Anticipating Christ’s Return
(2 Peter 3.8-13)
This month we have been looking at what it means to be the family of God as we look forward to celebrating the birth of Christ. We saw what it is to belong to the family of God, to live as the family, to multiply as the family, and last week, we arrived at what it is to cherish Christ as the family—we arrived at the coming of Christ: his birth, his life, his death and his resurrection. So what is there left to do?
Well, it is fortuitous that there is one Sunday left in December—this gives us the opportunity to look forward, to anticipate what comes next. And as we anticipate what comes next in the story, my prayer is that this will set us up for the year to come. Because living in anticipation of Christ’s return is what characterizes the Christian life today: it’s not just about love, or a healthy sense of what Jesus gives us today. It’s about what’s coming.
21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
This is what’s coming—it is just a short glimpse into what awaits us. But it is a remarkably complete glimpse.
A new heavens and a new earth—the renewal of all things. The eternal presence of God—God who dwells with his people as their God. Eternal life and eternal joy—no more crying, no more pain, no more death. Everything we hope for that actually matters finds its culmination in this picture—eternal happiness, eternal joy, eternal life.
This is what we have to look forward to. Jesus promised that one day he would return to renew the earth, to establish the new heavens and the new earth, and to bring all those who have faith in him to live with him there for all eternity.
I could go on about this for hours—you could do an entire series of sermons on this one passage alone. But today we want to ask ourselves one pressing question: what difference does it make? Really, why does it matter where we’re going if right now, we’re here? What does it matter if we know that one day we will be with Jesus in the New Heavens and the New Earth? Does knowing where I’m going really actually change anything about my life today?
Of course the answer isn’t just that it changes something: it changes everything. We don’t have time today to get into the multitude of different reasons why this is true—all the things that change when we understand where we are going—so today I’d simply like to conclude this series with a handful of these changes, which we see in 2 Peter 3.8-13.
What does it mean to anticipate Christ’s return as a body? It means:
• a greater desire for evangelism.
• a greater awareness of what is temporary
• a greater desire for holiness
• a greater thirst for heaven.
A Greater Drive for Evangelism
8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
There’s an old expression in the Southern U.S. when someone is moving too slowly: “Man, you’re slower than the second coming of Christ!”
It does feel this way, right? Jesus promised that he would come again—the next-to-last verse of the Bible has Jesus saying, “Surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22.20). Soon? It doesn’t feel like that. It feels like he’s taking his sweet time—John wrote his Revelation around the end of the first century A.D. So it’s been more or less 1,900 years since Jesus said that: I am coming soon.
This is why Peter takes the time to tell us that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. I’m going to digress for a moment, because I know what some of you are thinking. I know some people use this verse to suggest that because God created time, he is “outside of time” somehow, that he is simultaneously in the past and in the present—and they use this to defend or refute all kinds of doctrines. Now, it could be: that might be true. But it’s pure speculation—there’s nothing in the Bible that affirms that God is “outside of time.” What Peter says here is that with the Lord one day is AS a thousand years, and a thousand years AS one day.
Let me put it this way: you go on a vacation with your kids, and you get in the car, and you have five hours to drive. A five-hour drive is relatively easy for adults. But if you’ve got young kids, you know that to them, it feels forever long. Why does it feel so long for them, and not so long for us? Because we’re adults, and we’ve gotten used to waiting for things.
God is eternal. If you’ve lived eternally, how long do you think a few thousand years is going to feel for you? Not so long.
Here’s Peter’s point. He knows that Jesus’s return won’t feel like it’s coming “soon.” It will feel long to us, because we’re human. But all that time—these nearly two thousand years so far—seen in the perspective of eternity, is the blink of an eye.
As Peter says, The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness. It feels slow, but it’s not slow. He’s waiting, because he is patient toward you. He could have come back whenever he wanted. But he’s waiting. So why is he waiting? V. 9 again:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
God is waiting because he is making more time for repentance. He is waiting so that more may not perish.
People have this idea that the God of the Bible is harsh and unfair, ready to pounce on the smallest sin and punish the slightest indiscretion. It is true that God is a holy God, and does not—can not—excuse sin or act as if rebellion against his glory is not worthy of the greatest punishment. But harsh? Unfair? Absolutely not. Already God sent Jesus to live our life and to die our death, in our place, in order that we might live. And if that were not enough, he shows us patience we can’t even begin to fathom—a patience that has already waited thousands of years, and which will wait only he knows how many more—in order that more may come to Christ, and know him, and love him, and be saved.
