Engage in Business until I Come

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 29, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

“You’re on the wrong side of history!” Have you heard that before? That line was being said a few years ago against anyone that would dare say that marriage has a fixed definition: it is a complementary union of a man and a woman, a relationship that is meant to last a lifetime. People who wanted to redefine the institution of marriage assumed that they were “progressive” and “on the right side of history.” Anyone who stood in their way, who held to the definition of marriage that the Bible states clearly, the one that God created and Jesus affirmed (Matt. 19:4–6), was somehow on “the wrong side of history.” They were likened to people who tried to stop the abolition of slavery (or desegregation in schools or in any other public place).

“You’re on the wrong side of history!” is a nice bit of rhetoric. It’s a threat, really. After all, who wants to be on the wrong side of things? And who wants to be viewed as some regressive, backwards bigot? I doubt that any of us want to be viewed that way.

But think about that argument for a moment. What does it even mean to be on the wrong side of history? Does it mean we’ll be viewed as on the wrong side in a year or two? What does that matter? Imagine that Adolf Hitler had said, at the beginning of World War II in 1939, that all who opposed the Third Reich were on the wrong side of history. That might have appeared the case for a year or two. But it certainly wasn’t the case after D-Day, in 1944. At that time, people might have said, “Hitler, you’re on the wrong side of history!” Less than a year later, he committed suicide and Allied forces celebrated victory in Europe. And it would be hard to imagine how Hitler could possibly be vindicated at any later date. So, it seems that at any point in history after 1945, Hitler will be on the wrong side of history.

But there are many cases that aren’t so clear cut. How do we know when to judge people as being on the wrong side? Do we pronounce such judgments twenty years later? Fifty years later? One hundred years later? Even then, we could be mistaken.[1]

Take the case of Christianity. Obviously, when Jesus died, many people probably thought he was on the wrong side of history. But Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, so it’s hard to say that he’s on the wrong side of history or even death. Still, many people don’t believe that Jesus rose from the grave. Christians were persecuted at different times in the Roman Empire. It would have been easy for unbelieving Jewish leaders to say of the first group of Christians, who were also Jews, that they were on the wrong side of history. Gentile pagans could have said that Christians were on the wrong side of history. A little over thirty years after Jesus died on the cross, Christians faced persecution under Emperor Nero. There was another wave of persecution in the late first century under Emperor Domitian. As late as the early fourth century, almost three hundred years after Jesus died, there was another outbreak of persecution under Emperor Diocletian. At any point in time during those years, Romans could have said that Christians were on the wrong side of history, and that might have seemed plausible.

But history is a funny thing. Fast-forward a couple of millennia, and there are supposedly two billion Christians in the world. I think the number of true Christians is significantly less, but the point is that there are a lot of Christians in the world. And, last time I checked, there is no Roman Empire.

My point is that you can’t really know what’s going to happen in history. How do we know what will happen throughout history? How do we know where history is going?

Different worldviews say different things about history. It used to be that many people thought that history was cyclical. The Stoics, a group of people who held to a certain Greek philosophy, believed that the world was destroyed in a series of fires. History goes in cycles, round and round again. Their view of history has been summarized this way: “Once upon a time, there was nothing but fire; gradually there emerged the other elements and the familiar furniture of the universe. Later, the world will return to fire in a universal conflagration, and then the whole cycle of its history will be repeated over and over again.”[2] It’s hard to see how anything would matter in such a view of the world. There could be no lasting progress or achievement. You just go round and round on history’s carousel.

That may seem like an odd view, but it’s not totally different from the view that some people have today. Those who believe in reincarnation believe in some form of cyclical history. Some believe we are in the midst of a countless number of big bangs and big crunches of our universe. These people believe that there is no god, and no purpose to life. While not all atheists share that view of an endless series of big bangs and big crunches, all atheists believe we’re here because of some accident. Somehow, the universe got started, without a creator or a designer, and it has developed throughout a long period of time, improbably leading to all the complexity of life we find today. But it will all end, at least in our solar system, when the sun dies, billions of years from now. Whatever we’ve accomplished ultimately won’t matter. A famous atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.”[3] He says that we are “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” that nothing “can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,” that “all the labors of the ages” and “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”[4] In an equally cheery passage, Russell writes, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain . . . . One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.”[5]

Strangely, Russell didn’t seem to be bothered by this. He thought it was noble to carve out some meaning for one’s life, even if there really is no ultimate point. He wrote, “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only . . . to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces” that will trample over him one day.[6] It’s hard to see how self-made shrine bound for destruction is worthy of worship.

If there’s no purpose to life, there is no goal of history. If history has no goal, no final day of reckoning, there’s no wrong side of history. There’s no right side of history, either.

