All too often, the church can have little more than these vague notions of her purpose and reason for existence. What are we doing here? What’s the purpose of gathering together every week, or multiple times a week? Why do we devote so much time to teaching the Bible? Why do we think it’s worth spending money on this or that?
And it’s incredible how often Scripture mentions the second coming and how the church grounds her hope in that. Our hope is not in anything vague or nebulous, but in the life, death, resurrection, exhalation, and return of our Lord.
Our blessed hope, the second coming of Christ, reinvigorates the church with purpose. Why do we say “No” to ungodliness, in ourselves, our families, and our society? Because we have a hope that Christ reigns in the heavens now and will rule on the earth one day. Why do we practice self-control? Because we have a hope that Christ reigns in the heavens now and will rule on the earth one day.
Most of the time, lessons or sermons on the second coming of Christ focus almost entirely on the order of the events. That’s important. When you’re planning a wedding, one of the most common images used to describe Christ’s return, it’s easy to think so much about the schedule, what comes next, making sure all the parts of the ceremony and reception happen at the right time, that you lose sight of that fact that you’re getting married.
I definitely have my thoughts about how the second coming takes place. And I think you should, too. Fence-riding isn’t a virtue. When it’s about something as important as this, what Paul calls our blessed hope, then that takes it out of the realm of “matters of indifference” or opinion. We’re talking about the person and the event that moves us to live the way we do. Besides the resurrection, the second coming is the most consequential event in all of history.
While it’s an important doctrine, I do believe in extending some charity to others when there are differences in interpretation. Some views definitely have a few more loose bolts than others, and some of them, in my humble opinion, had a few left over, but when you look at the early church creeds, across the board, their primary focus was simply that Christ is returning. Both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are emphatic that Christ will come a second time to judge both the living and the dead. The Nicene Creed does go on to say that once he has returned, his kingdom will never end.
The second coming motivates believers to wait actively and patiently for Christ. We wait actively by living obediently, building institutions, and preaching boldly. We wait patiently by trusting his promise will come true.
Titus was a young pastor in the Roman city of Crete. Paul writes to Titus reminding him that he left Titus in Crete to put the finishing touches on the church and to establish church leadership, or overseers. “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).
Crete was a rough place, and Titus has his work cut out for him. Cretans didn’t have a good reputation, and even today, to call someone a Cretan is to say he’s vulgar and offensive, gross and disgusting. Paul quotes one of Crete’s own authors to Titus. “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, and gluttons.’ This testimony is true” (Titus 1:12-13a). Imagine going to plant a church in New Orleans on the last day of Mardi Gras; that’s Crete every day of the week.
But Crete had another claim to fame, that of being the place where Zeus was born. Zeus was the Greek god of the sky and leader of the pantheon. “God” in that context is quite loose, because Zeus was a human who achieved divine status. And once he became a god, he was good to his former fellow humans. He took care of them, blessed them, and taught them the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage, and self-control). But the Greek myths also taught that Zeus died in Crete.
Paul planted a church in this city and then left Titus to act as a pastor and train future pastors. Paul and Titus would preach the gospel, not of a man becoming god, but of God becoming man. And not only did the God-man Christ Jesus teach his people and bless them, but even though he died, he rose from the dead, and, most importantly, is coming again.
These verses are actually all one long sentence. It’s one idea with a few important parts: Christ came once to bring salvation (vv.11, 14); Christ taught us what godly, virtuous living really is in between his appearings (v.12); and we are to ground our hope in Christ’s return (v.13).
Before Paul arrives at the second coming, he spends the first part of chapter 2 outlining the importance of sound doctrine and personal holiness. Older men should teacher younger men; older women should teach younger women. Bondservants should submit to their masters so that their confession of faith isn’t undone by their bad behavior.
There’s a consistent theme of self-control through this section. Paul outright calls for older men to practice self-control. Older women should practice self-control when it comes to wine. Young women should be self-controlled when it comes to their families. Young men should be self-controlled when it comes to everything. Scripture often speaks into our weaknesses, so how much more teaching on self-control do you think we might actually need?
The point of being self-controlled is that our lives match up with our teaching. How many preachers and teachers have been undone because they couldn’t practice what they preached? How many scandals in the secular world are rooted in someone’s lack of self-control? Self-control is perhaps the greatest observable evidence that we’re born again.
You will be a slave to what controls you. Proverbs 16:32 says, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” The real warrior is the one who can defeat his own passions, who controls his desires. When Paul is writing about the way we should approach the Christian life, he writes in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
The Christian must master his passions.
Why is this such a common New Testament theme? Why is it tied to waiting on the Lord to return? Because there is a certain way of living that is demanded of those who confess Christ as Lord and Savior. The law of Christ is the call to holiness between his advents.
