[Note: This message was originally scheduled to be given today, and even though it was not, I thought it would be better to share it than to let it go to waste.]
How do you feel when you think about the return of Jesus Christ? Do you dream of rising up from the earth into the atmosphere to meet Jesus in the clouds in an incorruptible body? Do you picture yourself as part of His army as He returns to conquer the world, and await your chance to be a king and a priest under the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Or does the thought of the return of Christ and the establishment of His Kingdom make you fear for a loss of your own fun, or your own power and influence? Would you rather hide in a cave and pray for the mountains to fall on you than to bow your knee to your Lord and King? Which of these two pictures describes your feelings about the second coming of Jesus Christ?
Several places in the Bible we see the two faces of Jesus’ coming contrasted directly. Let us first look at 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12, which gives Paul’s comfort to a congregation being persecuted by unbelievers, providing hope to those who believe as well as a promise of judgment on the wicked. 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12 reads: “We are bound to thank you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other, so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. Therefore we also pray always for you that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness and the work of faith with power, that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Here we see the two faces of Jesus’ coming given in the middle of a longer appeal to a congregation for patience in the midst of present suffering. For believers in the city of Thessalonika, Paul points out that when Jesus Christ returns, they will be able to have rest with Him and eternal life as a result of their patient and faithful obedience to God, despite trials. On the other hand, Paul promises that those who persecute and trouble the Church will be judged in payment for their hostility toward the people of God. To be hostile to God’s people is to be hostile to Jesus Christ and God Himself, and that is not something that God takes lightly at all.
Nor is 2 Thessalonians the only place where the Bible directly compares the fates of the righteous and the ungodly. Let us look at another passage that talks about the return of Jesus Christ, Revelation 11:17-18. Revelation 11:17-18 reads: “We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was and who is to come, because You have taken Your great power and reigned. The nations were angry, and Your wrath has come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints, and those who fear Your name, small and great, and should destroy those who destroy the earth.”
Here again we see a wide difference between the fate of the righteous and the fate of the ungodly. Rewards are promised for not only the prophets, the public speakers of God’s ways, but also the saints both small and great who have been faithful in their lives to God’s ways. Throughout the Bible these blessings are described as including eternal life, rest, offices of responsibility as kings and priests in the Kingdom of God, and entrance into the family of God as His children. Surely these rewards are far more than any of us can earn.
On the other hand, this passage promises judgment and wrath for enemies of God and Jesus Christ. Those who destroy the earth through exploiting and oppressing others, and through looting the world of its resources and destroying the productive capabilities of the earth, will be destroyed by Jesus Christ upon His return. Those who refuse to obey God’s ways and who angrily reject Jesus Christ as their Lord and King will suffer the wrath of God and face His judgment when He comes to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords over the entire earth. There is no way to escape the reality of either being a follower of God and of His Christ or an enemy. There is no neutrality. Let us make sure that we are on the right side.
The Side Of Grace And Love
How does it feel to be on the side of believers in Jesus Christ from what the Bible itself says? Let us look at the comfort that the Bible provides to believers in a few passages so that we can see the face of love and grace that Jesus Christ provides to those who believe and trust in Him. One of these places is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 reads as follows: “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
Here we see that part of the comfort for believers is knowing that the dead in Christ will rise first and then we who are alive when Jesus Christ returns will be resurrected after that to meet Jesus Christ in the clouds, so that we will always be with Jesus Christ and will never depart from His love and care. Many people in this world have no hope of the afterlife, for they believe that when they die, that is the end, and there is no resurrection. For such people, death truly is forever, and so there is little comfort or motive in living a godly life when the rewards are not immediate. For such people, justice and love and happiness must be achieved here and now for there is no expectation or belief in a world to come where wrongs may be righted and where injustices may be corrected. Paul did not wish the brethren of Thessalonika to suffer from this hopelessness like so many people of our world do.
