Living today for that day

By Stephen Seamands

In his Psalms of My Life, writer and editor Joseph Bayly offers this simple prayer: “Lord Christ, your servant Martin Luther said he only had two days on his calendar: today and ‘that day.’ And that’s what I want too. And I want to live today for that day.”

I like that prayer because in relation to Christ’s second coming, it reflects the teaching of the New Testament writers and Jesus himself. Rather than causing us to abandon this world or leading to an unhealthy interest in speculation about the future, they believed a growing awareness of the certain promise and the approaching nearness of that future day should stimulate, provoke and encourage Christians in the living of the present day. Consider then some of the ways they believed that our awareness of that day should impact our living of this one.

First, it should provoke us to holiness and godliness. As British Bible teacher David Pawson notes in When Jesus Returns, “The New Testament grounds its appeal for many qualities of sainthood on the fact of Jesus’ return. Sobriety, fidelity, moderation, patience, sincerity, obedience, diligence, purity, godliness, brotherly love—all these and more are stimulated by the thought of seeing Jesus again.” Notice for example, how immediately after the apostle John declares that when Christ appears we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2), he draws out the implication for us now: “And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3 NLT).

Not only does this apply to our personal lives, but to Christian communities as well. For the Church is destined to be a bride “without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish…holy and without fault” (Ephesians 5:27). When Christ returns, John envisions a great marriage feast of Christ the bridegroom and his church, the bride (Revelation 19:7-9). His bride will have “prepared herself” and been given “the finest of pure white linen to wear,” which represents “the good deeds of God’s holy people.”

If the bridegroom, the church, will be prepared then, shouldn’t we as a community of believers be preparing now? That’s the force of logic the writer of Hebrews uses to stir and provoke his hearers and readers. “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25, italics mine).

Second, the certainty of his return should move us to faithful service. Following his discussion of signs of his second coming, Jesus then offers three parables concerning his return—the parable of the householder, the ten bridesmaids, and the talents (Matthew 24: 45-25:30), which follow the same plot and make the same point. Someone of power and significance has gone away who is certain to return, though no one knows exactly when. In each parable, there are also those who are wise in preparing for the uncertain time of the return, and those who are foolish and don’t prepare.

Those who are “wise”, however, are not deemed so because they are able to figure out the exact time the master or the bridegroom will return. Their wisdom is rooted in their faithful, consistent service and actions. “They behaved the same way in the absence of the key figure as they would in his presence,” observes David Pawson. “Even a prolonged absence made no difference; they were fully prepared for that. They proved their trustworthiness.” Faithful service to the Lord, then, is essential in preparing for his return. And being certain of the promise of that return—not knowing its exact time—is what produces it.

These parables also remind us that faithful service is about persistence and faithfulness, regardless of how significant or insignificant our service appears to be. The master commended the servants who were faithful in little things (Matthew 25:21) and the King welcomed the righteous who did things for the least of these (Matthew 25:40). Regardless, then, how significant or insignificant their service, on the day of his return declares C.S. Lewis, “Happy are those whom [he] find[s] laboring in their vocations, whether they were merely going out to feed the pigs or laying good plans to deliver humanity a hundred years hence from some great evil…No matter, you were at your post when the inspection came.”

Third, anticipation of Christ’s return should shape our understanding and engagement in the mission of the church. Our mission, our task, is grounded in the promise of his return and his subsequent renewal of all things. On that day the new creation already begun in the resurrection of Christ will be consummated. There will be a new heavens and a new earth. Death and decay, sickness and hunger, slavery and injustice will be no more, and God will fill all creation with his glory and righteousness.

Our mission then, is to work toward that end. If that’s the world’s future, we should be doing everything we can now, working with God in the power of the Spirit, to get the world ready by moving it toward that future. We should be working to eliminate all the evils that on that day will finally be eliminated and seeking to extend the horizons of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Again, this doesn’t mean we naively assume we can “bring in the Kingdom” like the old liberal social gospel assumed. No. New creation will never come out of the old. Jesus himself must return to make all things new. But we can and should engage in work and mission in line with new creation, which moves us “toward the Kingdom.” That’s what the church is called to do, and regardless of the particular shape it takes in light of our particular and varied callings, we can rest assured our work and our efforts in that direction will not be in vain.

