The Return of Jesus in Our Experience of Faith
Part 1: Christ’s Return as the Completion of his Work of Salvation
The theme of these three articles focuses on the question whether and how we are reflecting on the imminent return of Jesus Christ in our faith experience. The main question that comes up is therefore not merely: do we expect the Lord Jesus Christ to come? The question is: what role does his return play in our Christian life and how does it affect us? Are we busy with it? Do we recognize the necessity of his return in terms of his work of salvation for us? Or — and this is not meant disrespectfully — do we see the return as something that doesn’t make much of a difference in our daily lives? We pray about it occasionally, personally as well as in the congregation, but for the rest no real impact on our lives.
Is that all that we experience about the second coming of Christ? Shouldn’t this expectation play a much larger role in our faith experience? Should this not be something that needs to occupy us much more, also in view of what is happening around us? In view of world history, do we recognize the signs of the times?
I am only touching on a few aspects of the issue. It is obviously not my task, and even less does it belong to my capabilities, to read and interpret God’s clock and to know how long it will be until Jesus returns.
The correct starting place
Perhaps we would like that. However, we would be starting from the wrong end. Then we don’t approach the issue of Christ’s return from his perspective. Then we start with ourselves. By taking a glance at heaven’s clock we want to know how much time there is left until he comes. The danger in this is that it may make us think: it’ll be awhile yet. We still have some time before he comes back.
Pronouncements of the Lord Jesus as well as in the New Testament letters never provide the details to figure out the exact timing, to determine the day and the hour. In speaking of his return there is always the accompanying warning, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13). The call to watch may result sometimes, perhaps often, to an attitude of: ‘no panic — we’ve got some time’. And we can put our expectation of Christ’s return off to some distant future.
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is a powerful warning not to put off this expectation. Therefore the Lord Jesus cautions: watch, now and here in this present time, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
You can sense it: what I wrote above means that we’re starting from the wrong end, from our own perspective, from our desire to tell time from heaven’s clock and to determine how much is left for ourselves.
We need to start from the other end. That is to say, we need to learn to think from the perspective of the Lord Jesus’ work of salvation.
The return as completion
It is important that we learn to recognize the necessity of his return as a component, or even more precisely, as the conclusion and the fulfillment of his work of salvation.
In this first article I am attempting to clarify that Jesus’ return is an essential component of his work of salvation. Anyone who neglects the return of Christ in his faith has an inadequate realization of his salvation.
That is strong language. Yet I feel duty-bound to put it this strongly at the start of this series. Obviously I will come back to this in what will follow.
I propose to make clear in this first article that Jesus’ return is an essential component of his work of salvation. It is the completion and conclusion of it. With this we are saying that without his return, Jesus’ work is as yet incomplete and unfinished.
I ask the reader to reflect for a moment on this last sentence. Indeed, it means to say that the neglect of the return will make us miss out on the full salvation or the fullness of our redemption.
I have had to learn myself to surrender any potential objection to this formulation to Jesus. Therefore I will leave this sentence as it stands.
He who neglects Christ’s return in his life of faith has an inadequate realization of the salvation by Jesus Christ. I write it down very briefly again. Anyone who neglects Christ’s return stops halfway in salvation.
You may well ask, “Why is this so?” First, we listen to the Bible. Of the many texts from which I could quote I am choosing three.
First, the words of the angels after Jesus has ascended into heaven (Acts 1:11): “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” So at his ascension, his return is announced. His ascension will be completed in and through his return.
Next we turn to 1 Thessalonians 1:10. After Paul has addressed his readers that they have turned from idols to serve the living and true God he continues to work toward a climax: “and to wait for his Son from heaven, ... Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” That is therefore the core. The repentance is — to put it this way — incomplete without the expectation of Jesus who will return from heaven. That expectation is an essential part of it. I do not know whether you have considered this in your turn-about, in your repentance. We are often satisfied with the start and the end of it then falls beyond our scope. And the latter is then also outside of our experience of faith.
In the third place I mention Revelation 22:12. “Behold, I am coming soon.” In that connection we also hear the call of the bride, “Come, Lord Jesus” (v. 20). Here we are at the end, not just of church history, of world history, but also of our own life, in faith and repentance.
More than forgiveness and renewal
Why is Jesus’ return and therefore also our expectation of him, so important for our faith experience?
