READ : James 5:7-9
How does the thought of Jesus’ return at the end of the age affect your living today?
A Central Conviction
One of the central convictions of the New Testament, perhaps the most startling of all, is that Jesus of Nazareth will one day return to the earth. So common was this belief among the early Christians that the apostles were rarely concerned to convince anyone about it. They straighten out errors about the Lord’s return in the minds of the faithful, discourage them from irresponsible waiting, and give explanations for its delay, but they seldom defend the conviction itself. For the most part, they simply assume it.
James, the brother of our Lord, offers a classic example of this attitude. In dealing with the sufferings and conflicts of everyday life, he appeals repeatedly, almost incidentally, to the fact of Christ’s return. Listen to these words from chapter 5:
Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble, brothers and sisters, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors.
Three times in this brief passage of admonition, James refers to the parousia, the second coming of Jesus: “Be patient until the coming of the Lord . . . Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand . . . Behold, the Judge is standing at the doors.”
I wonder if that seems to you as strange, as mystifying, as it did to me when I first heard it. Jesus Christ, coming back to this earth? Whoever heard of such a thing? I hadn’t, until the gospel was presented to me in my high school years. I didn’t know what to make of that astounding notion. It certainly seemed different from what most people around me were expecting the future to bring. I heard people dreaming of unlimited progress and others outlining various stages of planetary doom. But a grand finale to history featuring Jesus was something new to me and hard to accept at first.
It’s very difficult for any of us, I suppose, to envision the end of history. It’s somewhat like trying to grasp the limits of space. We can’t imagine something like space as having any limit. If it did end, what would lie beyond it? On the other hand, our minds can’t conceive of its going on infinitely either. To think of human history, either as going on and on, or as having some definite conclusion, involves us in a similar problem. In those musings, we quickly find ourselves beyond our depth. We stand at the gates of mystery.
The New Testament makes no effort to remove that tension. No detailed explanations are given of the Lord’s coming and its accompaniments. We have no definite time frame for its happening. The wonder of God’s future is allowed to stand.
What Can We Know About Jesus’ Return?
Of some things regarding the Lord’s coming we can be sure. For one, it will be a personal, bodily coming to earth. The New Testament speaks at times of other comings of the Lord in the midst of history. He comes to receive his faithful followers at the moment of their death. He comes to the world in visitations of judgment and to his people in blessed seasons of revival. He is present now by the power of his Spirit in our midst. But his coming at the last day will be more than a spiritual presence. Shortly after his resurrection, when Jesus ascended to heaven, this message was given to his followers: “This same Jesus, shall come . . .” (see Acts 1:11). This same Jesus, the one born in Bethlehem, who played in Nazareth, who preached in Galilee, who died in Jerusalem, he will come. After his resurrection, he had been different, remember, no longer subject to the same human limitations. But he was still recognizable. He could walk. He could be touched. He could eat. He could speak. This is the Jesus who departed from the earth once and who once again will stand upon it.
The New Testament also insists that his coming will be visible. “This same Jesus,” we are told, “who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Jesus himself had stressed that fact. He warned his followers against rumors that he had come in secret. “Lo, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Lo, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; if they say, ‘Lo, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Matt. 24:26-27). Something far more wonderful than worldwide television coverage will attend his advent. On the last great day, we learn, “every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7). All the world’s peoples shall “look on him whom they have pierced” (Zech. 10:10).
That coming, we learn further, will be inconceivably glorious. Once he came in humiliation, taking the form of a slave, made in the likeness of men. As the prophet said of the suffering servant, “He had no form nor comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isa. 53:2).
But when he comes again, it will be with power and great glory. The apostle John caught a glimpse of that in the visions of the Revelation:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems . . . On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords . . .” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Revelation 19:11-12,16; 22:20
Help to Endure
Now James appeals to this tremendous event when he calls his Christian brothers and sisters to “endure.” Endurance is essentially “staying power,” the ability to bear up under pressure. Endurance is that inner strength that does not easily succumb under suffering. To endure is to go through the worst that life brings and not give up.
