledge. Therefore, mistakes are made. Sometimes they are intentionally made, perhaps by a biased jury, a dishonest investigator, or a corrupt judge. And sometimes mistakes are made unintentionally. Perhaps a piece of evidence was overlooked or simply was not available.
But this is not the case with Jesus. His judgment is completely fair and accurate, for He knows all things. He not only knows what we have done or not done, but He knows the hidden desires and attitudes of our hearts, be they good or bad. So, we can be sure that His judgment is completely fair, for it is based on His complete knowledge and not mere appearance.
Second, we will be judged by One who not only knows us completely but who is also passionately committed to us. He is so committed to us and our welfare that He lowered Himself to become one of us in Jesus Christ. He did this not only to reveal God to us but more importantly, to become our Savior. Of course, He did this by dying on the cross in our place.
The cross reveals God’s judgment on sin and also the depth of His love for us as He bore our judgment and guilt and punishment. Jesus was condemned by biased judges, hostile crowds, and an indifferent Roman governor. We will be judged by One who cares deeply for us and is sympathetic toward us.
We will be judged by one who can sympathize with us in our weaknesses for He was tempted in every way we are yet without sin. And what is most amazing, and somewhat paradoxical, in the infinite wisdom and love of God we will be judged by the One who already bore our judgement. He bore our punishment on the cross.
And this brings us to the third point to keep in mind. The first point is that we will be judged by One who knows us completely. Second, we will be judged by One who is passionately committed to us. And third, if we have trusted in Christ and surrendered our lives to Him, we will not be judged on the basis of our own merit, accomplishments, or holiness to determine if we will gain access to heaven. If that were the case, we could only fear judgment, for all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), and thus deserve death (Rom. 6:23).
That’s what we deserve, but the free gift of God is eternal life (Rom. 6:23). What an incredible gift. It’s a complete reversal of what we deserve. For those who are in Christ there is now no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). And Rom. 10:9-10 assures us “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
So, if we have placed our faith in Christ, trusting in His saving work on the cross, we have nothing to fear when it comes to His judgment. For Jesus Himself, in the greatest act of love conceivable, was judged for our sins. That judgment took place at the cross. Now it’s over and done with.
Jn. 3:17 declares: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” God’s desire is not to judge anyone in the sense of condemning them to hell. The whole purpose of Christ’s coming was to save us from that judgment. So, if we have opened our hearts and entrusted our lives to Christ, there’s nothing to fear.
Now if that’s the case, do we as followers of Christ still face God’s judgment at the final day? Yes, we do, but it’s different in nature. Paul speaks of this in I Cor. 3:10-15. There he wrote:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
If the foundation of our life is Jesus Christ, we have passed out of judgment into eternal life. What’s important then is how we live. Do we seek to live as followers of Jesus doing the works of Jesus? The Day, said Paul, will bring to light our manner of living. The word “Day” here refers to the final day, judgment day at the end of time. On that Day it will become clear if as those who are saved by God’s grace, we sought to live in response to He grace by being obedient to God. Did we seek to use our time, talents, and energy to do God’s work on earth? Did we demonstrate God’s love to others and honor God through our lives? Did we bear the fruit of Christ-like character? If so, those works will be like gold, silver, and costly stones. They will survive the fire of judgment and there will be some kind of reward for us to take into eternity.
On the other hand, if after experiencing God’s saving grace we ignored God’s will for our life, if we used our time, talents, and energy selfishly, if we lived for self and sin instead of God and others, those works will be like wood, hay, and straw. They will be burned up in the final judgment. As the passage states, we will still be saved, but there will be no further reward. There will be nothing from our way of living that we can take with us into eternity.
Just what these eternal rewards will be the passage doesn’t say. We can be sure that they will be wonderful beyond what we can imagine. So surely, we will want to live in such a way that we will receive these rewards. But either way, the fire of judgment will test the quality of the work of our lives, it says. That is the judgment we will face as those already saved by God’s grace.
So, what applications are there for us now in light of Jesus’ future and certain return and final judgment? Let me suggest several. In the first place, the return of Christ as judge satisfies two deep longings we all have. One is the longing for justice. We live in a world of injustice and unfairness. Innocent people suffer while evil people prosper. The powerful take advantage of the powerless. Those in high positions often live a life of luxury by means of corruption and taking bribes. Those who are well-connected commit crimes but face no punishment. We constantly read about such things in the news and that angers us and we cry out for justice.