So, is history just an accident? Perhaps Macbeth was right when he said:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.  [7]

Or perhaps history is not an accident, and not an endless cycle, but perhaps it’s going somewhere. Perhaps history has a certain beginning and a certain ending. Perhaps it has meaning and purpose.

But how can we know that? How can know where it’s all going? We would need God to tell us. And God has told us. When we look to the pages of the Bible, we see that God has given us a broad outline of all of human history. It has a certain shape, marked by significant events. It has a definite beginning: God created the universe to be his temple, a theater to display his glory, and the great actors in that theater are human beings, made in God’s image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26–28). We were made to worship God, love him, serve him, represent him on Earth, reflect his greatness, and obey him. But after Creation, the first act of the great drama of the Bible, comes the second act, the Fall. The first human beings decided that they didn’t want to follow God’s script. They didn’t want to obey God. They didn’t trust that God was good. They wanted to be like God. And as a result, everything in this world has become polluted, cracked, broken, tainted. Once there was no hate and war, and not even a hint of death. But now, when sin entered the world, everything changed. When humans turned away from God, the source of light, love, beauty, truth, and life itself, God gave them over to their desires. He said, more or less, “You don’t want me? Fine. Go your way.” And when we turned from God, we found the opposite of light, love, beauty, truth, and life. We found darkness, hate, ugliness, lies, and death.

The whole story of the Bible is basically a rescue mission, an adventure story of how humanity can get back to God. The path back to God truly opens up again with the third act, Redemption. God sends his Son into the world to fulfill his design for humanity. Only God the Son, who is truly God and also becomes truly a man, lives the perfect life. He is the perfect image of God. And though he lived a perfect life, he dies in place of his people. He takes their punishment so they can be forgiven. He is sealed in a tomb so that they can go free. He is exiled so that they can come back home.

It’s a wonderful story, and it’s potentially a sad one. It would be a tragedy it not for the fact that Jesus rises from the grave on the third day, triumphing over sin and death. His resurrection shows that he defeated sin on the cross. Death can’t stop him. And all who are united to Jesus by faith will rise from the dead in bodies that can never be destroyed. But that great day of resurrection is in the future, in the final act of the Bible’s story, Consummation. We only get glimpses of what life will be like when all is restored, when God’s plans are consummated. But what we understand is that all God’s people will live with God forever in a world that has been remade, purged of all evil, cleansed of all sin, recreated so that there is only peace and life, not conflict and death.

But there’s a long period of history between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of his people. There’s a long period of time between the coming of the King of kings to inaugurate his kingdom, and the return of that King, to establish his kingdom fully. We live in those in-between times. And what do we do during that time? We use what Jesus has given us for his purposes, to the glory of God.

We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. Today, we’ll look at one parable that Jesus told, a story that tells us some important truths about the kingdom of God. Jesus was about to go Jerusalem, and his followers thought that he was the Messiah, the descendant of the great king of Israel, David. The Messiah was the one who was going to make everything right. He was going to defeat all powers that were against God and his people. He would overthrow all opposing forces, which in their minds included the Roman Empire. Jesus tells this story to correct their expectations.

Let’s now take a look at today’s passage, Luke 19:11–27:

11 As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. 16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ 18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”[8]

Most of that passage is a long parable about a king and his servants. That story could be interpreted in many different ways. The only clue that Luke gives us is verse 11. He says that Jesus tells this parable “because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Jesus had already said, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). God’s kingdom is wherever God’s people are under God’s rule and blessing, where God is present with them. The God-man, the King of kings, was there in their midst, so he could rightly say the kingdom of God had come. But it wasn’t going to arrive in its fullest form when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. He wasn’t going to receive a golden crown, sit on a glorious throne in a palace, and command an army to defeat all his enemies. Instead, he was going to go away. And while he’s gone, he expects his followers to be engaged in a certain kind of business.

The story itself isn’t too hard to understand. There’s a nobleman who leaves to go to a “far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.” Before he leaves, he gives ten servants one mina each. A mina was a coin worth about three or four months of wages. So, the nobleman left them all a very significant amount, but not a massive amount, perhaps equivalent to $10,000 to $15,000. Then, the nobleman tells his servants to “engage in business until I come.” We’re not told how long the nobleman is gone, but he expects his servants to use that money to make more money.

Before continuing with the story, let’s think about how this relates to Jesus. Jesus is the nobleman who, after dying on the cross and rising from the grave, will go to a “far country,” heaven, to receive his Father’s kingdom. In a sense, the Son of God always possessed this kingdom, but the New Testament says that upon Jesus ascending into heaven he is exalted. As God, Jesus has always possessed the kingdom. As a man, the Davidic King, he sits on his throne when he goes to heaven. His work has been accomplished.

