Does the New Testament teach that Jesus may come at any moment? The apostle Paul shows us quite explicitly that it is right to discern what events must precede the Lord’s coming. When confronted with the apparent hysteria about the day of the Lord being already present, he responded, “Let no one deceive you in any way.1 For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed” (2 Thess. 2:3). Paul’s answer in his day to the question, What events are yet to happen before Christ comes? is twofold: (1) the rebellion must come, and (2) the man of lawlessness must be revealed. These two events are still to come, as I write in the fall of 2021. Paul does not treat these two events as so ambiguous that they cannot be discerned when they come. The appearance of the man of lawlessness will be globally sensational and brief:
[He] opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. . . . And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. (2 Thess. 2:4, 8)
For any of the Thessalonians who were prone to think that this man of lawlessness was far in the future, or for any of us today who are prone to think that he is far in the future, Paul adds this remarkable warning: “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thess. 2:7). Already—in the first century, and today.
This is similar to John’s way of speaking about the antichrist: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). Paul does not say, “Many men of lawlessness have come,” but he might have. What he says is, “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work.”
The point is this: don’t relax your vigilance, thinking that the man of lawlessness (or antichrist) is far off, because the very essence of his deceptive power is now at work and could so deceive you that you would be oblivious to the deadliness of his arrival. Let me say that again: just when you think the end is far in the future, the satanic mystery of lawlessness may so cloud your mind with deception that you cannot see the soon arrival of the man of lawlessness.
The “rebellion” (or apostasy) is also still in the future. This event is less definite than the appearance of a man who proclaims himself to be God, but it can’t be reduced to a centuries-long process of seasons of apostasy. Paul believed that it would be discernible enough that he could use the absence of it as evidence that the day of the Lord was not yet at hand.
It would be true to say, “The mystery of apostasy has already begun,” just as Paul says, “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” In fact, Paul does speak this way about a coming defection from true faith. He says in 1 Timothy 4:1, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,” and he treats those people as already present and deals with their error (1 Tim. 4:1–5).
Again Paul says, “Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money . . .” Then he follows this end-time prediction with, “Avoid such people” (2 Tim. 3:1–2, 5). In other words, Paul views the signs of the end as more or less always with us.2 What will be different about the end is the degree and intensity of evil. Paul shows this by referring to the present “restraint” (2 Thess. 2:7) on evil, which will be removed, thus giving rise to greater evil at the end.
The fact that there are historically repeated prefigurations of endtime events means that most of the precursors of the second coming are not of such a nature that they allow for discerning the closeness of the end. They are real, but also imprecise. They are meant to make us vigilant, knowing that very quickly, the common evils of history might escalate into the climactic events of the end.
Finishing the Great Commission Is Hard to Recognize
What about the promise that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14)? Does that enable us to know the time of Jesus’s coming?
I have tried in other publications to define the nature and extent of “all nations” in Matthew 24:14 and Matthew 28:19. In other words, I have wrestled with what the completion of the Great Commission looks like.3 But on the basis of almost fifty pages of wrestling, my conclusion is unsatisfactory to anyone hoping we could use the progress of world evangelization for predicting the time of the Lord’s return. For example, I write, “The point rather is that as long as the Lord has not returned, there must be more people groups to reach, and we should keep on reaching them.”4
The only change in that sentence I would make today is to add that that the completion of the Great Commission includes the extent of evangelization and obedience within people groups, not just reaching new ones. This is the point of 2 Peter 3:9, which teaches that the second coming is delayed for the sake of the full ingathering of the elect.
Therefore, Matthew 24:14 teaches us that every advance of the gospel is both encouragement that the Lord is nearing and incentive to “hasten” his coming (2 Pet. 3:12) by giving great energy to world evangelization.
What Will Happen before Christ Comes?
Of all the events leading up to the second coming, two are more precise than the others: the appearance of the man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:3) and the cosmic events described in Matthew 24:29–30.5 Jesus describes the cosmic events like this:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matt. 24:29–30)
We have no warrant to be sure that Christ’s coming is ever more than a few years away.
I understand these cosmic events as real cosmological events, just as the coming of Christ is a real bodily, spatial, visible, audible event. With the incarnation of Jesus Christ in literal flesh and blood, and with the resurrection in a body that ate fish and showed wounds, and with the ascension of that body on literal clouds, and with the promise of the coming of that glorious body to a literal earth, we should be slow to treat the signs accompanying the second coming as metaphorical. Jesus and the apostles give no hint that they are not describing cosmological reality.6
From the way Jesus describes the events of Matthew 24:29–30, it seems that they happen in immediate conjunction with the appearing of Christ. These signs do not appear to happen far enough in advance of his coming that they could be used to calculate his near arrival. They happen at his coming. I do not know what a darkened sun will be like (how dark?), or a moon not shining (eclipse?), or stars falling (disappearing—or meteorites?), or the heavens shaken (with thunder?). I do not know what the “sign of the Son of Man” is, but it seems to be virtually simultaneous with Christ’s appearing.
Therefore, these cosmic events do not tell us when the end will come. They tell us that it is now here. The cosmic displays, Jesus says, will announce his appearing like lightning: “As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27).
No Warrant to Assume He Is Not Near
We do not know how much time must elapse before Jesus comes. Let that be clear. We do not know. We err to say otherwise. But we may err in the other direction as well—presuming to think that he must not be near. You may remember that I made the statement earlier that we have no warrant to be sure that Christ’s coming is ever more than a few years away. To be clear, I do not know if Christ is six years or sixty years or six hundred years away. What I am saying here is that no one has biblical warrant for being sure Jesus is more than a very few years away, like five to six years. And it may be closer.