In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright sums it up eloquently: “Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creations; and of course, every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrection power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world…means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.”

Fourth, anticipating his return encourages us to endure hardship patiently. As James writes to believers undergoing suffering and persecution, “Be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return. Consider the farmers who patiently wait for the rains in the fall and the spring…You too, must be patient. Take courage, for the coming of the Lord is near” (James 5:7-8).

Likewise, in encouraging his readers to wait patiently for Christ’s return, Peter reminds them that the Lord is not really being slow about his promise. In his time frame, a day can be a thousand years and vice versa. Actually, the Lord himself is being patient. In the interim, God is giving people time to repent and time to be saved. We should be patient too as we wait for this to play out (2 Peter 3:3-15).

The connection between the second coming and patient endurance is also particularly emphasized throughout the book of Revelation. John is writing to Christians who are experiencing severe persecution, some will even die for their faith. At the very beginning, he introduces Jesus with a bold, emphatic announcement heralding his return: “Look! He comes with the clouds of heaven (Revelation 1:7). Then John introduces himself: “I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in God’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us” (Revelation 1:9). Jesus comes with the clouds of heaven; John is called to patient endurance. The two—his coming, our patient endurance—are juxtaposed together throughout the book. The promise and anticipation of the one gives power and strength for the other.

Finally, anticipating his return should fill us with joyful confidence. After all, it’s not primarily the end of the world we are waiting for, not even the resurrection of our bodies, but Jesus himself. The second coming is ultimately about a person, not an event. Christ parousia has to do with his personal presence. No wonder Paul calls it our blessed hope (Titus 2:13). Because we know Who is coming back we are full of confidence. There’ll be no need to shrink back from him in fear or shame (1 John 2:28).

Yes, we rejoice that by faith we know him now, and we experience his personal presence through Word, Spirit, and Sacrament. But now we know in a glass darkly; then we will know face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). On that day our faith shall be made sight and we will know as we are known. If we are rejoicing now, then what a day of rejoicing that will be!

This last point answers a question my wife, Carol, asked me about the second coming recently: Why is it that most Christians today, unlike the early Christians, don’t really seem to long for and anticipate the Lord’s return? Why don’t we hardly ever pray like they did, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). Eager expectation of Christ’s return is a consistent mark of vital New Testament Christianity (Philemon 3:20; Titus 2:13; Jude 21). Why then is it lacking among so many Christians today?

Sadly, the absence of our eager expectation of his return is, I believe, the measure of our contentment with the absence of Christ. That’s what it finally boils down to. We just don’t miss Jesus enough, long to be with him enough, or desire enough that he be with us. And for that we need to repent and pray, imploring Jesus to forgive us and to increase our love-passion for him.

In Christina Rosetti’s inspiring poem, “After Communion,” notice how the wonder and the joy of her profound relationship with Christ now, moves her to wonder what it will like then. Notice too, how it causes eager expectation and anticipation to rise within her:

Why should I call Thee Lord, Who art my God?

Why should I call Thee Friend, Who art my Love?

Or King, Who art my very Spouse above?

Or call Thy Sceptre on my heart Thy rod?

Lo, now Thy banner over me is love,

All heaven flies open to me at Thy nod:

For Thou has lit Thy flame in me a clod,

Made me a nest for dwelling of Thy Dove.

What wilt Thou call me in our home above

Who now hast called me friend? How will it be

When Thou for good wine settest forth the best?

Now Thou dost bid me come and sup with Thee,

Now Thou dost make me lean upon Thy breast:

How will it be with me in time of Love?

Experiencing the Risen Christ now, knowing his banner over us is love, being captured by his affection for us, leaning upon his breast like John did during the Last Supper—surely, that will cause eager expectation and anticipation to rise within us. It makes us long for more of his presence and stirs up our desire for him to come back. Why? So we can know him more and experience more of his love that surpasses understanding (Ephesians 3:19).

And that, in turn, inspires and encourages us in living today—in holiness, faithfulness, mission, endurance, and confidence—for that day.

Stephen Seamands is Professor of Christian Doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of numerous books, including Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Return, from which this essay was adapted with permission of InterVarsity Press, 2012).