Salvation consists not only of forgiveness of sins, and also not only in the accompanying renewal by the Holy Spirit.
No, the total and radical salvation includes also Jesus’ return. It is then that the church is definitely freed from the devil, from sin and death. Then the world is recreated.
Only then is Jesus’ work of salvation completed. Now he is still engaged with his enemies on earth, in favour of his church. He maintains and rules his church on the way to the end; see esp. 1 Cor. 15:25. We are not there yet. But we are on our way to the end, to the full salvation, both as church and as individual Christians.
It is fulfilled on Golgotha, but it still needs to be completed. The last is the summit. The completion is still waiting.
When you do not occupy yourself with the return, you are suggesting that you are satisfied with a partial or preliminary salvation. May I ask you, as reader, to reflect on this in a very personal and prayerful way?
This is where I will end this first article. In the next installment we will pay attention to limiting factors. Why are we occupying ourselves so little or not at all with the return?
Part 2: Limiting factors
The conclusion of the first article was that Christ’s return is an essential component of his work of salvation. It is the summit of it, the completion. Without the return, his work of salvation is not final. It is only then that we are redeemed radically, totally, and for all eternity. The devil, sin, and death will be permanently eliminated, conquered forever.
It is majestic to be able to believe in Jesus who, while dying on the cross, could exclaim, “It is finished!” However, with this sacrifice his work of salvation was not yet completed. It, or better said, he continues it in heaven.
Hebrews 7:25 was revealing to me: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Our complete salvation depends therefore also on his intercession in heaven.
Cross, crown and throne
In the later years of my ministry I did not only refer to the cross — however foundational and indispensable this may be in the preaching — but also to the crown and the throne of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Conqueror who is in heaven and who rules over the church and over the world from there. As the Christ, he is king. Since his ascension, crown and throne belong to the message of the cross.
You may comment that in our days, also in our circles, we have a greater attention and appreciation for the gifts of the Spirit. That is fine, provided that it is always and only as the fruit of the cross. The Spirit and the cross may never be separated from each other. Think of that powerful text in John 16:14, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
A third element belongs to it, namely the fulfillment, the final victory.
Now that there is more attention for the full scope of the work of the Holy Spirit, we should not stop there. Christ’s return should have our full attention. This means that we need to have open eyes for the necessity of the return of Christ for our salvation. We need the return to be fully part of our lives today. We fall short of the full message of salvation if we do not concern ourselves with the return.
Why is it that we do not involve ourselves more intensely with Christ’s return?
I mention a few reasons. In the first place I want to highlight that we occupy ourselves too little with Scripture in its message about (the need for) the second coming.
As I wrote earlier, salvation through the cross and the work of the Spirit (regeneration, renewal and gifts) receives plenty of attention. But texts about the return often do not receive full exposure, or perhaps are not even touched upon.
Let every reader ask himself how often he or she has heard a sermon where the preacher from the given text works towards the completion of Christ’s work. And I can add to this: how often have you been occupied with the completion of Christ’s work in your personal contemplations of faith?
In this matter, ministers are to evaluate themselves honestly and critically. Church members need to do the same in their personal Bible readings and Bible study.
We need to foster greater awareness, with our eyes and our hearts, for the total plan of salvation. In this context, read Hebrews 5:14-6:3. The anticipation of the return and the digesting of this in faith belongs to the solid food that is mentioned. Let us not be ashamed to confess that we need to grow in our digesting of this. I regard these articles then also as an incentive toward spiritual growth, with a view to reflecting on the coming of our Saviour. They are also the result of my own spiritual growth in understanding and experiencing Jesus’ work. It is a privilege when a minister, in the course of his ministerial office, gains greater understanding in these things. This will enrich his preaching!
In short: are we not often satisfied too quickly with merely receiving the facts of Jesus’ coming? Is there not perhaps a certain complacency and smug self-satisfaction in our faith? Perhaps also something akin to spiritual laziness?
Or, to summarize as the fruit of the identified vices: are we identifying too little with the message of salvation, in the fullness of its breadth and length and height and depth?
I remind you once again of the text mentioned earlier, Hebrews 7:25. The conclusion is: the foundation for our salvation is the cross; the fulfillment of it is anchored in Jesus Christ’s work in heaven.