So then the question is, if God is waiting to send Christ back in order that more might be saved, and if we know that, what should that knowledge produce in us? The desire that motivates God’s patience should be our desire as well. If we know that God is waiting to fulfill his promise in order that more may be saved, then we will feel the drive to accomplish our mission all the more acutely.
Christ gave us a mission:
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
He has given us a mission, and he has given us time to accomplish it. Living in anticipation of Christ’s return, as a body, means firstly a greater drive to fulfill that mission—to spread the gospel, to speak of Jesus to others, to pray for the salvation of our friends and neighbors and loved ones, to see more and more people come to know Christ and love him and be like him. This is the first thing.
A Greater Awareness of What Is Temporary
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
When Peter talks about the heavenly bodies being “burned up and dissolved,” and the earth and the works that are done on it “being exposed,” he’s not saying the earth will be totally destroyed. Rather, he means to say that much of what happens on this earth is only temporary. Not everything—we see that when Jesus was resurrected, he was raised in a physical body which was changed, but still noticeably Jesus, and that he ascended to heaven in that body. Romans 8.21 speaks of the earth waiting for the day it will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. So some things will remain. But much of what happens on this earth will be burned up—will pass away—will give way to something entirely new and entirely pure.
Living in anticipation of Christ’s return as a body will mean that as a body, we become more and more aware of what things are temporary and what things are eternal, and we will adjust our priorities, our loves and our aspirations accordingly.
Let me give you some examples. I know that some of you were probably upset at my insistence these last few weeks on being present when the church gathers—some of you probably thought I was being a bit too extreme. But I’ll quote Nathan Rose again:
"What we spend our time on shows what we truly value. If you miss church in order to sleep in or to attend a sporting activity, what does this say about the worth you ascribe to God? Replacing your church’s regularly scheduled worship time with some other activity demonstrates that God is not actually worthy of our worship; something else is… God created us to worship him. That’s the primary reason you exist. This is why the church was redeemed and this is what God’s people will do when Jesus returns and restores our fallen world."
Or, if you don’t want to take his word for it, look at what we see in Revelation 22.3, which gives us a picture of the final state of things after Christ returns and renews the earth and establishes his kingdom here:
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.
Worshiping God together is one of the main things we do as a body, and it will be one of the main things we do throughout all eternity. If we know that one of the main things we do today is not temporary, but eternal, will we not see that there must be immense value to it? If we know that we will be doing this thing which God considers beautiful enough and important enough to preserve for all eternity, will we not want to invest ourselves as much as possible in it today?
Or think of the things we like to do in our free time—whether it’s entertainment or sports or board games… Some of those things will probably still be around in the new heavens and the new earth. Entertainment, almost definitely, in some form or another. Sports…probably? Why not?
But even if entertainment is present, it will not be the central focus of life on the new creation. The central focus of life on the new creation will be the glory of God, the beauty of God, the perfection of God; everything else that happens will be a means to help us enjoy God’s glory more fully.
So when we think about the things we spend our time on, the things that are important for us, I think we can safely say that most of us give ourselves over to a lot of things that don’t really matter—that are not eternal, but temporary. That doesn’t mean there should be no place for them, but that they should be in their proper place. They should be means by which we’re enabled to see Christ more clearly and love him more fully. And if they are ever getting in the way of our seeing and loving Christ, then it should be an easy choice to simply cut them out, because they’re temporary.
Or say someone in the church gets sick. Say someone has cancer. Early in the church, when there were only fifteen or twenty of us, there was a man named Nor who was homeless. Not many people knew he was homeless; he wanted to simply be a brother in Christ and so didn’t want to draw attention to his living situation. In addition to his homelessness, a few months after he joined the church he found out he had very advanced stomach cancer. There was nothing to be done. He underwent treatment for it, but died fairly quickly after his diagnosis.
When we were planting a church filled with young people in an area which is filled with young people, I thought that the first “big event” we’d have as a church would be a wedding, or the birth of a baby. I never thought it would be a funeral. But that’s what happened. I and many other people in the church who knew Nor at the time (you know who you are, you’ll remember) had a lot of conversations with him toward the end about his life, and about his situation. And his only comfort at the end was the knowledge that his present suffering—his poverty, his cancer—was temporary. His only comfort was knowing that all of these things which worried him enormously during his life weren’t going to last.
