“The end of all things is at hand; therefore keep sane and sober at your prayers. Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength that God supplies; in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 4:7-11)
There is no doubt that the doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ has been abused by many. Early in my ministry there was one of those all too often seasons of end- times predictions masquerading as Biblical scholarship which inevitably led to attempts by some at scaring people into the kingdom, while others simply abandoned all useful pursuits and did nothing but sit, shout warnings, and look to the heavens. In time, the fever passed, but it left behind a church weakened by its bout with the illness and with a strong residual bad taste in its mouth. Many, on this account, would abandon the doctrine altogether.
This is extraordinarily sad because our Lord’s promise to come again is our great hope, the hope of the return of the king and the establishment of his kingdom right here on earth as it is in heaven. It is the promise that right and goodness, justice, love and mercy will prevail and that evil will be held to account. It is the promise that a life well lived is not in vain and that one lived for evil will not escape a verdict. That is, it is the promise that this life and how we live it really matters.
Moreover, there is just no way to abandon this doctrine and remain faithful Christians:
“Yet it seems to me impossible to retain any recognizable form our belief in the Divinity of Christ and the truth of the Christian revelation while abandoning, or even persistently neglecting, the promised, and threatened, Return. ‘He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead,’ says the creed. ‘This same Jesus,’ said the angels in Acts, ‘shall so come in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven.’ ‘Hereafter,’ said our Lord himself, ‘shall ye see the Son of Man… coming in the clouds of heaven.’ If this is not an integral part of the faith once given to the saints, I do not know what is.” (C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night, p. 93)
Today’s passage begins with a clear, if shorthand, reference to his Return: “the end of all things is at hand: therefore…” May I suggest that to ignore or skip over this verse as we might be inclined to do would be a terrible disservice to the Gospel and to ourselves? Christ is definitely coming again and in this passage we see the difference that fact should make in our everyday life, the “therefore”. We should, as William Barclay said, live every day “in the shadow of eternity”, live every day as though it might be the world’s last or at least our last. If our Lord returns he should find us at our post ensuring that “in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” because all that we are doing is being done to the glory of God.
This does not mean, as some fear, that he should find us abandoning our daily responsibilities and doing only “spiritual things’. Just the opposite: it is doing our daily tasks with love and to his glory. Look at what Peter follows “therefore” with:
Keep sane and sober at your prayers, hold unfailing love for one another, practice hospitality, and as each has received a gift, employ it for one another (as always in scripture, a list that is representative and not meant to be comprehensive).
Jesus added more to it with every word he said (Love your enemies, if I have washed your feet…, et al), but was specifically clear in his only extended message about his return in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me….” I have often put it this way: We should work each day as if Christ might return that day but the work we do should be the work he would want done if he wasn’t coming back for a thousand years. In the Methodist marriage ritual there is a prayer that I have always thought captures this idea beautifully. After pronouncing the couple husband and wife, the pastor blesses their marriage and then asks the Lord’s help that “they may so live together in this life that in the world to come they might have life everlasting.” If their eye is on pleasing heaven, they must know that the way to do that is to be found in a lifetime of faithful commitment and service to one another.
In the midst of all this it must never be forgotten that though the Second Coming of Christ includes judgement, it was not dreaded by the early Christians but looked forward to. They prayed “Maranatha, Lord quickly come!” because they knew that the one who would come to judge was the one who had died for them, the one who is love itself, and they felt confident in his nail pierced hands, his forgiveness, and in the future he had planned for them. But they could not take his grace for granted or cause his sacrifice to be in vain. He would not allow it.
When he comes again we too shall pass through that judgement not by our own righteousness but by faith in the one who died for us. There will be a verdict, though not a sentence, passed on our lives: Was our life pleasing to him or was it not? The more we grow as Christians, it is not fear that drives us but love and gratitude. Then when we are reminded that the Lord might return at any time, it is the desire to please that keeps us at our post. We want our beloved father to find us doing exactly what he hoped we would be doing, out of joy, not out of fear.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.