At seventy-six, I am over the biblical three scores and ten. I was born into a minister’s home, and all my life I have gravitated around the church in different capacities. From the kindergarten sand box, to childhood flannelgraph, to teenage Sabbath School class, and eventually into adulthood, I have always been exposed to the Seventh-day Adventist view of end-time events. Indeed, there was a time when the Sabbath School editing team of the General Conference followed a five-year cycle, which meant that every five years the same topics were revisited. Things are not so structured today, but unfailingly, every so often, the topic of preparing for the Second Coming is the theme of the Sabbath School quarterly pamphlet, drawing attention to the fulfilment of the signs in Matthew 24 as the reason for spiritual revival. I confess as a minister of having used the topic in many revival sermons as well as in public evangelism
As I look back over the years, I remember the fervor and excitement that gripped the church in my country of Mauritius whenever the Review and Herald (Adventist Review today), the Youth Instructor, and other Adventist publications informed about events in some part of the world or other, events that were interpreted as sure signs of the end.
On October 4, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik into space, and the Adventist world began to preach about the threat of a third world war that would usher in the end. In 1960, John Kennedy became the first Catholic President of the United States, and our thought leaders (unwitting mind shapers) saw in the event the fulfilment of Revelation 13. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in four different cases Sunday blue Laws. In each case, spiritual effervescence gripped Adventists the world over. Christ was coming very soon, and we had precious little time to get ready. Sometimes, stories about individuals encountering angels in the guise of men, who solemnly informed that the end of the world was at hand, was added like a QED after solving a geometry problem.
It is undeniable that the church has repeatedly used the last-day events theme to flog the membership into a frenzy of spiritual preparation. I dare say that each time, every Adventist believer mentally went over long lists of deficiencies and sins, identifying those that had to be confessed, forgiven, and overcome. The weekly prayer meetings were eagerly attended. The Sabbath School attendance and study check cards were faithfully ticked, as well as the personal weekly witnessing and service rendered card.* For a while.
Over time, the people’s fervor abated, and Laodicean lukewarmth set in again. Dare I say that today’s Adventist youth do not show much more than a mere passing interest, if at all, in the fulfilment of the signs. The “boy who cried wolf” story is repeated all over again.
Who does not remember the colorful charts that every seasoned evangelist unrolled, eloquently identifying the events that were supposed to occur in an orderly sequence? I cannot resist a jibe: for years, the church has used the signs of the end as some kind of performance-enhancing drug that would jolt a lukewarm church to wake up and begin to prepare, maybe even to this day in some countries. (I believe that Pastor Randy Roberts of the Loma Linda University Church once used the expression “eschatological caffeine.”)
It is puzzling that nobody seems to realizes that inviting the church to prepare for the advent/judgment by doing a couple of spiritual exercises daily, or following a certain lifestyle, are a subtle way of giving in to the ever-present temptation of salvation by personal effort.
So, when the second quarter of 2018 proposed another series of lessons on the same theme, I guessed that at best, it would be like a musical variation on a well-known tune. And, so far, it has proved to be just that. Please forgive the cynicism.
On reading this article, some may wonder whether I believe in the predictions of Christ as recorded in Matthew 24. I certainly do, though not as signs that indicate the proximity of the end. However, before I share my understanding of the significance of the signs, may I say why I believe that signs are not meant to be used the way the church does: that is, to use them as leverage to get the believers to shape up and toe the party line on those issues that are sometimes divisive. Two reasons come to mind.
The first one is a question of logic. It is impossible for anyone to provide signs as a clear timeline of predictions about the occurrence of an event when the exact time the event will occur is not known. In other words, the signs in Matthew 24 should not be interpreted as road travelers do for the signs that indicate the distance to a location. The road planners could place such signs along the way because they knew the exact distance between cities. Not so for the Second Advent because no one, including Jesus, knew the day or the time (Matthew 24:36), hence the impossibility of defining the proximity of the event. Jesus did say that he was coming soon. However, one may wonder how soon is soon when one considers that the words were uttered two thousand years ago. I believe that there is no link between the signs and the question “how soon?”
The second reason is Paul’s statement to the church in Thessalonica. In his first epistle to that church, Paul talks about the advent and about how the believers should live while they wait. Answering a question about those that have died in the faith, Paul explains that they will be called back to life when Christ returns. But then, Paul adds this puzzling statement: “According to the Lord’s own words, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the lord.”
In as much as no one knows the time of one’s death, it seems never the less obvious that Paul believed that he would possibly be alive when the Lord returned, not only him but those to whom he addressed the letter. What is interesting is that Paul wrote the epistle to the Thessalonians around the year 52 CE. That was just about twenty years after the Ascension. One can readily admit that there were people still living (like the apostles) who had heard Jesus talk about the signs and had shared his teaching with Paul. Assuming that Paul knew about the sermon of Christ on the signs, he nevertheless felt that he might see Jesus coming within his own lifetime.
