The “last days” began with the first coming of Jesus (Hebrews 1:2). From the time of Jesus’s ascension to the closing of the New Testament canon, the apostles believed Jesus’s return would be “soon” (Acts 1:10–11; Revelation 22:20). They lived with their eyes to the skies. And this belief informed the way they instructed the early Christians to live. For example, Paul says,
Now it’s been nearly two thousand years since Paul urgently put quill to papyrus and wrote those Spirit-inspired words. And here we are. The world has not yet passed away — but about a hundred human generations have. A “very short” time has turned out to be much longer than nearly everyone, except the Father, expected (Mark 13:32).
As a result, many of us struggle to feel the urgency Paul felt, and live like he instructed. How do we live in the last days that have lasted so long and may last for generations longer? The Bible addresses this question clearly so all Christians may know how to live without cynicism or apathy in these last days. We need to remember a few important truths.
Remember We Live in God-Time
The first truth to keep in mind is that God marks time differently than we do. Moses wrote, “A thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4). And the apostle Peter wrote, “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” (2 Peter 3:8). It’s only been two God-days since Jesus ascended and Paul wrote.
The better we know our Bibles, the more we grasp that the Ancient of Days’s soon is typically not our soon (Daniel 7:9; Revelation 22:7). What seems slow to us is not slow to God. Nothing in the New Testament demands that these last days be fewer than they’ve been.
Yes, many people have said and still 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” (2 Peter 3:4). Here we are duly warned that Jesus’s return will seem ridiculously delayed — but he is not late.
Remember the Bridegroom’s Delay
Jesus himself warned us of this. First, he listed off some signs he said must take place before he returned:
- An accrual of very compelling, powerful false prophets who lead many astray on a scale large enough to be recognized by the church everywhere (Matthew 24:4–5, 11, 24–28);
- A remarkable and frightening amount of natural and national calamities (Matthew 24:7–8);
- An unprecedented level of persecution of Christians, along with an imminent threat of global human extinction (Matthew 24:21–22);
- And the “gospel of the kingdom [would] be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matthew 24:14).
Jesus said he would not return until these (and other) conditions are met. Which is why he told the parable of the ten virgins. Jesus described the bridegroom as being “delayed” — so delayed that the wedding attendants “became drowsy” (Matthew 25:5). In other words, Jesus wanted us to expect his coming to take longer than expected.
And it’s important to remember that the Bridegroom “delays” out of unsurpassed love for his bride. Hear his heart: “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” (2 Peter 3:9). The Bridegroom will not allow a single person who is part of his Bride to be abandoned. His is a patient, purposeful, passionate procrastination.
Remember Life Is Short
If Jesus does not return during our lifetimes, we’re all going to meet him soon — sooner than we expect. Most of us will find this meeting as surprising as suddenly seeing him in the clouds.
Listen to this sampling of the Bible’s descriptions of our lifespans: “a breath” (Job 7:7); “a few handbreadths” (Psalm 39:5); “grass” that lasts a day (Psalm 90:5–6); “smoke” (Psalm 102:3); “a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4); “a [vanishing] mist” (James 4:14). We do not know whether our souls will be required of us tonight (Luke 12:20) or whether we will live to see next year (James 4:13–14).
If Jesus’s return is not “very short” to us, our lifespans will be — whether we live to be twenty or ninety. In these last days — the world’s or ours — we need to pray often that God would “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Our days are infected with evil and often consumed with “toil and trouble” (Psalm 90:10); we really need God’s wisdom to spend what brief time we have on what really matters most (Ephesians 5:15–17).
Remember the Fig Leaves
Jesus told another parable to help us to watch the signs of the times with discerning eyes.
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. (Matthew 24:32–33)
We may not know the day or the hour of Jesus’s return, but he expects us to watch for the signs he gave and discern them. He does not intend his coming to be a complete shock to us. He wants us to notice the changing of the leaves:
- Have you noticed the proliferation of influential false prophets (not all religious)?
- Have you noticed the scale of natural and national calamities over the past 120 years and the rising “fear and . . . foreboding of what is coming on the world” (Luke 21:25–26)?
- Have you noticed the increasing levels of global hostility toward Christians as well as the increasing approval of the kinds of depravity Paul said would characterize people living in the last days (2 Timothy 3:1–5)?
- Have you noticed the fresh reminders of the existent powers’ ability to eradicate humanity?
- Have you noticed the unprecedented, nearly incredible advances of the gospel over the past 290 years — especially the past 120 years? There’s been nothing like the explosive growth of the Christian movement since 1900 in the history of religion — all the more amazing when we consider the ethnic, cultural, and geographical diversity of this growth.
Are you watching the leaves?
Watch, Pray, and Travel Light
“Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). Jesus meant for his return to feel potentially imminent in each generation, while also helping each generation anticipate his potential delay.
Jesus is coming back when the God-days are full, when the conditions are met, when his bride is ready, and when the summer leaves have reached their peak. It won’t be long before God’s soon is surprisingly soon to us. But even if we meet death before we meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17), we will meet him soon.
Living the last days now is not really any different than it was for the first-generation Christians. We stay ready the same way they were to stay ready:
- We watch the signs.
- We pray for laborers to be sent into the harvest (Luke 10:2) — and say with Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8) — and pray for the Lord to return (Revelation 22:20).
- We encourage one another with our hope of resurrection and the Lord’s return (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
- We travel light. We are exiles and sojourners here. We must not encumber ourselves with unnecessary baggage and treasures here because our real homeland and our real Treasure is up ahead (Matthew 6:19–20). And that’s where we want our hearts to be (Matthew 6:21).
Four thousand years ago, our ancestors in the faith began to live like “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). That was two thousand years before Jesus came and launched the last days. And we who live two thousand years after he came are no less strangers and exiles, because we too “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). And we’re going to be there soon — sooner than we expect.