Let us also look at the encouragement that Jesus Christ Himself gives, through the pen of the Apostle John, to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2 and 3. Let us go through all seven of the churches briefly in order to see what encouragement is given to them by the Alpha and the Omega. For the church at Ephesus, Revelation 2:7 reads: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” For the church at Smyrna, Revelation 2:10-11 reads: “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death. For the church at Pergamos, Revelation 2:17 reads: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.” For the church at Thyatira, Revelation 2:26-29 reads: “And he who overcomes, and keeps my works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—‘He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels’—as I also have received from My Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches.” For the church at Sardis, Revelation 3:5-6 reads: “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” For the church at Philadelphia, Revelation 3:3:12-13 reads: “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and I will write on him My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. And for the church at Laodicea, Revelation 3:21-22 reads: “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
What kind of encouragement does Jesus Christ give to these seven churches? He tells them all to overcome, and promises them a set of rewards that includes eternal life, power and responsibility within the Kingdom of God, an identity and a place within God’s family, and the praise and respect of Jesus Christ Himself. These are all wonderful blessings, freely given generously to us by God the Father and Jesus Christ our elder brother. Each of us is motivated by different factors—some people are ambitious for power, others demand respect and honor, others like titles, while others search for security and a sense of belonging with others. Whatever our motivation, Jesus Christ provides it to believers, telling us all to listen to what the Spirit says to the churches as a demonstration of the love and favor that God has for us. How can we fail to respond to this love and respect and trust with deep gratitude and appreciation for the unmerited grace that God gives us through Christ?
The Side of Wrath And Judgment
Not everyone looks at the return of Jesus Christ with the same anticipation that we do, however. Some look at the return of Jesus Christ with alarm. Let us look at some of these responses and seek to understand why some are not particularly pleased to see Jesus Christ return to rule over the earth. Revelation 6:15-17 gives us the fear and terror of a wide cross-section of people as the time of Jesus Christ draws near. Revelation 6:15-17 reads: “And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
Here we see that not everyone is thrilled to see King Jesus Christ return to this earth. The response of the people of this world, whether kings or commoners, rich men or poor men, free or slave, to the judgment of God is not to repent of their sins and worship and honor God, but their response is to try to hide from God and from His wrath, as if that were possible. Why don’t they repent? Don’t they know that God is full of mercy, desiring to forgive, not wishing that any should perish but that all should find eternal life? Why do some people think that God is harsh, and act in such a rebellious and hostile way to God that He gives them what they want?
We might think that this behavior would only result from someone who did not know the Bible or know Jesus Christ at all, but this is not the case at all. Even some of those who are called to be God’s servants, and who may even think of themselves as godly people, have a harsh view of God that leads them to avoid fulfilling their responsibilities and brings them under judgment to God. We see this in the parable of the talents, for example, in Matthew 25:24-30. Matthew 25:24-30 reads: “Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, repeating where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’ But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. Therefore take the talent from him and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “
What was the servant’s problem? He claimed as an excuse for his refusal to develop the talent Jesus Christ had given him the idea that Jesus was a hard man, trying to get more than he had worked for. But he did not think through the implications of his (mistaken) beliefs about Jesus Christ. If we think of Jesus Christ as someone who is harsh and judgmental, then our response should be to do what it takes to avoid being on Jesus Christ’s bad side. Surely if one knew one worked for a hard and demanding master, one ought to respond with diligence and hard work rather than laziness, right? And yet this was not the case. Even those who fancy themselves to be servants of God could face the wrath of Jesus Christ if they are not diligently working on their relationships with God and with others. This is something we all need to be concerned about.
A Word Of Warning
Before we close, though, I would like to provide a brief word of warning concerning our own two faces of grace and judgment. It is very tempting for us to copy the example of Jesus Christ and to show two faces toward others, a face of grace and love for our friends and a face of judgment and anger toward our enemies. However, it is not proper for us to do so. Let us not forget the command that Jesus Christ gives to us in Matthew 5:43-48. Let us turn there now. Matthew 5:43-48 tells us: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
The reason why Jesus Christ is permitted to show a face of anger and judgment is because He is our King and our Creator. We are only fellow sinners with those who wrong us. Jesus Christ can read our hearts and minds, and he knows our motives and intents. We can only guess and infer at the motives and intents of others through their actions, and our knowledge is imperfect and limited. We must be careful not to overstep our boundaries and cross into the point of judging people who may not be acting with disrespect or hostility toward us, but whose actions we are reading in an unfriendly way. By showing love and respect for all, even our enemies, we allow Jesus Christ to avenge wrongs with far more accuracy and precision than we can do ourselves.
Today we have examined the two faces of Jesus Christ’s return. To those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ, the return of our Lord and King is something that we look forward to, with visions of eternal life as part of God’s government and God’s family. However, not everyone looks forward to the return of Christ—the people of this earth, largely rebellious against their Lord and God, wish to hide from His wrath and avoid His anger, rather than repent of their sins and seek His abundant mercy. How do we feel and what do we think about the return of Jesus Christ? Let us all make sure we treat others with love and respect, and that we look forward to the return of Jesus Christ to right this world’s wrongs and to rule with justice and mercy. May we all be counted worthy to sit at His side and rule alongside Him.