This means that either the signs were being fulfilled at a fast pace, which is intellectually and factually hard to accept, or Paul’s understanding thereof was different than ours. In any case, whether Paul’s statement was meant to be understood literally or not, one can surmise that the immediate audience would have understood that they might be alive when Jesus returned. The basic biblical rule of interpretation specifies that one must try to find out what the early readers understood a statement to mean. They most probably believed the Second Coming to be imminent.
In the second epistle to that church, Paul rectifies the initial misunderstanding. He writes that an entity that he calls the man of lawlessness is to appear on the stage of history prior to the Second Coming. At the time of the writing, the appearing of that individual was being prevented by the presence of another power, which later scholars interpreted to be Rome. In any case, it seems acceptable that the early Christians looked to the Second Coming as happening in their lifetime or soon after.
Today’s theologians circumvent the problem by suggesting that Paul was not referring to himself and the immediate audience but to the believers who would be living when Jesus returned, whenever that event took place. He was simply talking about the Christian family over the centuries, all waiting for the Second Coming. That conjecture may be correct, but no one knows for sure. Eventually, one generation — the last — will witness the event.
Focusing on predictions that indicate the proximity of an event with the intent of preparing for it does not produce the expected result. Many theologians suggest that there are 353 Old Testament predictions concerning the coming and the mission of the Messiah dating from all the way back to Eden to the last ones given to Zachariah and Mary. Nevertheless, the first advent caught the nation unawares except for a few. Jesus very often reminded of these predictions when he made statements like “Scripture testifies of me.”
What if the message of Matthew 24 was not about preparing for the Second Coming but about being in a constant state of preparedness because he would one day come in a manner not unlike that of a thief in the darkness of the night? The dictionary defines preparedness as a state of constant readiness to face a defining situation: for instance a natural disaster or a war.
Viewed in that light, watching for the signs make sense. They do not tell the reader when, but what, to expect while they wait. It seems that the point that Jesus was making was that the believers should expect difficulties while they wait. A good illustration would be the signs along the highway which indicate the difficulties that will be encountered, signs like “slippery road,” “steep incline/decline,” “icy conditions,” “winding section,” “narrow bridge,” “watch for cross winds.”
Readiness requires constant wakefulness and alertness. It is about not being caught off-guard. The careful driver is ever-alert, especially when driving on an unknown road. Even so, for the true disciples who look forward to the coming of their Lord and Friend, the hardships need not deter the purpose nor make them faint-hearted.
Let not your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; and trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3 NIV).
In the second part of the discourse (24:36—25:46), Jesus speaks about preparedness, not about preparing. He does so by telling four stories or parables. (I changed the sequence).
1. The Master entrusts his servants with responsibilities until he returns. The first story is about two possible attitudes that a waiting servant can have. Either fulfill his mission with faithful assiduity, for which he will be rewarded, or adopt a laid back and reckless attitude justified by the Master delaying his return. Preparedness is about not focusing on time but on the mission.
2. The Master equips the servants to do their work. The second story is about the Master endowing his servants with natural talents and aptitudes, learned skills, and spiritual gifts. Their number and significance are irrelevant so long as they are all used to accomplish the mission that the Master has entrusted them with.
3. The third story describes the kind of work that the Master wants his servant to do. Serving the needy no matter who they are, no matter where they are, no matter what their need is (physical, emotional, spiritual). The key is to constantly remind oneself that the Master identifies himself with them. Servanthood is the true attitude of the disciples—not servitude.
4. The fourth story (second in Matthew) is perplexing. It does suggest that the delay can cause weariness to set in. It seems that the Master is not so much concerned by the fact that a time may come when the long wait causes heavy spiritual eyelids to droop and sleepiness takes over. What matters is that the true disciples’ preparedness keeps them ready to get up and go the moment the herald announces that the Master has arrived. Their preparedness was evident from their conversion and stayed alive and vibrant all along.
To conclude, may I suggest that interpreting Matthew 24 as above prevents the surge of unhealthy spirituality, quickly followed by deadly indifference, until remedied by the next shot of stimulant. Furthermore, it defines the state of preparedness as active involvement in the Master’s business without allowing oneself neither to be distracted by the delay nor by working at preparing in the sense of getting ready. It is all and only about delightful service even when the going is rough and the soul gets weary.
Notes & References:
*A word of explanation for those readers too young to know: Every Sabbath, the Sabbath School teachers asked each class member the number of days that they had studied the lesson during the week. They also totaled the number of outreach activities such as pamphlets distributed, services rendered, Bible studies given, visits to the sick.
Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown in New South Wales, Australia, and a retired pastor.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.