While away, Jesus has given his servants a task to do. He has given all Christians different callings and different spiritual gifts. We may not all do the exact same thing for Jesus, but we are all expected to engage in Jesus’ business while he is away. We have no idea how long he’ll be gone. He might return in a few years or in a millennium or more. But while he’s gone, he expects us to use what he has given us.

Now, back to the details of the parable. After the nobleman leaves on his journey, his citizens get together a delegation and they go to the authority who is going to give this nobleman his kingdom. This delegation expresses what the citizens are thinking: “We do not want this man to reign over us.” The story has some parallels to something that happened in history about thirty years earlier. After Herod the Great died—he was the ruler of Judea when Jesus was born, and he was the one who had the infant boys of Bethlehem killed—his kingdom was divided among his three sons. His sons had to have their rule confirmed by the Roman Empire. So, Archelaus, one of the sons, went to Augustus, the Roman Emperor at the time. Before he left for Rome, Archelaus entrusted his castle and his wealth to his officers. After leaving, the Jews revolted. They didn’t want Archelaus as their king. They sent a delegation of fifty men to Rome to oppose Archelaus. Augustus decided that Archelaus wouldn’t be called a king, but instead he would be an ethnarch, a ruler of his people, until he could prove himself to be worthy of the title of king. When Archelaus returned, he removed the high priest and replaced him.

What does this have to do with Jesus? Well, perhaps Jesus is saying, “You know what happened with Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great? That’s kind of what will happen with me.” The details of the Archelaus story, and the details of this parable, can’t be mapped onto Jesus’ story exactly. That’s not how parables work. But there are certainly many people who don’t want Jesus to be their king. Of course, they can’t send a delegation to God the Father to complain. And they wouldn’t want to do that, anyway. But they rebel against God and his Son all the same.

Well, what happens when this nobleman returns? He checks the work of his servants. Did they engage in business while he was away? One servant was able to take his mina and make ten minas in profit. And he receives a commendation: “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.” He took his relatively modest sum of money and made a ten-fold profit. And as a reward, he has authority over ten cities. He has proven that he is responsible, and he is given more responsibility. Something similar happens with another servant. He has made five minas, and he then is rewarded with authority over five cities.

Then, there is a third servant. When called to account, he says that he hid his coin. He didn’t put it in a bank, or even bury it in the ground, but wrapped it in a cloth. That’s not the best kind of safekeeping. And he offers a lame excuse as to why he didn’t do anything with that coin. Then he says that did this because he was afraid of the nobleman. He calls him a “severe man” who takes what he didn’t deposit and reaps what he didn’t sow. Think about his: if this servant really was afraid of the nobleman, he would have worked hard to make something with the money he had been given. Also, the nobleman has just rewarded two servants with positions that far outweigh what they had made for him. So, it doesn’t appear that he is harsh or greedy. So, it seems this servant is making a very poor excuse. In reality, he doesn’t know, trust, and love the nobleman. And, as a result, the coin he had is taken and given to the one who had made ten minas.

What does this have to do with Jesus? When Jesus returns in glory, he will judge everyone who has ever lived. And we will have to give an account for our lives. As I’ve said before, I don’t know exactly how this will work. We’re not given all the details. But what we’ve done in this life will be examined. As the apostle Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 4:5, when “the Lord comes,” he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” Those who have served Jesus will be given some kind of reward. But that reward isn’t probably what most people think. We tend to think in terms of money. But notice that the servants who made money weren’t given money. They were given authority. The truth is that all Christians will receive the greatest reward possible: God himself. There is nothing greater than God. All Christians will be in the direct presence of God for eternity. You can’t top that. But we’re given some hints that Christians will have different positions in eternity, perhaps some who have been particularly faithful in this life will have greater responsibilities.

Perhaps we can think of an analogy in sports. Those who work hard in practice will be rewarded with more playing time. The quarterback who learns the playbook thoroughly and works hard to execute the plays exactly as the coach imagined them will be rewarded with a starting position. The one who is lazy and doesn’t do what the coach wants will be but cut from the team. In that way, “to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

What does this have to do with us? If you’re truly a servant of Jesus, you’ll do what he wants during this time in history when he is “away,” in the “far country” of heaven. And when he returns, he will reward your work. The reward may simply be, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It might mean that you will have some wonderful things to do in eternity in the new creation. Whatever it is, Jesus will acknowledge your work. What you have done will not be have been done in vain.

