In infancy, I was adopted into a family that believed in a loving, personal God who created all things. This God shares his story with us in the pages of the Bible. My parents genuinely lived their faith, which played a major role in my eventual acceptance of their core beliefs.

But through the lens of 20/20 hindsight, I have come to question some of the things I was raised to believe—things not essential to my core beliefs. One example is the elevated status of prophecy as it related to the end times.

It’s not that prophecy isn’t important; it’s absolutely vital! Prophecy is one of the key ways we can check the authority and truth of the Bible. But in the good old days of the previous century, the end times sometimes became the focus. And that misses the point.

Looking back, I can see how preaching about the end times was often delivered with an incautious certainty. I can see now where I should have questioned some of the speakers I heard. These were the “prophecy experts”—the ones who spoke excitedly and convincingly about the end times. Specific countries were named as corresponding to nations mentioned in biblical prophecy. Much conjecture took place about just who the antichrist would be. But it wasn’t offered as conjecture; it was preached as gospel. And the time when all these things would happen? Well, surely it would be within just a few years. Five or ten at the most. Certainly no more than twenty. Most of these evangelists didn’t fix a specific date, yet they spoke with certitude. Surely Jesus would return by 1980. 1985. 1993. 1997.

Some of these preachers were crackpots, but others were solidly orthodox in most of their doctrine. Still, they had a strange preoccupation with presenting a gospel that overemphasized peripheral matters. And the people listening in the pews (and buying the best-selling books) tended to focus on the prophecy and not on the point of the prophecy.

The point is this: Jesus is coming back! And it will happen after we see “these things” take place.

When Jesus came to Earth the first time in the form of a baby, a lot of the religious experts missed him. These included many of the people who claimed to be awaiting Messiah. How did this happen? Are there any parallels to today’s situation?

The religious experts in that day knew the truth. King Herod asked them, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” (Matthew 2:3–6, esp v. 4). “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they responded. They were right. Yet they still missed him.

These experts knew the prophecies (Micah 5:2; 2 Samuel 5:2). The pieces of the prophetic puzzle were all there. But they weren’t putting them together correctly, or they disregarded those pieces that didn’t fit what they already “knew” to be true. Their anticipation of the coming Messiah should have changed their hearts, but they were too set in their understanding of the Scriptures. Addicted to the prominence of their positions, these religious leaders refused to acknowledge reality when it didn’t conform to their beliefs.

There is, of course, an important difference between many of today’s “prophecy experts” and the religious leaders of Jesus’s day who refused to recognize him as the Messiah. When Jesus returns again—and he will—many of today’s experts may well recognize any mistakes they have made, accept an appropriate dose of humility, and welcome him. These are the ones who are truly looking for the return of Jesus.

None of this should diminish the many fascinating aspects of biblical prophecy. The very existence of modern-day Israel should give a skeptic pause before dismissing the truth of the Bible. Why should such a small sliver of Middle Eastern land garner so much attention, vitriol, and significance? Perhaps because God told an ancient nomad, “I will make you into a great nation” (Genesis 12:2–3, 7; 15:1–7; 17:1–8). This merits closer scrutiny.

But when God told Abraham, “Through your descendants all the nations of the world will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18), that was a direct reference to Messiah—to Jesus. All of Scripture points to him. The point is Jesus.

When Jesus said he was coming back, he wasn’t providing us with an escapist hope that gets us out of the struggle that is here and now. He gave us a hope both realistic and real. Although the two concepts go hand in hand, there is a subtle distinction: Realism acknowledges reality. It recognizes all the facets, good and bad, of a given situation. Realism is neither fatalistic nor does it lapse into denial of reality’s unpleasant side.

And so Jesus told us, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (the realistic, John 16:32). But he added, “Take heart, because I have overcome the world” (the real).

The reality is Jesus said he is coming back for us. He gave us this great hope:

And then at last, the sign that the Son of Man is coming will appear in the heavens, and there will be deep mourning among all the peoples of the earth. And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with the mighty blast of a trumpet, and they will gather his chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven. (Matthew 24:30–31)

Then Jesus said, “No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows” (v. 36, emphasis added).

Just a little while after Jesus delivered that message, he told his disciples, “There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am” (John 14:2–3).

So what we do know is that Jesus promised to return for his chosen ones. What we don’t know is when. A lot of the other details we can debate, but they pale in comparison to the real hope that Jesus is coming back for us.

The apostle Paul, who had to deal with a bit of fear and alarm in the early church regarding prophecy, reminded his fellow believers of the great hope they had:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–14)

After all of this transpires, “We will be with the Lord forever” (v. 17). That’s our real hope. Such hope enabled Paul to say at the end of his life, “And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on the day of his return” (2 Timothy 4:8). Significantly, he added this: “And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing.”

Paul knew that prophecy is interesting and important. He also knew the One behind the prophecies.

—Tim Gustafson

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