Nine years ago “Christian” broadcaster and self appointed “end times prophet” Harold Camping predicted the end of the world would be the 21st of May 2011. The 21st of May came and went, and the world was still here. Some Christians were left disillusioned, most Christians groaned, and the world’s media gloated and the church was ridiculed. Undaunted Harold appeared to admit a mistake with a calculator and announced the real date of Christ’s return would be the 21st of October, which then came and went, with the same results. Not sure if we have heard from Harold since, if so, I hope no one is paying any attention.
Sadly, Camping is just the latest of many, too many “end time experts.” Men (its nearly always men) who proclaim with confidence that they have worked out the calculations, or can interpret the “signs of the times” and understand how and when prophecies will be fulfilled and so can predict the date of the second coming of Christ. Some otherwise quite sane and significant church leaders have even indulged in this game of date setting from time to time. For instance, Chuck Smith, the founder of the Calvary Chapel movement wrote that “I believe that the generation of 1948 is the last generation. Since a generation of judgment is forty years and the tribulation lasts seven years, I believe the Lord could come back for his church anytime before the tribulation starts, which would mean anytime before 1981.” Oops wrong Chuck!
The reason I bring this up is that with COVID and everything else that is going on in the world there has been a whole crop of new “end times experts” posting videos and sharing predictions on social media. This is really a subject we need some sane thinking about. We need to think about whether one of these prophets could possibly be right. About what the implications are for us about Jesus return as His disciples.
Let’s look at probably Jesus most in-depth teaching about his return
Mark 13:14-37 (NIV)
14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.
20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[d] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
The Day and Hour Unknown
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[e]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
Unfortunately, this passage from Mark has been the source and inspiration for many of these date setting attempts. There is no doubt that it is one of the most difficult to understand passages in the whole of the New Testament. Most the “date setters” like Camping focus on what is difficult to understand and is uncertain and then tell us with certainty they can interpret it. The result, as we have already seen, is inevitably that Christianity is brought into disrepute in the eyes of nonbelievers and many vulnerable believers end up disillusioned. There is an alternative way of using this passage by focusing on what we can understand and what is certain about Christ’s return.
So what exactly can we be certain about when it comes to Christ’s return?
Well according to Mark it is certain that Jesus will return, and it is equally certain that date setting when it comes to that return is futile …. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. ”
Mark makes sure we get the message that when it comes to the exact date of Christ return “no one knows” and “you don’t know” and most surprisingly and even shockingly, “nor (does) the Son.” We can be certain that when Camping and his contemporary imitators pop up and announce they have worked out the date of Christ’s return, they are most certainly wrong!
If date setting is the wrong way to prepare for Christ’s return, what is the alternative? Jesus tell us to “Be on guard! Be alert” and simply “watch” Instead of knowing the exact time that Christ returns, we are to be alert and prepared so that whenever He returns we will not be ashamed or have regrets about the way we are living or what we are doing (or not doing).
I like what Michael Green says about this, ” Christians are to watch, not like astronomers through a telescope, or guards watching a CCTV screen but like lovers who can’t wait for another glimpse of their beloved, or captives in a labour camp longing for the day they will return home. God can guide expectant Christians. They are open to direction, ready for the unexpected. Those who believe in date setting are actually devoid of expectation and hard to move”
Let’s end by thinking about what practical difference does preparing for Christ’s return in this way make? Well, instead of following Harold Campings example when it comes to how to prepare for Jesus’ return, I want to suggest we follow the example of John Wesley. Apparently, Wesley was once asked what he would do if he knew Christ would return that very afternoon. He replied that he would keep his appointments for that morning. What Wesley was saying was that he lived a life that was so committed to Christ and his mission that he would not need to change anything should he know was Christ was on his way back.
I don’t know about you but that’s the kind of life I want to live?
I want to live so that should Christ return wherever I am and whatever I am doing I would not be ashamed and not experience regret.
Thinking about that, let me ask you the same question that Wesley was asked. If you knew that Jesus was returning this afternoon? Would you simply carry on with your plans? Or would there be things that you felt you needed change? What would they be?