"Are we there yet?” Few questions rank higher in their ability to raise parental blood pressure. Modern transportation gives us the ability to travel in air-conditioned comfort, serenaded by our choice of music, when we visit Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas—even if she lives 1,000 miles away. However, unless we go on foot, travel means sitting, more-or-less motionless, for hours. Our bodies were designed for action, so none of us really enjoys this enforced sitting for hours. And the younger we are, the more we need to wiggle and stretch. Couple this with a child’s limited concept of time, and we get the dreaded chorus of, “Are we there yet?” beginning only minutes after we set out on our trip, and repeated for as long as the trip takes, making everyone miserable.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I hear an echo of this every time someone wonders why Jesus has not yet returned. “Is He here yet?” When it comes to our holiday automobile excursions, we have a pretty good idea of how long a trip will take. Most of the time. But the journey this world is on, from the first century A.D. to the Second Coming is a long one. And it’s a one-time event. We’ve never made this trip before. Fortunately, the disciples asked Jesus how long it would be. Unfortunately, they unknowingly confused the end of the world with another event.
Matthew 24 tells us that Jesus had just left the temple, when the disciples called His attention to this complex of magnificent architecture. Jesus said to them, “Do you see all these things? . . . I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).
Shocked by this revelation, they came to Jesus privately, seeking clarification. “ ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ ” (verse 3). Do you see the mistake? They assumed that “this”—the destruction of the temple—could only take place in the context of a universal catastrophe. From their point of view, it made a lot of sense. Herod the Great had begun a renovation of the temple some 30 years earlier, and the work would not be finished for another 30. They could not imagine that this magnificent complex of buildings would be destroyed less than five years after their completion. Truly, the destruction of the temple would be the end of the world, as they saw it.
Jesus began His answer with a cautionary note: “Watch out that no one deceives you” (verse 4). Next He described several types of alarming events: “Wars and rumors of wars. . . . Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (verses 6, 7). Despite the dire sound of these predictions, He said, “See to it that you are not alarmed” (verse 6). Events such as these have gone on, He says, and will continue.
And He closed with this warning: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, . . . and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away” (verses 36–39).
Jesus meant that life would go on as it had for generations. There would be wars and natural disasters, and in the spiritual realm, general apostasy; but most people would simply carry on their everyday lives, oblivious to what was happening. And lest the disciples think they would be wise enough to anticipate everything, He gave a final warning: “The Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (verse 44).
But Jesus faced a dilemma. He recognized the mistake the disciples had made. They did not know that their temple would be destroyed in three short decades, while Christ’s return would be many centuries later. He could have told them, but it would have been nearly impossible for them to keep up their courage in the face of such a long wait. In a similar situation, Daniel became ill for three weeks (Daniel 10:2, 3). And Jesus knew the disciples were about to face an even deeper challenge to their faith. The Crucifixion was less than three days away. The psychological effect of two such shocks in rapid succession would be devastating. Few could cope with such stress. Jesus faced a difficult problem: He needed to warn the disciples without overwhelming them. So He told them everything they needed to know . . . in parables.
Jesus followed the prophecies of chapter 24 with four parables: The faithful and unfaithful servants (Matthew 24:45–51); the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1–13); the talents (verses 14–30); and the sheep and the goats (verses 31–46). Four very different scenarios, but with a unified message. In the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants, the faithful servant simply went about his business, giving his fellow servants “their food at the proper time” (Matthew 24:45). It was the unfaithful servant who said, “My master is staying away a long time,” (verse 48) or, as the Greek says it, “My master lingers.” Apparently disappointed by what he perceived as a delay, the unfaithful servant then began “to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards” (verse 49).
The young women waiting for the bridegroom’s approach had a different problem. All ten of them took oil lamps so that they could join in the bridal procession, but only five of them brought extra oil along with them. The bridegroom took longer than expected, for the text says, “The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep” (Matthew 25:5; italics added). When the bridegroom finally did arrive, the five who did not bring extra oil were left out.
