How We Keep Watch: Why Date Setting Fails

[This article was originally written in 2013 with significant updates present day, in 2019. It is far more relevant today than 6 years ago. I challenge you, if you are a believer in the Second Coming of Christ, to read the full article and consider its implications for your relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.]

False Prophets Pick Dates

When any notable advocate for the apocalyptic teaching of the Bible stoops to predict a date for ‘the end of the world as we know it,’ it peaks the interest of the press.  This past month we saw yet another example of a disreputable ‘date-setting’ attempt but this time it was promoted with great media fan-fare, promotions on ‘wrapped buses,’ and blatantly worded billboards.  It got everyone talking about whether the end of the world was imminent.  It refreshed recent memories of the 2012 movies and books.  Having authored a book on the subject, Decoding Doomsday [this was written in 2012] I was asked to do about a dozen interviews on radio stations across the country to speak to the May 21st date (of 2012) set by Harold Camping.  Of course, I responded by predicting that Camping’s prediction would fail.  Not only was it a direct contradiction of the words of the Bible that we will not know the day nor the hour of the Lord’s return, I pointed out how unbiblical his methodology was.  A mixture of numerology, math, and wishful thinking, Camping was doomed in trying to identify doomsday.

Given the hard lessons learned throughout our Christian history from many failures to predict the date, should Christians still pay attention to the apocalypse?  Is the subject of the end of the world really relevant to Christianity today?  Haven’t we moved past such alarmist notions in our modern world?  Furthermore, since the prophecies of the Bible are so cryptic, isn’t it foolish to argue that the apocalypse is an important element to the Christian faith?

Of course, Christians who take the Bible seriously believe the answer is a firm “No.”  If anything, the topic of doomsday and the Second Coming of Christ is now, more than ever, ‘front and center.’  My position has been clearly stated in all of my books: Christianity is an apocalyptic faith.  By this I mean that at its core biblical Christianity asserts history will soon be transformed by God’s intervention in a visible, world-changing way.

There are various arguments, indeed whole schools of thought, concerning exactly when Jesus will return and under what circumstances. These are important matters; but none more important than the question of whether or not He will physically return. This reappearance is scheduled at the culmination of history.  Consequently, any ‘gospel’[1] that obscures the apocalyptic message of Jesus Christ and His disciples has no sincere claim to continuity with New Testament teaching.

Biblical Themes That Set Our Priorities In Keeping Watch

The essence of this argument builds upon numerous and plainly stated biblical themes.  I cite five of them as follows.

First of all, the vital announcement of Jesus Christ was, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent ye and believe in the gospel” (See Mark 1: 15). During the past two centuries, theologians turned this proclamation into symbolic mishmash. That might be fine if Jesus didn’t mention Hebrew Scripture to authenticate His ministry. But he did so repeatedly. Jesus knew why He was here. He clearly regarded Himself as the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. After John the Baptist had been imprisoned and was somewhat demoralized, John asked his disciples to inquire of Jesus if He was the ‘anointed one’ or should the Jews be looking for some other. The account in Luke records the unmistakable answer – Jesus quoting messianic predictions in the book of Isaiah:

And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, “Art thou he that should come or look we for another?” When the men were come unto him, they said, “John [the] Baptist hath sent us unto thee, saying, “Art thou he that should come or look we for another?” And in that same hour He cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits; and unto many that were blind He gave sight. Then Jesus answering said unto them, “Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in Me” (Luke 7:19-21).

Scores of other passages could be quoted demonstrating that Jesus was crystal clear about His purpose. While the phrase Kingdom of God is present in 69 New Testament verses, the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, expresses the exact phrase 15 times.  Jews understood the Kingdom in the Hebrew context of the Davidic Kingdom.  While the ‘dying Messiah’ contradicted the Jewish hope for a conquering Christ, Christianity insists it’s through His vicarious sufferings and death the righteous ‘enter into this Kingdom.’  Christians believe the Hebrew Scriptures plainly describe both aspects of the Messiah.[2] But it’s no surprise that the oppressed Jews of Jesus’ day much preferred the Conquering Christ to the Suffering Servant. The Hebrews had been suffering too long already!

The second factor demanding we accept the literal Second Advent of Jesus Christ stems from the Savior’s dispatch to Heaven. At the beginning of the Book of Acts we read the dramatic account of His ascension. A cloud approached and took him away.  Then angels appeared, asking His disciples (paraphrasing), “Why are you all standing around, looking up into the sky? This same Jesus will descend, just as you have seen him ascend.  It will be in the very same manner.” (See Acts, Chapter 1) What did the angels mean?  Simply this: “Get busy; there’s no time to waste. Stop being awed by what you have just seen – remarkable though it may be. Your mission launches now!”  From the very beginning, the growth of the Church of Jesus Christ was predicated upon the imminent return of their Savior.  His next advent could not have been more foundational.

