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For many Christians, the question of the second coming of Christ isn’t an “if” but a “when.” Yet it’s precisely this “when”—or more accurately, speculation over this “when”—that has created skepticism about the certainty of the event itself.

Indeed, in recent decades, an incredible amount of sensationalism and hype has flowed from the Christian church regarding the date of the Second Coming. Millions of books have been sold espousing various years—1978, 1982, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2007, and so forth—either for the Second Coming itself, or for significant events that will lead up to the Second Coming; events as diverse as the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union, the Gulf War, and the signing of PLO-Israel peace accords.

However, all this speculation deadens people’s sensitivities to the promise of Christ’s return. When they hear this stuff over and over, only to have the originators walk away with egg on their faces, people simply stop listening. This is unfortunate because Jesus will return, and when He does, only those who have prepared will be ready to meet Him. But who’s going to prepare if they have closed their ears to the promise of that return because of all the failed “prophecies”?

What’s especially ironic is that the uncertainty about the time of Christ’s return is a crucial element that helps people to prepare to meet Him when He does come. So, when Christians erase that uncertainty by setting dates for Christ’s return, they’re undoing one of the key facets that helps prepare them for it.

In Jesus’ own words

First, let’s read what Jesus Himself has said about the timing of the Second Coming:

  • “ ‘No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ ” (Matthew 24:36).
  • “ ‘You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him’ ” (Matthew 24:44).
  • “ ‘Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour’ ” (Matthew 25:13).
  • " ‘Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come’ ” (Mark 13:33).

It’s hard to imagine how Jesus could have been any clearer: we will not know in advance the time of His return. Yes, there will be signs; yes, events should warn us of His impending return; yes, we should be ready (see Mark 13:7–10, 26; Luke 21:28). But these things are not the same as speculating about the day and hour of His return. No one but the Father knows, Jesus said—and we assume that this “no one” includes all those today who are still setting dates predicting when He will return. Jesus’ words alone should cause anyone to reject all speculation that leads to time setting.

Yet there’s another, perhaps even more important reason why we need to avoid this type of speculation, and it’s found in Christ’s words regarding the Second Advent. In these discourses, not only does He talk about the signs—wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, and so forth—but He also talks about how we can be prepared for His return. And here’s the irony: the uncertainty regarding the time of the event is a means of helping prepare people for it!

Jesus said, “ ‘It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

“ ‘Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!” ’ ” (Mark 13:34–37).

Jesus compares His leaving the earth to someone who, going away, leaves his property in the hands of his servants. Note that the master doesn’t say, “I’ll be back in three months” or “in six months” or “in ten years.” Why not? Is it because the master doesn’t know? That’s possible, at least in the parable. But the Father does know the date of Jesus’ return. He just hasn’t told us.

Why? The key is preparation. The Lord wants us to be prepared always, at all times. And as long as we believe that He could return at any time, especially any time soon, we should be more inclined to be continually ready. It’s because the servants don’t know when the master will return that He tells them, “Therefore keep watch.” If they knew for sure when the master was coming, why bother watching until that time?

Ready now

Suppose those who lived 100, 200, or even 500 years ago knew that time would go on past the year 2000 without Christ returning. How easy it would be to fall into spiritual lethargy or even into sin and self-indulgence because the return is such a long way off. Jesus told a parable to that effect about a servant who, believing his master had delayed his return, abused other servants and began “ ‘to eat and drink and get drunk’ ” (Luke 12:45). All this happened precisely because the servant thought the return was a long way off. If, however, he had thought that his master could return any time soon, he might have acted differently.

Thus, by keeping the time secret— by not letting anyone know when He will come, only that it could be soon—Jesus put in place a mechanism that will help keep those who are awaiting His return on their toes and in expectation at all times.

“ ‘Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping’ ” (Mark 13:35, 36). Because—like the servant—we don’t know, we, therefore, should never be sleeping. By specifically telling us that we don’t know when He will return, Jesus created a situation that should cause all those who love Him to constantly be ready.

In short, it seems that the most important thing Jesus did to prepare us for the end is found in what He didn’t tell us—and that is when He will return. And yet that itself says so much about how to prepare. Because we don’t know and because it could be today, tomorrow, or next year, we should be ready even now.

What Jesus Said About When He'll Return

by Clifford Goldstein
From the March 2010 Signs