God’s true servants, in the first century and now, must often pass through severe affliction. James wants them in their darkest hours to remember the Lord’s coming. “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.” It’s as though he says, “Hang on! Help is on the way!” “Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
Farmers in Palestine depend on two rainy seasons. The “former rains” come in October. They moisten ground which has been hardened almost into rock by the blazing summer sun. They make it possible for the workers to plow and for the stony earth to receive the seed. The “latter rains” come in the spring time. They refresh the earth before the summer drought and ripen the long-awaited harvest.
The farmer plows and plants in hope. He waits in faith for that on which his life depends. The rains have come before; he trusts that they will come again. Far more faithful than these returning showers and regular harvest is the promise of the Lord, “I will come again.” For the believer, that means the end of sorrow, the fruition of hope. We can take heart when we know that his returning draws nigh because, as the apostle put it, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory which is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). The coming of the Lord is a grand, compelling incentive to hold on.
A Call to Forbearance
And that same hope calls us to be patient and kind with each other. Patience is the special grace we need in our interactions with others. While to endure means not to despair when we are burdened, to be patient means not to be vengeful when offended. James says, “Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged.” Don’t speak against one another. Don’t harbor grudges. Don’t be quick to take offense or slow to forgive. To assume the role of a bitter, critical judge is to risk judgment ourselves. As James puts it, “the Judge is standing at the doors.”
That’s a vivid image, isn’t it? Before the door of every person’s life, the Judge of all the earth is standing. If we die before he comes, we pass through a door of death to the place where he is waiting. Or when he returns to earth, he will open a door and come through it to reckon with us. In either case, we soon will stand before him.
Jesus the Judge
Is it shocking for you to think that Jesus will be your Judge? Isn’t he the compassionate Savior? Didn’t he come to die for us so that our sins could be forgiven? Didn’t he bear the stroke of judgment due to us? Yes, he did. And if you are trusting Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you’ve welcomed him as the Lord of your life, then you can know that the issue of your salvation has already been settled. You are justified freely by his grace, acquitted at his judgment seat. If you haven’t taken that crucial step, if you haven’t made that commitment, will you do so today? Will you trust as your Redeemer that one who is to come? Will you invite him today into your heart and life?
But James is pointing here to another kind of judgment that Christians face. “We must all,” as the apostle Paul put it, “stand before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10). What we have built on the one foundation of Jesus Christ makes a difference. If what we have built stands the test, we’ll have a reward. If the fire of God’s trial consumes it, we will somehow suffer loss.
James wants to remind us of our accountability to God for the use we have made of our opportunities, our abilities, our resources. We will answer also to our Lord and Judge for the way in which we have treated those whom he calls brethren. Let this call you to graciousness. “The Judge is standing at the doors.”
Perhaps all of this leaves you somewhat confused or unimpressed because you aren’t sure about the heart of the story. You’re not convinced that Jesus is coming back. Maybe you heard about the distinguished Jewish rabbi who publicly expressed the view that Jesus may have been raised from the dead. He didn’t yet accept him as the Messiah or the Son of God, but he said it was well within the Jewish tradition to believe in the God who raises the dead. He saw the resurrection as the most reasonable way to account for the amazing transformation of Jesus’ disciples after they had been so discouraged at his crucifixion.
Many of the rabbis’ colleagues were alarmed and scandalized at this conclusion. One of them said, “If I believed in the resurrection of Jesus, I’d be baptized tomorrow.” Maybe that rabbi, though less believing, was more consistent than the first. The point is that the evidence in history for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is seen by even a non-Christian as very strong. And if Jesus did rise from the dead as he promised he would, we have an exceedingly powerful witness to Jesus’ truthfulness. The same Jesus who said he would conquer death said also that he would come again. You may safely trust him. If you take him now at his word, you may not know what’s coming tomorrow, but you’ll be sure about the last of all tomorrows. Then, come what may, you’ll be able to “hang in there.” Come, Lord Jesus!