In this parable, the third servant showed he wasn’t a servant at all. He made a lame excuse. And what he had been given was taken away. There are some people who think they’re Christians. They think they’re Christians because they believe some statements about Jesus are true. But Satan knows those truths even better than Christians do (James 2:19), and he won’t be with God for eternity. Just because someone has said they believe in Jesus doesn’t mean they’re truly a Christian. Just because someone has been baptized doesn’t mean they’re truly a Christian.

Salvation is a gift. It is not something earned. But, salvation is a work of God, and it’s not just about having sins forgiven. That’s a huge thing, but that’s just one facet of salvation. Salvation also includes being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, being a new person. When God saves a person, he starts to transform that person. So, a real Christian should, over the course of his or her Christian life, have some works to demonstrate that change. The apostle Paul said we’re saved by grace through faith, and this is not our work. But he says we’re saved to do good works (Eph. 2:8–10). James, the brother of Jesus, says that a so-called “faith” without works is a dead faith. It’s not real at all (James 2:17). Faith is demonstrated by works (James 2:18). Works are not the root of our salvation, but they are fruit of our salvation.

So, on judgment day, I expect that there will be many who thought that they were Christians who are surprised to learn that they never really trusted Christ. If they truly loved him, they would obey him (John 14:15, 21, 23).

And, speaking of judgment day, in this parable, the noble man will punish those who were opposed to him, the ones who said, “We do not want this man to reign over us.” And we’re told Jesus will do the same. Now, some people think Jesus would never do such a thing. But the Bible doesn’t flinch away from punishment. In the Old Testament, several men of God slaughtered God’s enemies. Joshua killed five Amorite kings (Josh.10:16–27). Samuel killed Agag, the king of the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:32–33). Elijah slaughtered hundreds of prophets of Baal (1 Kgs. 18:40). Don’t think that this is just some Old Testament violence. The book of Revelation portrays Jesus as a greater Joshua, slaying those who refuse to repent (Rev. 19:11–21). That’s just one picture of condemnation (similar to 2 Thess. 1:5–10). Another is sending people into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:30). Another picture is the damned being thrown into a lake of fire (Rev. 20:14–15). These are all images of a reality that is too awful for us to fully appreciate. It’s what we deserve. We are all like those people who say, “We don’t want this man to be our king!” If God hadn’t changed our hearts, we would reject him still.

If you think all of this is too harsh, you need to understand how serious our sin is, how great a rejection of God it is. And you need to remember that Jesus himself subjected himself to violence. He volunteered to become a man, to be hated, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed in a gruesome way. His death wasn’t an accident. It was the triune God’s plan, so that sin could be crushed without having to crush all sinners.

Jesus isn’t a harsh King. He’s a king who sacrifices himself so that we can live. He’s a King who will richly reward us for our service to him. He has given us a modest amount of time, a modest amount of money, a modest amount of talents, a small amount of opportunities and spiritual gifts. He expects us not to receive those things and hide them. He wants us to put them to use. We may not all do massive things for the kingdom of God. Living a quiet life of humble obedience to Jesus may not look great in the world’s eyes. But doing that is huge in God’s eyes. And he will reward us.

Our reward will be to live with him forever, and to have even greater responsibilities in the new creation. What will that be like? I don’t know. But this life is a shadow, and the substance is eternity, a never-ending existence. Will we serve God in his kingdom or will we be cast out into darkness forever? If you want to serve in God’s kingdom forever, you will serve in it now. Your refusal to serve now is an indication that you won’t be with God forever. Jesus is warning us not to be like that third servant, the one who truly didn’t love, trust, and even know the king. That servant was no servant at all, and what he thought he had, he lost.

Let us use the gifts that Jesus gives us now, because all of history is pointing to him. Several people, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[9] The idea is that justice will certainly come, even if it takes a long time to get there. More recently, one Christian author corrected this line: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward Jesus.”[10] Let us get ready for that day when we stand before Jesus by using what he has given us.

Let’s be on the right side of history by being on the right side of Jesus.

Notes

  1. For an assessment of the “wrong side of history” argument, see Kevin DeYoung, “What’s Wrong with the ‘Wrong Side of History’ Argument?” The Gospel Coalition, August 5, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/whats-wrong-with-the-wrong-side-of-history-argument.
  2. Anthony Kenny, A New History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 81–82.
  3. Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 106.
  4. Ibid., 107.
  5. Ibid., 115.
  6. Ibid., 117–18.
  7. William Shakespeare, Macbeth V.v.
  8. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  9. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe.
  10. Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 204.

 

Engage in Business until I Come (Luke 19:11-27)

Where is history going? Does it have an intended goal? Christianity says that it does, and history’s end is Jesus. We will all have to give an account of our lives to him. What will we do with the time and other resources that he has entrusted to us? Find out how Jesus responds to different people by listening to this sermon, based on Luke 19:11-27, preached on September 29, 2019 by Brian Watson.