This desire for justice has burned in the human heart from antiquity. About 3,000 years ago, the writer of Ps. 94 expressed it like this:
1 The Lord is a God who avenges. O God who avenges, shine forth.
2 Rise up, Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve.
3 How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
4 They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting.
5 They crush your people, Lord; they oppress your inheritance.
6 They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless.
7 They say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.”
It may seem like the Lord does not see, for injustice is as prevalent now as when that Psalm was written. But the Lord does see, and one day He will make all things right. The return of Christ as judge assures us that one day justice will prevail as the perfect judge judges perfectly. There will be no more injustice.
Related to that, the return of Christ also fulfills our longing for fulfillment and restoration. We see our world out of whack - famines, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. For even creation was subjected to frustration due to sin (Rom. 8:20-21). But that will change when Christ returns.
And not only is creation disrupted, but our lives our broken. Relationships are damaged. There is sickness, suffering, death, loneliness, discouragement, etc. All that will be healed when Christ returns. There will be no more death, crying, mourning or pain. In Acts 3:21, Peter addressed the crowd, telling them that Jesus had ascended into heaven where He would remain “until the time comes for God to restore everything.” So, we can live with hope today for the evils and sufferings of today will not last forever. One day creation will be restored to the perfection and beauty God intends for it.
A second application of Christ’s return is that it gives us the reason and motivation for mutual encouragement. That’s what I Thes. 4:13 says: “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like those who have no hope.” The greatest source of grief is death. We grieve when we lose those we have loved. And our own approaching death causes us to grieve.
But one day we will all be together with Christ in a perfect world where there is no more death. So that passage went on to say (vs. 18) “encourage one another with these words.” We need not fear death, for that is the beginning of a glorious new existence that will be perfectly fulfilled when Christ returns. So we are encouraged.
Third, the return of Christ is a motivation for faithful Christian living. In Mt. 24:45-51 Jesus told this parable regarding His second coming:
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This parable makes it clear what our response should be to the second coming of Jesus. It is not to sit around idly, trying to figure out how and if current events somehow fit into the end-time scenario. Rather like the faithful and wise servant, we are to give ourselves to faithfully doing those things Jesus has asked and equipped us to do. We don’t know when Jesus will return, but as Jesus said, it will be good for us if when he returns He finds us carrying on the work and living the kind of life that He has called us to. And so, knowing that someday Jesus will return, we are to be faithful in His work until that day.
Last time we considered the custom in Israel during the time of Jesus regarding engagement and marriage. The prospective groom and his father would visit the prospective bride and her father. After everything was agreed upon, the groom would leave for an unspecified amount of time. He had to prepare a place to live with his new bride. This typically was a room built onto his father’s house.
While the groom was away preparing their new home, the bride was also busy getting ready for her big day, just as brides do today. Except back then, the bride didn’t know when the groom would finish with their home, and according to their custom, come at that time to marry her. So, she needed to get her preparations done so she would be ready whenever her soon-to-be husband would show up.
Can you imagine the bride getting distracted by less important things, or simply being very nonchalant about her approaching wedding so that when the groom showed up, she wasn’t ready? Of course not! You can be sure that every bride gave her utmost attention to getting everything ready so that when her groom appeared – which he certainly would though no one knew just when – she would be ready. And it wasn’t only the wedding itself that inspired her to be diligent in her preparations, but it was the idea of living in intimate relationship with her beloved for the rest of their lives.
That should be our attitude toward Jesus, who as Scripture says, is the groom and we are His bride. He has gone away to prepare a place for us in the Father’s house, but we can be sure that at the right time He will return to take us to be with Him and live in the deepest, most satisfying relationship possible forever.
And so, as His bride, we need to make sure that we will be ready when He comes. And the way we do that is by being obedient and faithful to all He has called us to do and be. We don’t wait idly or anxiously, but with certainty and anticipation as through our obedience we commit ourselves to fulfilling His purposes on earth, so we will enjoy the fruits of eternity with Him in heaven.
So be encouraged! Christ will return to judge the earth, but on the cross He has already born our judgment, so we have nothing to fear if we have placed our faith in Him. At that time all the evil and suffering and injustice of this world will be overturned. And in light of His grace, let us live in obedience to His will, so that should Jesus return during our lifetime, we will be found faithfully living for Him.