By Denis Fortin
It is with some dismay that after a few weeks within this COVID-19 health crisis, social media began to be filled with posts on a variety of conspiracy theories. Adventist Christians appeared to be caught up in this just as much as others. And I wondered why this was happening.
I think that to a large extent, our teachings on end-time events may have something to do with this. Regrettably. Most of our eschatological timetables include some moments when the enemies of God’s remnant people will begin a persecution of those who observe the Sabbath. They will be chased, imprisoned, lynched, condemned to death, and so on. But what is not exactly known is the exact trigger that will launch this nefarious social and religious agenda. So many Adventists live in perpetual anxiety, looking for signs of some precursor attempts at depriving them of their religious rights, harbingers of more drastic measures soon to come. Each crisis in American life has produced such similar psychological and sociological religious responses. The downside, however, is that the repeated failures of such unfulfilled prophecies has caused a spiritual exhaustion in many lifelong Adventists.
I’m afraid we will experience the same thing again within a year or two, just as we experienced it a few years after 9/11.
In Chapters 24 and 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus’ long discourse on the signs of his Second Coming. These two chapters have been carefully studied for many generations to find any clues of the developments that would indicate the proximity of this glorious event.
Among the signs given, first there would be all kinds of people pretending to be the Messiah and false prophets attempting to deceive people. Deception and apostasy would be indicators of the end. These signs would be accompanied by all kinds of turbulence among the nations and rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, and plagues (Luke 21:11). There would be great chaos on earth and in the heavens. But all these events would not be the final signs to look for (Matthew 24:8).
Among all these negative and troubling signs, there would be a positive one—the preaching of the gospel to all nations (Matthew 24:14).
Speaking of his coming, Jesus said: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” (Matthew 24:30-31).
This description of the Second Coming of Jesus has caught the imagination of so many artists through the centuries.
But the greatest question still to be answered is the one the disciples asked at the beginning of the chapter: “When will this Second Coming of Christ happen?”
In spite of all the signs of the times he listed, which can so easily be turned into checklists and timetables, Jesus also added: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
No one knows. That includes us, doesn’t it?
For generations now, we have had our timetables of last- day events. Many academy and college Bible teachers have had their students prepare these timelines from the writings of Ellen White. And none of them has been correct so far. It seems to me that Jesus expected people to be curious about these signs and would seek to create some schedule of expected predictions of the event. Perhaps that is why He took the conversation about His Second Coming in a different direction.
From the end of Chapter 24 to the end of Chapter 25, Jesus brings up five parables all intended as exhortations to vigilance and patience.
Jesus obviously knows that some delay will happen and that the timeline Matthew has described may not happen quite as soon or in the way people expect.
So, what is the lifestyle Jesus is expecting of His people as they await His return?
In the first parable at the end of Chapter 24, Jesus alludes to the time of Noah and the Flood and speaks of the unexpected nature of end-time events in the time of Noah. Jesus warns that His disciples ought to be vigilant and not complacent. He concludes with this caution: “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him” (Matthew 24:44).
In the second parable about the faithful and wise servant, also at the end of Chapter 24, Jesus makes the point that His disciples ought to be faithful and responsible to their assigned tasks in the interim time until His Second Coming. His disciples should be loyal people, fulfilling their responsibilities with consistent dedication.
The third parable, at the beginning of Matthew 25 about the ten virgins, is intriguing and best understood within the cultural context of a wedding in the ancient Middle East. The scenario runs like this: the bride is still at her home with her wedding party of ten bridesmaids and they are waiting for the groom to come pick her up and go to his parents’ home where the wedding will be held. The delay is likely due to some last-minutes arrangement not completed. As they wait, everyone falls asleep, but some bridesmaids have thought about a possible delay and have brought along more oil for their lamps. But some didn’t. Jesus makes the point that the unknown time for His Second Coming requires ongoing spiritual preparation. Be ready because you don’t know exactly when all these events will unfurl.
The fourth parable, in the middle of Chapter 25, is the parable of the talents, another story about servants and how they fulfill their tasks and responsibilities. This parable teaches the need to be faithful in the use of the gifts God gives His disciples while they await Jesus’ return.
And the final parable at the end of Chapter 25 focuses on the judgment. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31-33). What has arrested the attention of readers of this last narrative is the criterion used for this judgment at the end of time. The criterion is simple, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving hospitality to strangers, caring for the sick, and providing support to those in prison. And Jesus concludes, “Whenever this was done to the least of my brothers, you did it for me.”
What is this long discourse trying to say to us?
A lot of people wonder and ask why the Second Coming of Christ has not happened yet. Jesus did not say how long it would be or why there would be a delay. And I agree, it is a puzzling question.
The only answer I can find is from the Apostle Peter who says there has been a delay because God is patient and does not want any person to be lost (2 Peter 3:9). If God is patient, we ought to be too.
As Jesus answers the questions the disciples ask regarding His return, He clearly says that the exact time for this is unknown and people should not speculate. So, there is no need to continue making new timelines—they won’t be any better than the old ones. According to these parables, the best attitude to have in preparation for the Second Coming is to be a faithful servant of God and of the Gospel. And those who are thus faithful will be surprised in the end—they will be the ones who are ready.
This is really a call to action. Those who are vigilant in their expectation of the return of Jesus are to be the kind of faithful servants that will reflect in their lives and actions what Jesus was all about. The best preparation for this end- time event is to live and act like Jesus in caring for others, in caring for those who are different from us, even the strangers.
Jesus is not teaching some kind of salvation by good works at His return. What He is emphasizing is that those who expect Him to return ought to live their lives as He lived His life. And the key word of this vigilance is faithful- ness in service to others. Don’t let anyone deceive you into thinking that because Adventists believe that Jesus is coming soon, that we ought not to care about others, about the environment, about the future of our homeland or the future of someone else’s homeland. We ought to care and be faithful in our responsibilities to one another. What Jesus is describing in these parables is the kind of people He desires in His kingdom.
–Denis Fortin is professor of historical theology at Andrews University and co-editor of “The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia.” Email him at: [email protected] andrews.edu