When Will You Come Again?

This sermon was preached on November 5, 2017 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance.

Most of us want to know how stories end. When you read a novel, are you tempted to turn to the last page before you’re finished? Are you the kind of person who looks up spoilers of a new movie—perhaps the latest Star Wars movie, “The Last Jedi,” which comes out next month—or a TV show? Are you the kind of person who can’t wait to know how the story ends?

Many people are fascinated with how the story will end. They want to know how the world, or the universe, will end. Atheists believe the universe will likely come to an end billions of years from now, as the universe continues to expand and entropy continues. In that case, everything will get cold, leading to death on earth. If the universe began with a Big Bang, it may very well end with a Big Freeze.

Many theists believe that the universe will end when God decides to bring human history as we know it to a close. Christians believe that human history will end when Jesus returns to earth. There is no shortage of speculation about when Jesus will return and what will happen when he returns. I suppose it’s quite natural for people to want to know when and how Jesus will return, because it’s closely related to how our lives will end. Christians hope that Jesus will return soon because it will mean the end of suffering and pain. We hope Jesus will return soon so that we won’t die. We hope Jesus will return soon so that we can live with him forever.

Over the last several weeks I’ve been answering questions that were submitted to us. We had asked people, “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” Two people asked different questions about the end of the world. One person asked Jesus, “When will you come again?” Another asked, “How will the world end?”

I’ll try to answer these questions today. I’ll spend more time on the second question, because the answer to the first question is, “We don’t know.” We don’t know when Jesus will return. People in every generation since Jesus ascended into heaven thought he would return in their lifetime. Those who have predicted when he would come have been proven wrong, time and again. The fact is that we’re not supposed to know. Jesus himself said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt. 24:36).[1] Shortly before ascending into heaven, Jesus told his disciples, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). We simply don’t know and it’s foolish to think we could figure it out.

The only thing that seems to be clear is that before Jesus comes, there will be some kind of heightened evil. The apostle Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, says that there will be a certain “man of lawlessness,” who proclaims that he is God (2 Thess. 2:1–12). But we’re not given much information about what exactly will happen when that occurs. This seems to be the same event as described in Revelation 20, when Satan is released to deceive the nations (Rev. 20:8ff.). But we’re given such little information about these events that it would be impossible to predict when they will occur. And I think that’s by design. We’re not supposed to speculate on when Jesus will return. Any information in the Bible related to Jesus’ second coming is meant to comfort us and motivate us to live holy lives.

Before I continue, I should add this: I’ve already preached or taught different messages about Jesus’ second coming. About two and a half years ago I preached a message on Jesus’ return when I preached a series of sermons on Jesus.[2] At the beginning of 2016, I preached a sermon called “The Returning King,” which was part of a sermon series on the big story of the Bible. In that sermon, I discussed the passages in 1 and 2 Thessalonians related to Jesus’ return.[3] I also taught through the book of Revelation in our Sunday morning Bible study.[4] All of those materials are on our website. Since I don’t want to repeat what I’ve taught earlier, I’m going to look at a different passage today.

So, let us be more concerned with the second question: “How will the world end?” To answer that question, we’ll look at 2 Peter 3. I would invite you to turn in your Bibles to that passage to see what happens when the world as we know it ends.

We’ll being by reading the first four verses:

1 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”

The apostle Peter is the author of this letter, and he begins this chapter by referring to a previous letter he wrote. A number of skeptics don’t think Peter wrote this letter, but I find their arguments very weak. Many people who oppose the authority of the Bible do so by trying to create doubts in our minds. But since this letter is written in Peter’s name, I believe it is the work of the apostle. He may be referring back to 1 Peter. It’s possible he’s referring to a letter that didn’t become part of Scripture. What’s important is what he’s trying to do in that previous letter and this one. He’s trying to remind them what the prophets and the apostles taught.

The “holy prophets” are likely Old Testament prophets (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16–21; Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21). The prophets of the Old Testament taught people in their day to turn back to the Lord God. But they also looked into the future and told of the “day of the Lord,” a day of salvation and judgment, when God would redeem his people, defeat their enemies, and restore the world.[5]

Peter also mentions “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.” This shows us that Jesus teaches us through his apostles, such as Peter and Paul. “The commandment” that Peter has in mind is probably all of Jesus’ teachings, which can be summed up in the commandment to love God and love one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:37–40). But it also includes Jesus’ command to his followers to “stay awake,” or to be ready for his return. In Matthew 24:42, Jesus says, “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Then, he adds, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44). Again, we don’t know when Jesus will return.

