The Office in the Light of Christ’s Return
Focus on the Future
It is quite customary at the end of each year to reflect on the future. The attention given to the future is presently aggrandized by the notion that it is the end of the decade, the century, and the millennium.1 The question is how to properly speak of the future, that is in biblical terms. The Bible tells us to expect our Lord Jesus Christ to come again (Acts 1:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:16). That will take place at the end of history. The Belgic Confession summarizes the teaching of Scripture as follows:
We believe, according to the Word of God, when the time appointed by the Lord (which is unknown to all creatures) is come, and the number of the elect complete, that our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven...Article 37
Christ's return is not simply something of the future. His coming again is already now an active power towards the end. This is evident from various passages of Scripture. Jesus said to the Sanhedrin: "...I tell you, from now on you shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Mt 26:64). His return has been put into motion. Jesus is coming again. The preaching of the Gospel in Thessalonica resulted in the Thessalonians turning "to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven" (1 Thess 1:9, 10). A proof of the genuineness of the conversion of the Thessalonians is that they now wait for the Son from heaven. A Christian is focused on, and waits for the return of Christ.
For this we need to know Christ. We need to know the necessity of His first coming as well as His second coming. His Second Coming will be in marked contrast to His first coming, in humiliation. The majesty of His divinity will no longer be laid aside. We shall see Him as He is — overawing, yet adorable. His second coming is to be followed directly by judgment. For many the day of the Lord will be darkness and not light (Amos 5:18). Only those who by a true faith have become righteous in Christ can and may face the great white throne without terror.
The sacrifice of Christ is the object of our faith. The second coming of Christ is the object of our longing. We look backwards in faith to the crucified Saviour. We look upwards in love to the living Saviour. We look forward in hope to the glorious Redeemer. This looking forward in hope is not secondary to us. We are not believers without it. "We are saved by hope" (Romans 8:24). We look not only to the second coming itself but also to the events associated with it — the resurrection of the dead, the general judgment and the acquittal and acknowledgement of the believers. Above all, we look forward to the day when "at the Name of Jesus every knee shall bow ... and ... every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:11). "Maranatha" (1 Corinthians 16:22).
Shepherding the Flock
Christ is the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Pet 2:25). We are called to be undershepherds. The shepherd calls his sheep by name and leads them out. He goes on ahead of flock. He keeps them together. He takes them to green pastures for food and to still waters for drink. He pays special attention to the sick, weak and lame sheep. He looks for the sheep that has wandered away and carries him back to the fold of God! He shelters the flock and fights against the beasts of prey. Overseers are to oversee and care for the flock.2 As pastors we do a great deal of this work in the preaching of the gospel as well as in our pastoral visits. As other officebearers we do this work particularly when we visit those entrusted to our care. C. Trimp calls attention to the fact that the one biblical word that summarizes this work is paraklèsis, a word with many nuances. It means 'encouragement, exhortation, appeal, request comfort, consolation.' Trimp adds these meanings: strengthening, equipping, reproof, correction.3 So our work as undershepherds in the service of the Great and Good Shepherd is characterized by this paraklèsis. We shepherd the flock. We address all and every one in their situation and treat them by way of the Word of God. In our care for them we draw our strength from and bring the sheep to the Shepherd.
The Office and Christ's Return
In this pastoral work we need to speak about the return of Christ. Scripture calls for expecting His return. This expectation is characterized by keeping watch (Mt 25:13), not in fright but in the awareness of the reality of His approaching return. Such expectation is also characterized by service, as the Lord Jesus makes clear in the parable of the talents in Mt 25:14‑30 and the parable of the pounds in Luke 19:11-27, in which He speaks about giving account. This expectation is characterized by endurance to the end (Mt 24:13). This life is to be nurtured by Word and sacrament. The congregation is to be an expecting, serving and witnessing congregation, a congregation who is filled with the Spirit, and who knows and loves the Lord through belonging to Him.
As elders and pastors we are to carry on a pastoral conversation with those entrusted to our care in the light of and with a view to the return to Christ. We can do this only when we ourselves live in and out of this expectation.
How are we to confront those entrusted to our care with the coming Christ and speak with them about the place that the expectation of His coming again is to have in our life? We need to bring out the fact that we need to set priorities in our life. Do we ourselves practice the turning "to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven" (1 Thess 1:9, 10)? In what way does that manifest itself in our life? What is it that we let go of? In what way do we deny ourselves? In what way do we joyfully bear our cross and cleave to Christ in true faith, firm hope, and ardent love?
Another angle is that we understand and speak about the signs of the times (cf. Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21:5-38). J. P. Versteeg groups them under two headings:
- as signs of an ever-darkening night: the removal of peace from the earth (Mt 24:6, 7) and the concentration of violent and evil powers (2 Thess 2; Rev 13:11-18; 19:20; 2 Tim 3:1, 2);
- as signs of the increasingly breaking day (Rev 13:11): the events surrounding the people of Israel (Rom 9-11) and the church in our days (Mt 24:14).4
A. Hoekema groups them under these three headings:5
1.) Signs that evidence the grace of God: the "proclamation of the gospel to all nations" and the "salvation of the fulness of Israel."
2.) Signs that indicate opposition to God: tribulation, apostasy, Antichrist.
3.) Signs that indicate divine judgment: wars, earthquakes, famines.
As we converse about the crisis that the church is going through we need, first, priestly compassion. We must carry the congregation in our hearts, and pray with and for them. Second, we need to prophetically X-ray the time that we are living in, show how the beast is setting its stamp on society (Rev 14:9), which is marked by the ideology of autonomy and lawlessness. We must also give counsel and offer help. Thirdly, we must exercise the kingly aspect. Though the battle has been won and the devil's stranglehold has been broken, he is still powerful and equipped with many tricks, wiles, or schemes (Eph 6:11; 1 Pet 5:8). Nonetheless, Christ has ascended to the throne and holds kingship and power. As officebearers we need to be equipped for Christian warfare and equip the congregation (Eph 6:12-20).
In Colossians 1:27, 28 Paul describes the pastoral approach to the believers' attitude to life. Christ is the hope of glory. Our eyes are focused on Him. We are to train, correct and rebuke the congregation in the power of Christ. He gives us the mandate and the authority. He also gives us the grace and strength for it in the way of prayer.
It is with a view to Christ's return that we shepherd the flock, who is the bride of Christ, and who is to say with the Spirit, "Come!" (Rev 22:17). We are to be pastorally active with a view to the meeting of bride with the Bridegroom. The implication is that we shall prophetically point out any lukewarmness and earthly-mindednesses, any lovelessness and self-sufficiency on the part of the bride as sin. Precisely under such a pastoral approach in the light of Christ's return, she learns to feel ashamed before the eyes of the Bridegroom.
How shall we do this as undershepherds of the flock? Let us do so in childlike confidence that the battle has been won. We do not need to win the battle again. What the Lord asks of us is that we endure. The day of reckoning is coming, also for Jesus' enemies. Let us perform our pastoral work in joyful expectation: the best is still to come. We need to take our pastoral task seriously. After all, it concerns the cause of Christ and His flock. Let us do this work prayerfully, in child-like and humble confidence, in service of the Great Shepherd, until He comes. "Come, Lord Jesus" (Rev 22:20).
Occasionally articles published in Diakonia may contain ideas that are not shared by everyone. Even though these ideas are not necessarily those held by the editorial board, they are nevertheless worthy of further discussion and debate. If any of you are inclined to take up the pen and express yourselves on such matters, feel free to do so and we will do our best to publish what you have to say.