You Must Be Ready for Jesus' Return!

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That day in October ’93 began like every day. I was twenty-three, at theological college. I was going out with Amanda-Sue Forder, and we knew were going to be married. It was October 19, a Monday. I worked and studied, and at night I attended a theological lecture—just like every other Monday. Soon after, as I returned as usual to my share-house in Subiaco, my brother called me. 

“Cam, Grandad died. He died an hour ago.”  

I had not yet lost a close relative. Grandad was a kind and generous man who had played an enormously positive role in my life. There had been no indication that he was unwell. But that evening, after dinner, his aorta ruptured: suddenly, catastrophically, and utterly unexpectedly.   

My world, and that of my family, was quite different at the end of what had begun as a normal Monday.

Jesus will return on an ordinary day.

In Matthew 24:37-44, Jesus teaches us that he will return on a similarly ordinary day. Do you think about that? Does it change your outlook on your life? Does it affect your behavior? Do you look forward to it? 

As we will see, it ought to affect everything. Radically.

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. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. (Matt. 24:37-41)

This appears in the heart of the so-called Matthew 24-25 “Olivet Discourse,” Jesus’ sustained teaching about his coming visible return. He urges us to contemplate the world of Noah, to see there a vital preview of what is to come. Noah was the village idiot—a laughingstock—because he was building a great boat where there was no sea. 

When he wasn’t building, he was preaching (2 Pet. 2:5), warning people about the coming flood, urging them to repent and seek the grace of God. No doubt people mocked his preaching as much as they mocked his boat. I think I would have. 

When we know things are going to happen, then we plan our future around them.  We “factor them in.” If a baby is coming, you don’t plan a three-month mission trip to Yemen around the due date. If you have exams in June, then you won’t take off to Disneyland for the month of May.

Just as people today don’t believe Jesus’ warnings about God’s coming judgment, people didn’t believe Noah’s warnings. 

But everyone ignored Noah and got right on with their lives. They ate and drank. They got married. They arranged marriages for their children (an excellent custom that should be revived posthaste). They ignored the flood and planned to enjoy the days and years ahead of them. Mad Noah’s preaching was neurotic nonsense. 

And Jesus tells us that the same would happen in relation to his return.  “For just as the days of Noah, in this way will be the coming of the Son of Man.” 

“Coming” translates parousia (παρουσια), a most important New Testament word. Ancient writers often used it in a religious sense, to describe “the coming of a hidden divinity, who makes his presence felt by a revelation of his power” (BDAG). They also used it in a civil sense, to describe the visit of a high-ranking official, king, or emperor. This made the word Parousia an ideal technical term in the New Testament for the return of Jesus (see Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Cor. 1:8; 15:23; 1 Thess. 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1, 8; Jas. 5:7; 2 Pet. 1:16, 3:4, 12).  I will use the word Parousia for the rest of this article to refer to Jesus’ second coming. 

We must note also how Jesus, by referring to “the coming of the Son of Man,” grounds his Parousia in the Daniel 7:13-14 account of God’s coronation of Messiah over all nations forever:

“I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.”

How, though, does Jesus link his Parousia with Noah? In the same way that Noah’s generation did not factor the coming flood into their present and future, the world would do exactly the same with Christ’s return. Noah’s generation refused to believe his warnings, and refused to change their lives, “until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away.” Outside of the ark they were all swept away. No exceptions, no special cases. 

Noah’s generation knew about God and their need for repentance because Noah preached to them.

While Noah’s generation was ignorant about the coming flood, they knew about God: God’s will for their lives, God’s holiness and justice, the need for repentance, God’s grace and the possibility of finding mercy, the certainty of coming judgment, and the urgent necessity to find safety in the ark, the one and only shelter that God had provided. God, through Noah, “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5) had told people about these things. Their ignorance was willful and culpable. They did not want to know. 

Jesus drives the lesson home by repeating that powerful phrase: “the Parousia of the Son of Man will be the same.” Stop and contemplate the unspeakable tragedy and grace of Genesis 6-9. It is a preview of the Parousia.

I diverge to note that Jesus’ words destroy any inkling that the Genesis 6-9 flood account is mythical or “a-historical” or something less than the truthful reporting of an actual event. But if there was no historical Noah, who built a great ark-refuge and warned about a coming flood; and if there wasn’t an actual flood that killed everyone on earth save Noah’s family, then the analogy that Jesus draws between Noah and his own Parousia is gutted. The analogy only grips and bites and works because people in the time and history of Genesis 6-9 failed to factor into their daily lives a coming catastrophe, and were then actually swept away to their deaths. And the same thing will happen when Jesus returns.

There will be differences between the flood and Jesus’ second coming.

There will be differences though, as an overview of Matthew 24-25 elucidates. The flood brought a great disruption to creation, but the Parousia will bring about the complete wrapping up (and then renovation) of creation (24:29). The flood constituted an intermediate judgment of evil humanity, but the Parousia will usher in final judgment (25:31-46). Following the flood there was an opportunity for the human race—re-established from Noah’s family—to repent and find God’s mercy. There will be no second chance after the Parousia: a person’s place under God’s fierce judgment or within his tender mercy will be fixed for all eternity (25:11-12, 46).

Whereas God’s punishment upon evil by the flood seems very fierce, this will seem as nothing compared to the “great distress, unequalled” of the Parousia (24:21). Instead of drowning, there will be eternal “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (24:51; 25:30), and blackness forever (25:30). God’s punishment for sin is neither arbitrary nor cruel, but it is implacably fierce and terrifying nonetheless. 

Moreover, the Parousia will bring not a cataclysmic deluge, but a person. And every human being will either be the object of this person’s justice and appalling punishment for sin or will find mercy and grace with and alongside and in this person. The saved will not be found huddled in an ark, but in the safe arms of Christ. Those therefore who have repented of sin and fled to him for mercy and grace (as Noah’s family fled to the ark), and those who have sheltered from God’s just wrath under the blood of Jesus’ sacrifice for sin (as Noah’s family sheltered from God’s just wrath under the roof of the ark) “will be caught up together…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).

We must be filled with constant expectation of Jesus’ return. 

That’s why, at the Parousia, two men in the same field, or two women at the same mill, will be shockingly and instantaneously separated: one to be judged, one to be saved (Matt. 24:40-41). 

Jesus wraps up this section with a pointed application: 

Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matt. 24:42-44)

The day of the flood began like any other, and no one expected it to end any differently. No one imagined that they would not at the end of that day return to their homes and dinner and bed. The coming of Christ will be just the same. Wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, are constant reminders of the inevitable fact of the Parousia (Matt. 24:6-8), but none of these things give any indication as to the time of the Parousia. No competent thief gives notice to his victims. And there will be no 12-month, 12-day, or 12-hour notice for the Parousia. 

The day of Christ’s return will begin like every other day and will end like no other day. It will bring joy to many and devastation to the rest. Noah’s flood was a preview and pledge. The past promised and disbelieved cataclysm actually arrived on one fateful day. So will the Parousia.

Within Jesus’ description lies a prescription. The fact that he will come on an ordinary day must shape our ordinary days. They must be filled with constant expectation of Christ’s return. Our default posture must be “on the edge of our seats.”

We must work and play, love and worship, in keen expectation of Christ’s imminent return. What tremendous dignity this adds to our daily tasks. Nothing we do is “filling in time until the Lord returns.” Everything is done in preparation for the Master’s return, and “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes” (Luke 12:37 NIV).

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Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.

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