In the parable of the talents, a man went on a journey “to a far country” (verse 14, KJV), leaving his servants in charge of his wealth. In Jesus’ day, a talent of gold was equal to 15 years’ wages. To one servant he left the management of 5 talents (75 years’ wages!), to another 2 talents, and to the last, 1 talent. “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them” (verse 19). He found that two of the servants had, through wise investment and personal industry, doubled the amount he had left with them. The master praised them and gave them more responsibility. The other servant, fearing loss, did nothing, and returned the original amount. The master reprimanded this servant severely and banished him.
The final parable depicts two classes of individuals who will be living on earth when Jesus returns: those called “sheep,” who meet the basic needs of those in need—food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, shelter for the stranger, human contact for the prisoner— and He rewards them with eternal life. On the other hand, those designated in the parable by “goats” neglected to help others—and they were unaware of their neglect.
In these four parables, Jesus prepared the disciples—and all believers till the end of time—with the basic knowledge they would need to remain faithful. The first three parables prepare us for what from our vantage point appears to be an extended wait. The master lingered, the bridegroom delayed, and the traveler in the third settled accounts with his servants “after a long time.” How long that would be, they were not told. Nevertheless, it appears long to those waiting.
And all four parables make clear how faithful servants fill the time while they wait: by going about the business of living a grace-filled life, doing their duty by feeding their fellow servants, staying attuned to God’s Spirit, employing the gifts God gave them for good productively, and helping those in need.
It strikes me that we who await the Lord’s return are often much like the restless children on a long car trip. We focus on the length of the journey, seeking out only the signposts that inform us exactly how many miles remain to our destination—even though that’s the one thing we cannot know. But this obsession with “Are we there yet?” only makes the journey seem longer and causes us needless unhappiness. Jesus wants more for us than that! He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
And we can experience that full life while we wait for Jesus’ return by doing what He described in the parables: doing our duty, staying attuned to the Spirit, productively employing the gifts God has given us, and helping those in need. Not only will we arrive at the destination at exactly the same time as we would have otherwise, we will have found joy in the journey, and we will have lived life to the full!
Dating the Second Coming
Over the centuries since Christ’s time, many people have suggested dates for the end of the world.
- 80: Rabbi Johanon ben Zakkai expected the Messiah to come about A.D. 80.
- 130: Rabbi Jose the Galilean predicted that the Messiah would come in 130, 60 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.
- 434: The Christian theologian Hippolytus estimated that Christ would return in about 200 years from his time in 234.
- 500: Around 300 a Roman priest predicted that Christ would return in 500.
- 1000: Primarily because of the date itself, just before and after the year 1000, speculation was rampant that Christ would appear in that year.
- 1186: A “Letter of Toledo,” allegedly written by astrologers in Toledo, Spain, predicted that the world would end in September 1186. The letter caused panic throughout Europe.
- 1525: Thomas Muntzer, a radical leader of the Reformation, announced that the return of Christ would take place when he and his followers had defeated their enemies. However, their enemies defeated them, and Muntzer was eventually beheaded.
- 1572: Benedictus Aretius of Berne calculated the date of Christ’s return by adding 1,260 years to the year Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire: 312 + 1260 = 1572.
- 1666: Some people speculated that Christ would return in 1666 because it would be 666 years (the number of the beast of Revelation 13:18) following the year 1000.
- 1843: During the latter part of the Second Great Awakening, William Miller aroused a large following in the United States with his prediction that Christ would return between March 1843 and March 1844. When that failed, many of his followers predicted that Christ would return on October 22, 1844.
- 1874: Charles Rutherford, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, claimed that Christ came in the autumn of 1874 and appeared to the eyes of faith.
- 1914: The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Christ came spiritually in 1914.
- 1988: Edgar Whisenant wrote a book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Is in 1988.
- 1994: Harold Camping predicted that Christ would return in September 1994.
- 2012: Harold Camping predicted that Christ would return on May 21, 2012. When that prediction failed, he said Christ would return on October 21, 2012.
- 2012: Mayan Long Count calendar enthusiasts predict that the end of the age will occur on December 21, 2012.