More and more Christians begin to talk about the last days, prophecies about to be fulfilled, the rapture, the tribulation, and the Lord’s glorious return. Questions abound, various points of view are put forward, yet uncertainty remains. The various versions of how the last days will unfold are all supported by good arguments, making it hard to understand the events that are about to take place.
The topic of the last days is very relevant today as we approach the time about which the Bible has so much to say. Most teachers and students of the Bible agree that we have arrived at the end of the church era, or as the Bible calls it, the times of the Gentiles.
Although I have always been an ardent student of the Bible, I do not consider myself to be a scholar. My approach has always been, as some early church father said, “When the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense lest you end up with nonsense.”
A good place to start a study on the end times is the understanding of imminence – the Bible’s teachings on the Lord’s imminent return. This aspect of the last days is found in various places in the Bible, and understanding it will help us to place events in a more or less chronological order.
Before we will attempt to unravel the events of the last days, we need to first establish the understanding of the Lord’s imminent return, for it will help us to clarify if there will be a rapture of the church, (and if so, when) or if we should prepare to go through the tribulation period of seven years, ending with the Lord’s glorious return to establish His kingdom and reign of 1000 years.
Under the doctrine of imminence we understand that the Lord can return at any moment, without any precondition or signs to be fulfilled for it to happen. We will look at various passages of Scripture to establish this understanding, based on the principle of “on the testimony of two or three witnesses it will be established.” (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16)
Imminence means ready to take place; something that can happen at any time or unexpected. Of course we do expect the Lord to return, but we don’t know when exactly.
In our study of the end times we must make a distinction between prophetic words spoken to the Jews and those spoken to the church. In fact, three people groups will experience the Lord’s return differently, namely the born again, the Jews, and sinners. God has different dealings with these groups, therefore they will experience the events of the last days differently. Also, we will make a distinction between the rapture and the second coming of the Lord, as these are two separate events. We know His second coming will happen after the tribulation and the battle of Armageddon; we can actually calculate that day based on a prophecy in the book of Daniel. More about this day in a future letter.
We begin with the words spoken by the Lord Himself, sometimes in parables, other times more direct. One of the great passages concerning His imminent return is the parable of the ten virgins. Five of them were wise and had their lamps filled with oil, the other five were foolish and had no oil in their lamps as they were all waiting on the bridegroom’s arrival. They were all sleeping, which is a type of the church of today. They did not know when the bridegroom would come as there would be no warning or announcement before he made his appearance. Suddenly, at midnight, when they least expected him, he came; five virgins were ready to meet him, five were not.
The parable of the ten virgins was told against the backdrop of a Jewish wedding of the time. After the bride engaged herself to be married to the groom, he went away to his father’s house to prepare living quarters for him and his bride. Once he finished his work he would go back to fetch her, but she never knew exactly when; they did not have the communication possibilities that we have today, so she had to be ready at all times.
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming. Matthew 25:1-13
The theme of the parable is expecting the Lord’s return at any moment without a warning.
While talking with His disciples about the last days, Jesus openly mentioned the imminence of His coming:
Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Matthew 24:42-44
The apostle Paul also wrote about the imminence of the Lord’s return:
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. 1 Thessalonians 5:1,2
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4
We recognize the season of the last days by the converging of the signs that the Bible mentions in this regard, many of which are happening in our time. We know we are entering into that season, but we don’t know the day of the Lord’s return. Even though we find ourselves in the season of His coming, it will still happen like a thief in the night. The signs were given to us as a warning to be ready so that this day will not overtake us as a thief.
Look at the impact of His imminent return on the life of the believer in the letter of John:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. 1 John 3:2,3
The imminent return of the Lord motivates us to be ready to meet with Him at any moment. If we know we will go through the seven years of tribulation, we might put off holy living until we see the Lord descending on the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:1-11) to set up His kingdom on earth at the end thereof. That is clearly not what the apostle John had in mind when he wrote the verses above.
Next time we will look into the two separate events of the Lord’s return: the meeting with the Lord in the air, and His return to set up His kingdom on earth.
Whether you agree with my view on this event or not, it can never be wrong to live as if Christ will come to take His bride home with Him at any moment. Let us therefore purify ourselves. We see the signs that point to the end of this era all around us; don’t let that day overtake you like a thief in the night!
Read also the first installment of this series here