Our call on earth
A second point enters the picture: as Christians we also have a calling on and for this earth. The letters in the New Testament provide ample encouragement that we should not bypass this calling on earth, but to give ourselves fully to this task and to experience what it means to be a Christian in this world.
This requires a spiritual effort. Because of it we are sometimes (often?) more busy with the here-and-now than with Christ’s coming. Let it be clear: the attention to the here-and-now is a commission of Christ, although his commission does not consist of this exclusively. We would be short-changing his order if we bypassed the present on account of an exaggerated attention for future things.
I am writing this with full conviction.
And yet, precisely because of the attention for the present, we need to also have an open eye for the future. In connection with the Christian hope I love to speak of the hope for the short term and the hope for the long term. Hope for the short term implies hope for tomorrow and the imminent future. Hope for the long term means hope for the return and total salvation. Faith dies for lack of oxygen when hope evaporates.
I always get the impression from Paul’s letters that he can only keep on going because he experiences this hope in the true sense — especially hope in the long term.
This hope does not keep me from doing my work. It stimulates me even more to persevere, here and now.
Therefore hope — and so also the perspective on Jesus’ coming — is an essential component of the life of a Christian. Let me put this in even stronger terms: I persevere only because of my perspective on the completion of the work of Christ. “How rich and full my joy shall be!” (Psalm 17, rhymed version).
Attachment to the world
In our lack of expectation of the return of Christ I need to also mention of course our attachment to this world. So often we are so enamored by this life and all that it has to offer, that we no longer think about praying for Christ’s return.
Let each one of us fill in what this attachment to this world means in his or her own life. The shapes may differ, but there is a common denominator: love and attachment to life as it is, here and now, on account of which the perspective on the future is hampered – like a curtain blocking most of the light coming into the room.
In this regard, don’t look at someone else. In others we can often easily point out the attachment to earthly things.
No, look to yourself instead, with confession of your own shortcoming of the biblical hope.
What about our children?
I need to mention yet another factor. This topic is often touched upon in conversations with older people or parents.
It concerns the affection for children and grandchildren, who may not be ready for the return. How will they meet their God? Parents and older people (also elders) may pray for time for repentance.
You may be wrestling with this in your prayers. Should I still be asking that Jesus returns soon and that the time for grace ends?
I have much empathy for this wrestling in prayer. I will not simply shove it to the side. On the contrary, parents and grandparents can be very worried about this. Once I met a Christian sister who told me, “I pray for Christ’s return. And then I add: please prepare Marieke, my granddaughter, for this as well.”
I know of only one answer to questions like this. It is that you put those who are dear to your heart in God’s hand, when praying for his return.
However, the care for our children and grandchildren may not inhibit our prayer for Jesus’ return. Therefore, look for the full redemption up to and including this return, also for all those who are around us.
Part 3: The Way to a Stronger Desire for the Second Coming
How shall prayer and the desire for the second coming of Jesus Christ receive a greater place in our faith life?
Allow me to begin with this: we should be ashamed that we are not more occupied with this. I call this shame an expression of the dying of the old nature (Heidelberg Catechism, answer 89). We will not arrive at a positive mindset toward Jesus’ coming if we do not (learn to) know our guilt about the lack of expectation. The shortcoming of our desire and therefore of being involved with Jesus’ return should be an urgent matter of the heart. The feeling of guilt needs to arise from deep within our heart. We need to confess this both personally as well as communally.
I can well imagine that a reader would rather avoid the above paragraph. Perhaps he or she is saying, “What can I do with this?” Yet it will not change our attitude if we do not gain insight about our guilt and lack of expectation, and if we do not bring this matter before God in prayer.
Whoever starts to recognize the absence of desire as a guilty shortcoming will also experience that a lot will come to the surface. Everything that was mentioned in the previous article will become relevant to us. We need to get through this. Perhaps it is even better to say: we need to pass through it in such a way that it overwhelms us.
I can imagine that a minister in a sermon would also raise this issue as a guilty shortcoming. I am also writing this article to encourage ministers in this regard, or at least to give them a few guidelines. It would be a good thing if special attention were given to this matter in the homiletics course (art of preaching). Yet I realize that everything has its God-ordained time. That gives peace, especially in view of the expectation of Jesus’ coming.