Peter wants his readers to remember what the prophets and Jesus himself taught because he knows that “scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.” In the previous chapter, Peter warned about false teachers that would come into churches and lead people astray to follow sinful desires. These may not be the same people as the scoffers, but Peter realized that Christianity has opponents of all kinds. Peter said these scoffers will come in the “last days.” This shouldn’t be interpreted to mean the “end times,” the very last days before Jesus appears. The New Testament often refers to the period between the first and second comings as the “last days” (Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2; 2 Tim. 3:1; James 5:3).

Peter probably heard these scoffers say something like, “Didn’t Jesus say he was coming again? Well, I don’t see him. Hasn’t it been decades since he left?” These skeptics mocked the Christian faith. They probably failed to see how the coming of Christ changed human history in any discernible way. Christianity teaches that when Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, he inaugurated the kingdom of God. It teaches that when Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for the sins of his people, he dealt a decisive blow to Satan and the powers of evil. Christianity teaches that when Jesus rose from the grave two days after he died, he was the first installment of a new creation that will come in its fullness when Jesus returns. Yet for these scoffers, nothing had changed. For them, “things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” Ever since their ancestors had died, people had lived and died. Life goes on. And so does death. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to put an end to death?

But Peter goes on to say that these scoffers have overlooked something important. Let’s read verses 5–7:

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

Peter says these scoffers have overlooked important things in history. One is the creation of the world, and the other is the judgment that God put on the world during the days of Noah. Here, Peter is making literary allusions to these events in the book of Genesis. In Genesis, we’re told that God fashioned or created the world out of a watery chaos. I don’t think Peter is making the claim that everything on this planet is made out of water, or any other detailed scientific claim. He’s saying that, according to Genesis, the world as we know it emerged when God made a distinction between sky and water and between dry land and water (Gen. 1:6–10). This was done by God’s word. In other words, Peter is saying that history is not infinite. History as we know it had a beginning through a miraculous event, which occurred at the command of God. If history begins with God’s command, it can certainly end at God’s command.

Peter then refers to the flood during the time of Noah, when God judged the earth because people were so evil. According to Genesis 6:5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” So, at God’s command, he brought judgment to the world through water, through the flood, which killed everyone on the earth except Noah and his family. So, human history has not gone on forever without decisive acts of judgment. The flood is a foreshadowing of what will happen on the final day of judgment, when God punishes those who have rejected him and his Son.

So, in the past, God acted decisively by water and his word. But in the end, he will act decisively by his word and fire. The “heavens and earth that now exist”—the universe and everything in it—“are stored up for fire,” which will come on the day of judgment. When God judged the world with water, it didn’t remove sin. Noah and his family were sinful. They didn’t love God with all their hearts. They weren’t perfectly obedient. But a final, ultimate judgment through fire will purge the world of the ungodly. Peter’s main point is that there will be a final judgment, and it will come when God wants it to come. But when it comes, it will be too late to repent, to turn from sin and to turn to God.

Let’s now read verses 8–9:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

The scoffers overlooked the fact that God had acted in human history. His point is that if God acted decisively in the past, he can do so again in the future. Now, Peter wants his readers not to overlook something else. God hasn’t failed to fulfill his promise. Jesus will return. But it won’t be on our timeframe. In God’s timing, “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Peter is referring back to Psalm 90, which begins with these verses:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

In that Psalm 90, we’re told that while God is eternal, we are not. Though God has no beginning and no end, our lives had a beginning and our lives in this world do have an end. For God, a thousand years are nothing. But our lives are like grass that is here today and gone tomorrow. The scoffers thought God had broken his promise to set all things right because he was taking too long. Peter wanted his readers to know that God never takes too long, even though it may seem that way to us.

The reason that Jesus hasn’t yet returned to judge the living and the dead is because God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” What do we make of this verse?

Some people think that God doesn’t want anyone to be condemned; instead, he wants people to turn from their sinful ways of living and turn to him in faith. Of those people, some people believe that while God wants everyone to be saved, he can’t go ahead and save everyone because that would somehow violate free will. To those people, I would point out that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). If we were left to our own choices, we would never choose God. We are spiritually dead before coming to Jesus (Eph. 2:1–3). Until we are born again, we can’t even see that there is a kingdom of God, much less enter it (John 3:3, 5). Dead men don’t make themselves alive. They can’t even choose to do that. So, unless someone has been transformed by God, they would never choose Jesus. But there are some who will come to Jesus. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). He also says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). So, who can come to Jesus? Only those whom the Father draws to Jesus. What happens to them? Jesus will never cast them out; they will be raised to eternal life on the last day, when the dead are resurrected and judged. On that day, Jesus’ people will live with him forever in a new creation. But those who have rejected him will stand condemned.