However, the disciples remembered Jesus’ instruction to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit before kicking off their efforts. “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).  To be effective in their mission, they needed a power boost!   We should also make careful note that while this descent of the Spirit of Christ was a ‘second coming’ of sorts, it wasn’t in the same manner.  The disciples weren’t confused on this matter. Peter, their leader, indicated the miraculous signs witnessed in the streets of Jerusalem (the ‘unlearned’ speaking in tongues they did not know – real languages, not gibberish – telling of the wonderful acts of God), revealed to his audience that they lived in the last days just as the prophet Joel had predicted (Acts 2:6-18, Joel 2:28). Having received the Spirit of Christ, Peter preached the need for repentance, particularly since the Son of God had been crucified by the country’s leadership (Acts 2:22, 23).  The Messiah, the one for whom they had been waiting for over 1,000 years, was murdered through their actions. Peter pushed his finger directly into the wound.  This was an issue of national shame.  The crowd reacted with horror.  What should they do?  “Repent” he said, “And be baptized for the remission of your sins and ye shall receive the Holy Ghost [Spirit]” (Acts 2:38).  Jesus’ death was all part of God’s preordained plan just as Peter had conveyed. However, he explained this same Messiah would return again – the next time bringing the Kingdom in full force.  As a result of his inspired preaching, 3,000 persons were added to their number.

In addition to the evangelistic directive of Jesus to his disciples, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations,” (Matthew 28:19) which as history records resulted in “the world turned upside down,”[3] the gospels weave a prediction throughout their accounts (and later in the epistles of the Apostles):  History will culminate in a time of great tribulation. There will be distressing realities of earthquakes, plagues, famine, and portents so awesome that “men’s hearts [will] fail them for fear” of what is soon to come upon the earth (Luke 21:26). This is the third major reason for acknowledging the importance of the Second Advent of Jesus Christ:  The Apostles warn us we must prepare for the coming cataclysms.  Soon God will judge humankind for its wickedness.

Getting Ready for the Rapture – Whenever

But importantly, in this context, Jesus makes a remarkable commitment to His followers, contingent upon their actions: “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36).   Jesus tells of a way to escape from these horrors. But His disciples must do something to qualify. While there is great debate about the exact timing of His coming for “those found worthy,[4] His promise remains; before the worst happens, Jesus ‘catches up’ His followers and escorts them to heaven.  Paul clarifies the manner of how Jesus returns for His followers: “Then we which are alive (and) remain shall be caught up (harpazo in the Greek and rapturae in Latin) together with them (the dead) in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: And so shall we ever be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:17).  The gospel of Christ and its salvation proclaims deliverance from the wrath of God to come (I Thessalonians 1:10, Romans 5:9).

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

Many know this event – the Rapture – as “the blessed hope of the Church” (See Titus 2:13).  Even for those who deny that this amazing event could happen at any moment (but steadfastly believe Christ will return to this earth), the Rapture remains a sacred promise of Jesus.  Christ’s coming for His church stands unquestionably as a major component of His teaching and of all His apostles. [5]  There is little dispute to this fact. “Therefore, you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.  He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:7, 8; I John 4:17, New International Version). 

Spiritual gifts are given to enable us to be ready.  And Paul promises that the Holy Spirit will keep us secure in our faith until the end.  But what does Christ command His followers to do in the meantime?  This is the issue of “until.”  This comprises the fourth key reason to believe in His imminent return:  Jesus commands us “to watch.” Being watchful is not optional.  Many times, in His teaching, Jesus warned His followers to remain alert:

  • Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning (Mark 13:35)
  • Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come (Matthew 24:42)
  • Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. (Matthew 25:13)

As Jesus taught, when the watchful see, “these things begin to come to pass, then [they will] look up for [their] redemption draweth nigh.” (Luke 21:28) For those who are “children of the day” (according to Paul) ought not to be surprised by what happens.  They should recognize the signs of His soon coming (I Thessalonians 5:5).  It’s this same missive Paul delivered to his churches.  He instructs his disciples not to falter in upholding its truthfulness: “Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” (II Thessalonians 2:14, 15).

It Isn’t Just Justification

Finally (and fifthly!), Christ’s return completes a vital aspect of the salvation Christians will enjoy. Salvation commences with the resurrection from the dead, but concludes with the glorification of the body in the very same manner and form as the body of the ascended Christ:

  • Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is (I John 3:2)
  • For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate [to be] conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29)
  • Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (II Thessalonians 2:14)

Until the bodies of those who believe are made like His, their current experience of salvation is but a sampling.  Much more exists to discover and experience. Christ’s gospel promises this.

When we explore the many lessons inherent in the New Testament – that is, those doctrines which comprise its teaching – it becomes apparent how most of its promises are staked upon the coming Kingdom to achieve their final fulfillment. Today, as Paul says, “We see as in a mirror darkly, but then face-to-face” (I Corinthians 13:12). What we observe are mere shadows of what is to come. Moreover, should we finally see things as they actually are (in the world to come), Christians will learn what our former, ‘clandestine’ mission meant.  By shining as ‘lights in the world’ and ‘salting the circumstances’ they sought to embody the vision of this new world coming – the Kingdom promised by Jesus Christ – who guaranteed its achievement “in the fullness of time” (Ephesians 1:10; Galatians 4: 4).  But until that happens, we are to model the Kingdom now!