Reading the Bible from this point of view
From what has just been said it follows that after the recognition of our shortcoming in preaching or speaking about the expectation of the return of Christ, the first requirement needs to be that we are busy with the Bible, especially the New Testament. In the Old Testament this expectation is more in the background, although we do encounter it with the prophets. Advent does not end with the birth of Jesus Christ. It ends with the second coming of Jesus Christ. That’s how I prefer to formulate this in the time of Advent. It is the red thread of God’s plan of salvation, from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22.
When you look at it this way you will know that it’s not about a number of Bible texts in which Christ’s coming is predicted. Of course such texts that directly talks about the return of Christ need to be read and preached about. However, it is all about God’s actions toward our salvation. To the measure that this plan is made known in its details, the final outcome will also receive more attention. It can take your breath away to read the advent passages in the prophets. Some readers learned and memorized them in order to recite them at Christmas for parents and seniors. It is, however, even more poignant and impressive to verify and check the fulfillment of these texts in their historical situation until the return of Jesus Christ.
The Spirit as pledge
The reader will understand: I am not only referring to Bible texts that specifically refer to the return of Christ. I am concerned about what God is doing in and with the world, and to follow this step-by-step. And to follow this path of the Lord in the full certainty that the end will be good and great.
What is called “finished” on Golgotha is being completed on the last day of world history. I prefer to call it God’s history of salvation.
Therefore, the Scriptures need to be opened for us, and in this way they will reveal its full scope, in all its length and width. Then it will not only highlight the atonement, and (next) not only the gifts of the Spirit. It is good that attention is given to both, in mutual cohesion. But if we look at the full scope of Scripture, then there will also be a focus on the final completion.
In 2 Corinthians 1:22 the Spirit is called the pledge of our salvation. See also 5:5, and Ephesians 1:14. That is to say that the Holy Spirit himself is not the completed salvation yet, even though he is part of it, and also the guarantee of the completion. Hence the term: ‘pledge’.
And yet the Spirit, in light of the expected completion, is only a part, a foretaste, in which is encapsulated the certainty from God’s side that full salvation will be ours, just as sure and certain as we have already received the Spirit now.
When this is elaborated upon in the preaching, in mutual conversations, and in personal faith experience, then the desire, the longing, sighing and praying for Christ’s coming are inevitable.
This desire will determine our attitudes when it comes to spiritual complacency and our lukewarm condition. In short, it will affect our attachment to the world.
I mentioned this already in the previous article. I raise it again, as if we’re looking in the rearview mirror. From the desire and our prayers for his coming, you will realize and see the guilt and shortcoming more clearly. From the viewpoint of our future expectation we are once again faced with these vices, unto our deepest shame.
Recently it struck me in particular how Paul writes about the new life in Colossians 3:5-17. This is preceded by verses 1-4, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above...” The new life, as it is described in verses 5-17, is also interpreted in the light of these things that are above.
In verses 3-4 the secret of the life in the things that are above is addressed. “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.” Our earthly Christian life is placed here in the perspective of his coming.
When you live your life accordingly, you cannot extract yourself from the expectation of the end. He or she is transported along in the rush of God’s history of salvation on his way to the end.
I would actually call this chapter (3:1-17) the experienced practice of what has been discussed in these three articles.
You will appear with him in glory via a life of thinking the things that are above.
We are dealing here, therefore, with a full view of Christ: humiliated, then glorified, also by the gift of the Spirit. And now busy completing his work until one day it will be fully accomplished. Then we may share in his full victory and renewal.
This experience of faith cannot exist without prayer. The more profound and intimate our prayers will be, the closer we are to the realization: he is coming.
This article is about the fullness of Christ’s work up to and including its completion. So it is about the full and complete Christ.
When that is your focus in this broken, secularized, and terrorized world, you will pray: come, Lord Jesus. You will pray for the completion of his finished work.
I mentioned three steps in the genuine experience of the desire for his return: confessing our guilt for lack of longing for him; being busy with God’s Word in order to be able to handle in faith the tension between what is asked of us and what is still to come. And in the third place, that we will not lose sight of the expectation of the future in the face of our being busy on earth.
And also: Let us not ignore our calling to fulfill our task here below, in favour of our longing for his coming.
Whoever cannot understand the spiritual tension could speak of a balancing act, focusing on two things at the same time.
We used the word “tension” between now and later. This tension is positioned under the bow of God’s promise: “Behold, I am coming soon!” as well as in our prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus. Maranatha!”
These articles were translated by Wim Kanis.