So, I don’t think that God wants to save everyone but his hands are tied because he must wait on our free will. I believe we do have a will, but it isn’t free to choose anything. We are only free to choose what we desire, and apart from God’s intervention, we don’t want him.

Another possibility is that God wants everyone to be saved but, for reasons that are hard to understand, he doesn’t plan to save everyone. Some theologians talk of God’s will in terms of his desire and in terms of his decrees, what he has decided will happen. According to this line of thinking, God would like everyone to be saved, but his plan doesn’t include the salvation of everyone. In this case, it’s not because he so values human freedom. In this case, it’s because somehow his plan brings him more glory. Remember that Jesus didn’t truly want his friend Lazarus to die, but he allowed Lazarus to die because it was part of his plan to bring God glory (John 11). In some way, the fact that not all are saved by God is similar. It brings him glory to save only some. If everyone were saved, salvation would be cheap and meaningless.

But perhaps there’s an easier way to understand this passage. Remember that Peter is writing this letter to Christians. He’s writing to those who have faith, as the first verse in the letter states (2 Pet. 1:1). And in verse 9 of this chapter, he says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Why has Jesus not returned yet to put an end to human history as we know it? Because he is patient towards you, Christian! He is giving more time for people to be saved. It might be that when Peter says “any” or “all” he means, “any” of those the Father has given to the Son, or “any” of the ones God has chosen to be saved. And if someone today is legitimately asking, “Why hasn’t God ended it all by now,” the answer is that he wants more people to be saved. If Jesus came back in 1975, I would never have existed. And if Jesus had come back in, say, 1991, I wasn’t truly a Christian then. So, it’s good for me that he hasn’t come back yet. Otherwise, I would be on the wrong side of his judgment.

God is waiting for all who will put faith in Jesus to put faith in Jesus. God the Father gives some to the Son, and those people will never be cast out. Rather, they will be raised up to eternal life. But we also know that faith and repentance are necessary for salvation. We need to trust Jesus while we still have time. That means that we trust that he is the eternal Son of God who became man to live the perfect life that we don’t live, satisfying and fulfilling God’s designs for humanity, and to die a sacrificial, atoning death on the cross, to satisfy God’s righteous wrath against sin. He did that so that everyone who trusts him can be credited with his righteousness and can have their sins paid for. That is the great exchange. When we are united to Jesus, he takes our sin and we take his perfection. If you’re hearing this message now, I urge you to turn to Jesus while there is still time. Jesus may not come soon. But we will die. And whether he comes before or after we die, there will be a time when it is too late to turn to him in faith.

We don’t know when Jesus returns. He will come at an unexpected time. But when he comes, things will be changed. Let’s read verse 10:

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

The day of the Lord is the day when Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead and to restore, or recreate, the universe. And it will come “like a thief.” That’s what both Jesus (Matt. 24:43–44) and Paul (1 Thess. 5:2) said. A thief doesn’t tell you in advance when he’s coming. He comes when you’re not expecting him.

And when the Lord comes, then “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” This seems to mean that the heavenly bodies, such as the sun, moon, and stars, will be removed from the sky, laying the earth bare before the eyes of God, who sees everything that has ever been done (or even thought or desired) on it. I don’t know how literal or figurative this language is. But the idea is that everything is being stripped away. Everything that stands between God and us will be removed. We will stand before God in judgment, with nothing to hide us or protect us. We’ll be like Adam and Eve, naked before God in our sin (Gen. 3:10–11). The only thing that can cover up our sinful deeds, thoughts, and desires is the righteousness of Christ, and we can only wear that if we trust him.

So, we will be judged. What happens next? Let’s read verses 11–13:

11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

What happens is that God will recreate the universe. There will be a new heavens and earth. Some people think the old creation will be totally annihilated and then a new creation will be made. I don’t think that’s the picture we’re getting here. Instead, it seems like the old creation will be refined by fire. It will burn up everything that is sinful, everything that doesn’t align with God’s will and design. Everything that doesn’t glorify God, that doesn’t display his brilliance, will be burned up. All sin and evil will be destroyed. Even Christians will have their character permanently altered so that they will no longer be able to sin. And then Christians will live in a new creation, “in which righteousness dwells.” In the book of Revelation, we’re told that in this new creation, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Other passages in the Bible depict this new creation as a tremendous feast (Isa. 25:6–8). The idea is that the new creation will be a Paradise. It will be perfect. God’s people will live with God there forever.

