Can believers have an impact on the timing of Christ’s return?
We Christians believe that Christ did not come just once, but is coming again. And we believe that God is sovereign in this matter, and has a perfect timetable for when this will take place. We are also told in Scripture that no one knows exactly when this will be. But there are other things to consider.
Before proceeding, I should point out that the Greek word parousia can mean an arrival or coming in general, and more particularly, the second coming of Christ. The term, and versions of it, are used over 25 times in the Greek New Testament. The former use of the term is found in texts like 1 Corinthians 16:17: “I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence.”
But it is the latter more specific usage that I wish to discuss here. It is found in passages such as the following:
Matthew 24:37-39 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
1 Corinthians 15:22-24 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
1 Thessalonians 2:19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?
My title speaks of God and man. As mentioned, when Christ returns is ultimately a matter of God’s doing and timing – end of story. But not quite! There are some passages that seem to suggest that in some sense his return just might be impacted by things that we humans do.
That is, it is possible that Christ’s coming may depend upon us at least to a certain extent? Four passages come to mind here – some being more clear than others on this matter. Let me speak to each one briefly and see if such a case can be made.
In Matthew 24:14 we find these words: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” A shorter version of this is found in Mark 13:10: “And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.”
The Greek word for nations (ethne) is used by some modern-day believers to refer to “people groups” and the point is to seek to win over every such group in order that the Lord may return. That is possible but not all NT scholars agree with this. Indeed, some take it that a passage like Matt. 24 is about what happened before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and not some future event.
While all Christians should have a sense of urgency when it comes to evangelism and world missions, it is not fully clear if texts like these can be used to suggest that our activity determines at least in part when Christ returns. This is a possible, but not a decisive, understanding of these verses.
Another interesting passage is found in the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:9-10 (see also Luke 11:2) says this:
Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.”
Here we have some sort of connection between our prayers and the coming of the kingdom. Of course the whole topic of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a massive one, as is the idea of how we are to understand how our prayers might make a difference to divine purposes. Suffice it to say that our prayers MAY play a part in when Christ does return.
A third passage that possibly indicates some role that we might play in the Lord’s return is found in Acts 3:19-21. What did Peter mean by these words?:
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.
Here it seems that human repentance may in some way have something to do with the Lord’s return. Is the implication that repentance and obedience are also elements that will determine when Christ comes again? Again, this is not a fool-proof passage on this issue, but it is another text to ponder. Certain things may need to occur before Christ does return.
A final text worth considering is 2 Peter 3:11-12 which says: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”
The context (3:1-13) is all about the Lord’s coming. But the key term is in verse 12: “hastening”. Does this mean that certain things that we do might hasten the day of his return? If so, does this also imply that we can impede or slow down his return?
Let me offer just one bit of commentary here, which also refers to some of the other texts I have cited. In his recent commentary Thomas Schreiner says this:
We may be surprised about the notion of hastening the day of God. . . . Peter clearly teaches that believers can advance or hasten the arrival of God’s day by living godly lives. We think here of the prayer, “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). Surely the idea is that our prayer has some impact on when the kingdom arrives. Such an idea was current in Judaism as well since some rabbis taught that God would fulfill his promises if Israel would repent… Acts 3:19-21 appears to teach a similar idea. God would send his Christ and restore all things if Israel repented fully.
Again, the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility arises here, and Schreiner speaks to this as well:
But does not such an idea threaten divine sovereignty, his control over history? Was Peter suggesting that God himself does not know when the end will be, since he does not know if his people will live in a godly way? We can dismiss the idea that the future is obscured from God because if that were true, how could we know that history would ever end? After two thousand years of history, how could we be sure that Christians would ever live righteously enough to bring about God’s day? Divine sovereignty is not threatened since God himself foreknows what his people will do. Indeed, he even foreordains what we will do (e.g., Prov. 16:33; Isa. 46:9-11; Lam. 3:37-38; Eph. 1:11). Nevertheless, God’s sovereignty over history must never cancel out the call to live godly lives and the teaching that our prayers and godliness can speed his coming. We must not fall prey to rationalism that either squeezes out divine sovereignty or ignores human responsibility. Both of these must be held in tension, and here the accent falls on what human beings do to hasten the day of God. God uses means to accomplish his purposes.
Why am I speaking to this matter? Given that this is not fully clear and may be somewhat speculative, is it worth discussing? Well, I think so! If you are like me, you often tire of all the sin and depravity and evil and suffering in the world, and you may pray daily, ‘Come quickly Lord Jesus.’
But if the coming of the Lord may in some ways partially depend on what we, God’s people, do, and who we are, then we may need to expand our prayers just a bit. Instead of pleading for Christ to come soon, we may need to pray that God shows each one of us what – if anything – we need to be doing, and what sort of person we should become, which may in some way help bring about the parousia.
As stated, God is sovereign and his timetable is certain. But since God often does things in conjunction with his people – such as evangelising the lost – then in some mysterious ways our actions, or lack of them, may have some bearing on when Christ comes again.
This is something all believers should think about and pray about.