Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
H. Griffith-Thomas, The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 [originally published posthumously, London, 1930]), 87, writes of the importance of Jesus’ return. Griffith-Thomas supports his statement on the basis of the importance the New Testament places upon Christ’s return.
The return of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a mere doctrine to be discussed, nor a matter for intellectual study alone. Its prominence in the New Testament shows the great importance of the truth, for it is referred to over three hundred times, and it may almost be said that no other doctrine is mentioned so frequently or emphasized so strongly.
In a footnote to this statement, Griffith-Thomas compares and contrasts the references to Christ’s return (over 300 references) with references to baptism (19 references) and the Lord’s Supper (referred three or four times).
Baptism is mentioned nineteen times in seven Epistles, and in fourteen out of twenty-one is not alluded to. The Lord’s Supper is only referred to three or four times in the entire New Testament, and in twenty out of twenty-one Epistles there is no mention of it. The Lord’s Coming is referred to in one verse out of every thirteen in the New Testament, and in the Epistles alone in one verse out of ten. This proportion is surely of importance, for if frequency of mention is any criterion there is scarcely any other truth of equal interest and value.
There are some hermeneutical principles for us to glean. One must be careful not simply to count references to determine the degree of importance of its truth. That is to say, the importance of a doctrine is not just or only determined by the number of times it occurs in the Bible, and those that are referred to most often are discerned to be essentials. There are numerous essential doctrinal truths that are not listed often. For example, there are two accounts of Jesus’ birth (Matt. 1; Lk. 2), with other references (e.g. Gal. 4:4), but the whole Old Testament points to that truth and the whole New Testament reflects that truth.
But one must not merely ignore or treat as insignificant the number of references either. The occurrences of Christ’s return occurs throughout the whole Bible, is a major part of the biblical story, is the telos, i.e. the end toward which God’s plan is being fulfilled (Heb. 1:10-12), and our sure and certain hope (Heb. 6:11ff), which motivates and encourages us in our pilgrimage today (1 Jn. 3:2-3).
In a previous day, there was a keen awareness of and commitment to the return of Christ (Matt. 24; 2 Thess. 2; Rev. 20:1-6), and that truth had a significant bearing on the way people lived their daily lives (Tit. 2:11-15). For sure there were those who placed so much emphasis on Christ’s return that people lived for the future at the expense of today. They became consumed with this single issue which made them imbalanced. Furthermore this one issue wrongly became the litmus test for true Evangelicals.
But times and seasons change, as do doctrinal and theological emphases. This is not to say that truth changes – truth remains, but what is emphasized changes. (This is one reason why Statements of Faith ought to be revised, or they may not be most useful to the church in the present day to defend the faith.)
In the present day, we emphasize and focus upon what God is presently doing through the gospel as He expands His kingdom here and now. It results in living for now and awaiting the future. This is a good thing as it places a hope in God and a trust in the gospel that it is powerful to transform lives and impact others today (Rom. 1:16; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21; 1 Thess. 1:4-10; cf. Acts 19).
But has this caused a pendulum problem? Have we so responded to the excesses of eschatological fervor that we have gone too far in the other direction such that we don’t think of Christ’s return or emphasize it sufficiently? Do we truly believe that we and creation still groan and we will until the Lord returns (Rom. 8:22-25). Do we really believe that things will only be made right when He returns (Rev. 21:1-7), and that this belief is evidenced by our prayer, along with Christians of all times, the longing cry of God’s people, maranatha (1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20)?
The concluding words of John’s final letter, the last words of Revelation, the ending words of the New Testament, the final words of the Bible focus on Jesus’ return and our response (Rev. 22:20-21):
He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.