Peter tells us this in order to motivate us to live “lives of holiness and godliness.” All the passages that speak of Jesus’ second coming seem to do one of three things. One, they comfort us, teaching us that this life, marked by sin and death, will not last forever. God will make everything right someday. Two, they warn us against being complacent and lazy in our faith. If we continue to sin, we may not really trust Jesus. Some mentions of Jesus’ second coming remind us of judgment. All our works will be exposed before God. So, live as if you really are part of God’s family. God uses these warnings as a means to keep believers on the right path. And, three, these passages motivate us to live holy lives now. We don’t want Jesus to return while our lives are a sinful mess.

It seems that Peter wants to comfort his readers against the mocking of these scoffers. But Peter also wants us to motivate us to live in light of eternity. What he’s saying is, “If righteousness dwells in the new creation, and you’re going to live there forever, you better start living righteously now.” He doesn’t say this because we earn salvation. He doesn’t say, “Be good and you’ll get into heaven.” He doesn’t say, “If you’re not righteousness enough, you’ll be cast out.” He’s saying, essentially, “Be holy, for God is holy. You’re going to live in the direct presence of God. Start living that way right now.” That’s why Peter goes on to say, in verse 14: “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.”

Yes, we are saved by God’s grace. In other words, salvation is a gift. A right relationship with God is something that we can’t earn. We are saved by Jesus’ perfect life and atoning death. But salvation also includes being transformed by God. Salvation includes having the Holy Spirit live inside of us, changing us from the inside out. And if we truly belong to Jesus, we’ll obey him. We’ll do this out of love and gratitude, not fear. In the end, we’ll live with Jesus forever in a perfect world. Shouldn’t we want to start living life right now as if we’re already there?

Now that we’ve examined this passage, I want us to think about three ways that it might apply to our lives.

The first is that there will always be scoffers. From the beginning, there have been people who have mocked Christianity. They will always be there. If you’re a Christian, this is something that you must get used to. Don’t let it throw you.

If you’re not a Christian, I would ask you to question why people mock Christianity. People who think the idea of creation or the idea of an apocalypse are silly assume history has always gone on the way it has and that it will continue the way that it has. This is an unwarranted assumption. There are limits to what science and history can tell us. And they can’t predict with absolute certainty what will happen tomorrow. Many people say that Christians are now on the “wrong side of history,” but how can they say that when they don’t know what will happen in the future? How can they say that if they don’t know how the world will end?

This brings me to the second way this passage may apply to us. If you’re not a Christian, this may seem like crazy stuff. But consider this: don’t we all fear being seen for who we are, for being found out? Don’t we all fear that our deepest, darkest secrets will be exposed? Where does that come from? Maybe we fear that because we intuitively know that we will be judged by God. And don’t we really want a final judgment, a final assessment of history, so that evil will be judged? If there is no final assessment of what is right and what is wrong, then our lives will be meaningless. It wouldn’t matter if we were Hitler or Mother Theresa. It’s all the same, because in the end, everyone dies and then the whole universe will decay and everything will be forgotten. But if there is a God who lives forever and who will evaluate everyone’s lives, that means life is meaningful and we will never be forgotten. And, more than that, we have the promise that God will refine and recreate the universe to be perfect. Who wouldn’t want to live there?

If you’re not a Christian, the time to repent is now. You don’t know how long you have to live. God is patient with us, but he will only be patient for so long.

Here’s the third way this passage affects us. If you’re a Christian, live your life in light of eternity. Earlier theologians used to use a Latin phrase, coram Deo, which means “before the face of God.” The idea is that we should live right now as we will in eternity, as if God were right here with us.

Do you want Jesus to return when you’re being lazy? Do you want Jesus to return when it’s been months since you read the Bible on your own, not in church? Do you want Jesus to return when you’re sitting around watching TV and not trying to obey him? Do you want him to come when you’ve been living only for yourself? Do you want him to come when you’re watching pornography? I think we know the answer to those questions.

If we are going to live in a new creation where righteousness dwells for eternity, shouldn’t we start to live righteous lives now? Shouldn’t we focus our lives on things that matter eternally, things that won’t be burned up? We should focus on learning more about God, loving him, and obey him. We should focus on loving other people, which means treating them according to God’s design for human lives, not ours. We should do that now in order to prepare for the time when we will stand before our Lord.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. That sermon, “Jesus Will Come Again,” was preached on May 3, 2015 and can be found here: https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  3. “The Returning King” was preached on January 31, 2016 and can be found here: https://wbcommunity.org/story-of-the-bible.
  4. Those lessons are available here: https://wbcommunity.org/revelation.
  5. See Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jer. 46:10; Ezek. 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obad. 15; Zeph. 1:7, 14; Mal. 4:5. Some of these uses of “the day of the Lord” refer to times of salvation and judgment that would occur in the near future, while others look to the ultimate day of the Lord, which is what Peter has in mind in this chapter.