We can’t make the mistake of confusing personal holiness for legalism. Personal holiness is walking worthy of your calling. It’s recognizing that when Christ called us to obey him, he wasn’t giving us a way of salvation but a way of living. He is the way of salvation, not our works. But legalism demands obedience as the way of salvation. It’s a cruel distortion of the gospel. It’s either Christ-alone or Christ-plus-works. Anything added to the finished work of Christ is another gospel altogether. If you’re striving for greater obedience to Christ out of love for him, that means you’re a disciple. If you’re striving for greater obedience to win Christ’s love for you, that means you need to revisit the doctrines of grace.
But if you’ve been a Christian longer than the car ride here, you know it’s not an easy calling. The weight of sin is heavy. But Titus 2:11-12 begins to lift that weight. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”
Without the grace of God, living a self-controlled life is impossible. God’s grace does not only spare us from God’s judgment, but it also makes possible personal holiness. Grace brings salvation, but grace also trains us to do two things: to disavow sinful pleasures and to choose holy joy. Without the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God, the presence of God’s grace in our lives, we will never be able to live a life worthy of his calling on us. Apart from the Holy Spirit, we just don’t want holiness bad enough. We don’t love God as we should. Grace doesn’t only assure forgiveness. Grace also assures faithfulness and perseverance.
I want to give you one example of why that’s not unimportant. In 1909, Cyrus Scofield published the Scofield Reference Bible. It’s the first Bible that we’d recognize as a study Bible. It became incredibly popular, and it’s still published today. The Scofield Reference Bible was published with the intent of teaching a new framework for interpreting the Bible called “dispensationalism”. It became the de facto way of understanding the Bible for many. Scofield was contributing to the popularity of the theology developed by a man named John Nelson Darby. Darby taught that there were two distinct people of God, Jews and Christians, and they would have different covenants and two different destinies. The Jews would be on the earth forever, and the church would stay in heaven forever. Since there are two people of God, there are certain books of the New Testament that don’t have any meaning for the church, they said.
That was the early 1900’s, and by the 1980s, dispensationalism had developed and fine-tuned a doctrine called “Lordship salvation”, which led to the Lordship controversy. For many who had once held to dispensational theology, this was enough for them to abandon it completely. “Lordship salvation” said that because of dispensationalism’s understanding of the nature and future of the church, a person could claim Christ as Savior but not as Lord. Let me repeat that: you could believe that Jesus saved you from hell, but that could have no impact on your life. That’s a distinction that the Bible does not make.
If you’ve heard of salvation as a “ticket punch” or a “lifeboat”, this is its root. Jesus could be your Savior and save you from hell, but it was possible to live as though you never believed that, to not live as through Christ was your Lord and master, and you could be what even they called a “carnal Christian”. You could live as a person still in bondage to the flesh, not the Spirit. They recognized that many people filled a pew on Sunday mornings but lived like pagans Monday through Saturday, and they needed a way to explain it. Instead of recognizing that some people who fill the church are not true disciples, they tried to explain it by radical misinterpretations of Scripture.
Jesus, on the other hand, said the exact opposite on more than one occasion. “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). “[Teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Imagine the influence Lordship salvation had on a whole generation of people where it was heavily implied that they could like Jesus for what he could do for them, and they didn’t have to obey him.
We wonder why so many Christians cave to whichever way the wind blows. We wonder why some churches water down the gospel to nothing but “Jesus loves you” and see explosive growth. It’s easy to say that Jesus has been good to you but then live however you want. That’s an easy sell. But you will know them by their fruit. Self-control, obedience to the commands of Christ, living in the power of the Spirit, is the evidence that you belong to him. And it’s only possible by the grace of God.
We are not, of course, perfect as we will be when the Lord returns. That’s why Paul reminds us that we we must practice these things “in the present age”. Waiting for Christ to return makes us strive for increasing personal holiness, not cheap grace. We can’t live as though Christ isn’t coming again to judge the living and the dead. Ultimately, what will matter on that day is that we are found in him. But the evidence that we are found in him is that we live, by the grace of God, in greater conformity to our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
As Paul often does, he reminds us that the gospel is the motivation for personal holiness. Jesus is the one “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (vv.13-14).
The first thing Paul says about Christ is that he “gave himself for us”. Christ was for sure treated with all the hatred and vitriol that wicked men could muster, but by saying that Christ gave himself, we’re told to focus on the foreknowledge and plan of God. Christ did not walk on to the earth not knowing what he was called to do. The Father and the Son were in complete agreement about the plan of redemption. Jesus taught his disciples repeatedly that the Son of Man would be handed over to violent men to be killed by them, but that he would also be raised from the dead on the third day. Jesus was a willing participant in our redemption, for which he laid down his life.