Today, we watch God’s stopwatch ticking toward its apex. Time has all but run its course.  The apocalypse approaches, to use Bob Dylan’s dramatic image, like “A slow train comin’.”  The questions we should each ask of ourselves:   “Does its proximity alter the path we choose today?  Should we spend our time searching for the date of His return, or instead, ensure our lives give witness that we are ready for His return? Is keeping watch to become our spiritual pastime, or is it instead the underlying motive to be salt and light?  Is date-setting being salt and light? Or is it a distraction from our mission?

My point of view has been and remains that we should live as if each day is the day of the Lord’s return. We live one day at a time and we continue steadfast in our conviction that Jesus is coming soon.  But we must be cautious that we do not become so consumed with the date of His coming that we miss the qualifications for being called – that we be worthy of His calling by being salt and light. This is not salvation by works. Rather, it is demonstrating our salvation by what we do with our lives. Salvation must be followed “by good works that God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) Faith without works is dead. (James 2:16-18). Because of our Protestant perspective, we too easily rationalize the words of James to be less than literally true.  Granted, we are justified by grace through faith.  However, our ‘deeds’ are a necessary part of our preparation, of proving our faith to be real, of demonstrating true repentance from our former way of life, of being worthy of His calling. “Produce fruit that is consistent with repentance!” (Matthew 3:8, ISV)  So how do we synthesize these apparently conflicting truths?

Paul’s teaching of Philippians, chapter 3, establishes the balance of seeking the high calling of Heaven while also recognizing that we are already citizens of Heaven by what Christ has done. In short, we must “live up to” the High Calling.  We read:

I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have laid hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should embrace this point of view. And if you think differently about some issue, God will reveal this to you as well.  Nevertheless, we must live up to what we have already attained. (New King James)

Then, we will be glorified as Paul states at the end of Philippians 3 (Phil 3:20-21):

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.

Getting Our Balance Back

If you have not read (and studied) THE REVEALING by Gary Huffman and myself, you are missing out on perhaps the most vital set of truths every Christian should know. Failure to appreciate what Paul asserts in Philippians 3:20-21, robs you of understanding the vastness of the promises of God “us ward” to those who believe.  Christians understand and embrace only one-third of their salvation – justification. However, we undervalue phase two – sanctification – and we continue to ignore and fail to understand the third and final phase, glorification, and what it actually teaches about what happens upon our resurrection or rapture. To be sure, Philippians 3 stresses all three aspects of our salvation and how “they hang together.”

Do you have this balanced perspective?  Do you minimize the importance of sanctification? Do you realize the vast riches awaiting us upon our ‘heavenly calling?’ If you do not have this completed view of the meaning of salvation, you need to spend time addressing this shortcoming. It should take precedence over wondering what the date is when the Lord will return! Otherwise, as the Scripture asserts, the Day of the Lord will not be a day of salvation, but a day of darkness and gloom.

Woe to you who long for the Day of the LORD! What will the Day of the LORD be for you? It will be darkness and not light. It will be like a man who flees from a lion only to encounter a bear, or who enters his house and rests his hand against wall, only to have a serpent bite him. Will not the Day of the LORD be darkness and not light, even gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20, Berean Study Bible)

If you would like to embark on a study of achieving this balanced view our salvation, I encourage you to get a copy today of THE REVEALING.  You can obtain a copy from my website store this weekend for $12.00 (an $8.00 discount).  Or purchase the printed or eBook format from Amazon.com. The eBook of THE REVEALING is only $4.99 this weekend on Amazon. If you want to purchase the paperback, you can obtain the eBook for free (for the Kindle version). If you have already purchased the paperback from Amazon, you can obtain the eBook for free now.

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NOTES

[1] Gospel in the Greek is evangelion, meaning ‘good tidings’ or ‘good news.’

[2] Read Chapter 53 of Isaiah and Psalm 22 to see this suffering Christ expressed in the Old Testament.

[3] Another key point being that it was the anticipation of a soon return which drove the disciples forward with such fervor. Believing in the Second Coming as an imminent event implies “Time is short. We best get the word out to everyone as quickly as we can.” This mindset inspired and energized the actions of the early church.  If they had been told that Christ wouldn’t return for more than 2,000 years, you can imagine that their motivation would be muted.

[4] To be found worthy, we are required to “receive Him” (John 1:12). We are saved by His grace through our faith, a gift of God, not as a result of anything we have done (Romans 3:24). But is there more?  Is “just believe” enough?  Or is the matter of “how we believe” and what we do as a result also vitally important?

[5] Many committed believers in Christ believe the Rapture happens immediately before Jesus physically comes back to the earth, specifically at the Battle of Armageddon. Most believers today, however, believe His return is some period before, from a few months to a few years. Indeed, the most common view is still at least seven years before.