A GEICO commercial from last year portrays a spy fleeing from armed men on a roof as well as from a black helicopter approaching him from the air. His phone rings as his adversaries appear ready to capture him or perhaps kill him. Thinking the call is from those coming to rescue him, he answers the phone shouting, “Where are you?”
We then see his mom relaxing by a pool as she calmly talks to him about his dad’s battle with squirrels in the attic. As she continues talking to her exasperated son, the narrator interjects, “If you’re a mom, you call at the worst time. It’s what you do.”
The New Testament cries out with a similar message echoing the words of the narrator in the GEICO commercial, “As followers of Jesus we live in eager anticipation of his soon appearing. It’s what we do.”
The Eager Expectancy of the New Testament Saints
The expectation of the early saints for Jesus’ return jumps off the pages of the New Testament.
In Philippians 3:20-21 Paul wrote this, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.” The word the apostle uses for “await” points to an “intense anticipation” or an “excited expectation” of a future event.[i]
Paul says that as citizens of “heaven” we eagerly anticipate this time when the Lord will change our perishable bodies into glorious ones like that of our Savior. His words imply this event we call the rapture could happen at any moment.
Luke used the same Greek word for “await” in Acts 17:16 to describe Paul’s restless “waiting” in Athens for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him. After the apostle’s troubling experiences in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, he yearned for his traveling companions to rejoin him. It’s with this same intense longing of the soul that the apostle characterizes the waiting of the Philippian saints for the Lord’s appearing.
In 1 Corinthians 1:7 we see this same excited expectation on the part of the believers in Corinth, “. . . as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul used the same word here for “wait” as he did in Philippians 3:20 to indicate his readers’ heartfelt desire for Jesus’ appearing.
In 1 Corinthians 16:22 Paul prayed, “Our Lord, come.” The word for this phrase in the original text is the Aramaic “Maranatha.” This word represents “a petition to Christ that He should return now—at any moment. Paul used it in this letter to Greek-speaking (mostly Gentile) Christians in Corinth because it expressed an idea that had become universal in the early church. Christ could come at any moment, and Christians called upon him to do so.”[ii]
Jesus’ return for his church was not just something New Testament saints believed might happen at any moment; they prayed for it to happen. “Maranatha” expressed their prayer for Christ to come soon and take them back to his Father’s house in heaven (see John 14:2-3).
However, many argue against this apparent New Testament expectancy because it’s already been two thousand years and the Lord has not yet returned. How could it possibly have been imminent during the time of the apostles?
On the other hand, what would have happened if Jesus had told his disciples it would be many centuries or much longer before he returned? What if the passages we read about Jesus’ imminent appearing for his church instead indicated an exceedingly long delay before the rapture?
Can you imagine the impact of such a message? Would the disciples have had the same urgency to proclaim the Gospel to the world? I don’t think so. Would any generation of the church afterward have viewed the Lord’s return with even the remotest sense of urgency? I can’t envision that happening!
For the prospect of Jesus’ return for his church to encourage and motivate believers of all ages, it had to always be an imminent possibility.
Although the New Testament saints did not see the realization of their hope, their anticipation kept their eyes focused on the comforting truth that someday they would be with Jesus with glorified bodies experiencing unsurpassed and unending joy. In the midst of persecution and suffering, they looked up in anticipation that they might soon be with the Lord experiencing His comforting presence.
What about Us?
What about us living in the twenty-first century almost two thousand years later? Should we have the same eager anticipation of Jesus’ appearing to take us home? Yes! It’s important today for several reasons.
First, as I wrote about in a recent article, the signs tell us the prophesied tribulation is rapidly approaching. If the day of the Lord is so close, then the rapture must be at hand since it happens before the start of the seven-year tribulation. This means it’s all the more important that we are ready for Jesus’ return.
Second, living with the expectation that Jesus could show up at any moment has a purifying impact on the believer (see 1 John 3:2-3). What do we want to be doing when we suddenly find ourselves in the presence of our glorious and holy Savior? Will our behavior at that moment cause us to shrink from him in shame at his coming? (1 John 2:28). Living in light of Jesus’ soon return motivates us toward holiness as we grow in our awareness that He could show up at any moment.
Third, such anticipation keeps our hearts focused on a better day. I know and hear of so many believers who are barely hanging on due to affliction, suffering, and deep sorrow. After writing about the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, Paul ended with these words in verse 18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” The hope of Jesus’ soon appearing is meant to be a source of encouragement that we share with other believers!
We may already believe this life is not all we have, but once the reality that we could be with Jesus in the next moment grips our hearts, it inspires us in no small way. We realize our physical and emotional pain will not last forever. Our grief is temporary, but our new bodies and restored minds, hearts, and emotions will be forever.
The world never stops screaming for our attention. Television, the internet, and social media draw us into the realms of world news and politics as never before in history. The news media bombards us with threats of wars, suffering in the aftermath of natural disasters, terrorist attacks against Christians and innocent people, and endless possibilities of future calamities. I would go crazy if I did not know what the Bible promises about Jesus’ soon return.
A passing acknowledgment of eternity does little to stem the assault of the world. On the other hand, a heartfelt expectancy of Jesus’ soon appearing enables us to live with the two-world perspective of 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
That’s the outlook I need! The things of this world are quickly slipping through my fingers, but the eternal realities that I cannot see or hold in my hand are eternal, and someday they enjoy the inheritance that awaits us (1 Pet. 1:3-5).
The anticipation of Jesus’ imminent appearing changed the lives of believers long ago; it will do the same for us today!
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13).
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[i] Colin Brown, editor, Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969) p. 244.
[ii] Wayne A. Brindle, “Imminence” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, eds. Tim LaHaye and Ed
Hindson (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2004), p. 145