Christ’s death was a substitution for our own. But it wasn’t just that Christ was innocent and we are not. There were plenty of innocent animals that had been sacrificed in the temple, but the blood of bulls and goats did not take away sins. God did not die on the cross, but God paid the debt we owed him on the cross. He paid it himself. Christ being both God and man is an indispensable component of our salvation.
We’re told Christ accomplished two things, for one purpose. Christ redeemed and purified us in his death and resurrection. By being redeemed, we are no longer under the oppressive weight of sin. Part of the weight of sin is the recognition of its consequences, both in this life and the next. We have been redeemed, or freed, from lawlessness. In our natural state, we will sin because it’s who we are. The old saying goes, “We’re not sinners because we sin. We sin because we’re sinners.” But Christ has given us a new heart that not only hates sins but seeks holiness. We don’t love God perfectly as we one day will, but we certainly love God more than the dead person we once were.
By being purified, we are now marked out as being righteous. The image is of washing a piece of clothing stained with dirt or blood. If you stain your favorite shirt, you scrub and scrub and scrub. You actually read the washing instructions on the tag. By his perfect obedience, Christ removed the stain of sin so that when God the Father looks at us, he no longer sees the stain of sin but the glowing righteousness of his Son.
In redeeming and purifying us, Christ purchased for himself his own people. The nation of Israel was and still is God’s chosen people. Paul makes very clear in Romans 11 that there is still a promise of salvation for a remnant of those who are descended from the twelve tribes. But God’s promises to Abraham, and after him to Israel, made very clear by the apostles, culminated in Christ.
God promised Abraham land. In Romans 4:13, Paul argues that Abraham was not just to inherit the land of Israel but the whole world. In Hebrews 11:10, we’re told that Abraham was looking forward to the city with foundations built by God, which will culminate in the new city that descends from heaven, whose foundation is marked by the names of the twelve apostles.
God promised Abraham that his covenant would be established with his seed, which Paul shows us in Galatians 3:16 was not all of Israel but Christ in particular. This promise came before God established Israel and gave them his law. But it would be one Israelite in particular, who perfectly fulfilled the law, to whom Abraham was looking.
God promised Abraham blessing and that he would be a blessing. From Abraham’s family would come Jesus. Paul tells us that it was Christ who ascended and gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4:8) and that Christ has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3).
As the culmination of God’s plan of redemption and the fulfillment of his promises to Abraham, Christ has purchased us, or brought us into his fold, his flock. The consequences of our redemption and purification is that we “are zealous for good works.” We seek to live in a manner that honors the one who purchased us, redeemed us, and purified us. We dare not think of Christ’s work as “cheap grace”. The cost of our redemption was his own life and three days in the grave.
Early in the book of Revelation, Jesus is referred to as the Word of God and the one who is faithful and true. About halfway through, we’re introduced to the unholy trinity: the beast, the false prophet, and the dragon, or Satan. Then at the end, John sees the one who is faithful and true riding on a white horse, and he is called the Word of God. On his robe is written, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” An army of angels dressed in pure white are following him.
At that time, an angel announces that the beast and the false prophet are about to be destroyed. They’re cast into the lake of fire and are never heard from again. Those who fought alongside and served the beast and false prophet are killed. Another angel is in possession of a key to an abyss, or a bottomless pit, and a chain. He binds Satan temporarily, for 1,000 years. Satan has had his three-and-a-half years, now Christ will have his thousand.
The first of two resurrections take place. John sees thrones in heaven alongside the souls of those who had served Christ instead of the beast. The saints who had died are brought to life in order to reign with Christ for that thousand years. The Son of David sits on his throne on the earth and the goodness of creation is emphasized. When the appointed time comes, Satan is released, and he begins his deception again, gathering together a massive army against God’s people. But before a single arrow can be fired, fire from heaven keeps all wickedness from entering the city. Finally, the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, joins his fellow traitors in the lake of fire forever and ever.
The fact that judgment is about to take place makes the earth itself flee in terror. A series of books are opened in order to judge the lives of the dead. But then another book is opened—the book of Life. The names of those in that book are preserved through judgment for the new heaven and new earth.
A beautiful city comes down from heaven to the new earth, like a bride coming down the aisle. In this city, God will dwell permanently. The gates of this city never close, and the nations are free to enter into God’s presence without fear. Nothing unclean, no sin, will ever enter the gates. The one seated on the throne, Jesus Christ, can finally say to John, “It is done.” The fruit from the tree of life, which we were kept from eating in the garden of Eden, is now free for the taking. With no fear of sin and death, the tree of life is now a blessing and not a curse.
“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”