It wasn’t just his only comfort; it was a good comfort. It was a full comfort.
Living in anticipation of Christ’s return will produce in us a greater awareness of what it temporary, and it will show us what is worth spending our time on, investing ourselves in, as a body.
A Greater Desire for Holiness
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!
It would be a mistake to miss the sense of urgency Peter expresses here. The day of the Lord is coming; Christ is returning; and everything we know will be radically changed at his coming. So how do we hope he finds us on that day? What sort of people ought we to be in lives of holiness and godliness?
You see, Peter is encouraging us to trade in things that are temporary for something that is permanent:
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness…
The majority of the things people do in this life are not done for the sake of holiness; they are not done for the glory of God. Now, they can be—anything can be. You can enjoy a cup of coffee, or an evening with your family, or write a book, or have a conversation, for the glory of God. We do this by being aware of the good things we have as a gift and thanking him and worshiping him for them; by praying that he would use this conversation or this evening with our family to help us love Christ more deeply; by seeking to edify and exhort to holiness our brothers and sisters through the writing of this book.
But the truth is that most of the time, most Christians don’t think to go about their business in this way, and unbelievers never do it. They may reflect the image of God without being aware they’re doing it, but they never willingly do anything for God’s glory.
Here’s Peter’s point: the things of this earth—the sky, the land and the works that are done on them—will be dissolved and renewed at Christ’s coming, like a bit of silver ore that’s melted down to make pure, refined silver. And the only things that will last—the only things that will still be around afterwards—are works of holiness and godliness.
So the church that knows this, that lives in anticipation of Christ’s return, will manifest a greater desire for holiness. And if you think about it, all of us want this, even if we don’t realize it. What has driven the entire human race throughout the course of history has been the desire to build something that will last. We want to do this as societies, and we want to do this as individuals. We want to build something that won’t be just “here today, gone tomorrow.”
And Peter tells us how to do that. If we want to build something that will last, then we will build our lives—as individuals and as the body of Christ—on holiness and godliness. If we truly anticipate Christ’s return as a body, then we will encourage and exhort one another to follow hard after Christ. We will brutally reject sin, and protect ourselves and one another from it. We will watch one another carefully—not in order to judge one another, but so that we might come quickly alongside each other to help one another grow in holiness.
We will recognize what is temporary, and what is permanent, and we will exhort one another to always go in that direction. As the old poem says, “Only one life, 'twill soon be past. Only what's done for Christ will last.”
So this anticipation of Christ’s return will produce in us a greater drive for evangelism, a greater awareness of what is temporary, a greater desire for holiness, and—lastly—a greater thirst for heaven.
A Greater Thirst for Heaven
13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
The idea that the world and its works will be burned up and renewed—that much of what we do is at best temporary—seems like a let-down; it seems like if this is true, then when Christ comes back we’ll lose everything. And that’s why Peter ends here—rather than looking at what we may lose at his coming, we are called to consider all that we will gain.
And what we will gain is the fulfillment of God’s promise: new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. The reason why it’s not bad news that certain things will be lost is because if we lose it, it wasn’t worth keeping to begin with. The only thing that will ultimately satisfy us—that will truly complete us—is knowing and loving and being like Christ. And that is what we gain at the end of all this.
But how many of us really think this way? How often do we actually think about heaven? Not that often. The idea of heaven seems vague and fuzzy to us—we think of Tom and Jerry sitting on clouds playing harps for all eternity. No wonder people feel like Christianity isn’t worth buying into, if at the end of it all, the whole point is that we have to wear white robes and sit around just generally contemplating things—for all time!
But many Christians still think this way too. They know they don’t want to go to hell, but they’re not all that excited about heaven. They’re excited about their career, or building a family, or decorating their home. They’re not nearly as excited about heaven as they are about whatever life they’re trying to build for themselves here.
And that is a big problem.
Think about the week you’ve just had. There is a lot of anticipation leading into the Christmas holidays: we decorate, we plan parties, we buy presents and wrap them and put them under the tree… Kids are practically beside themselves with anticipation. And then the day comes, and you have a great time—you enjoy your family, you open the presents, you hug each other and laugh and say thank you…
And then what? Usually, if we’re honest, the week after Christmas is kind of a let-down. You’ve seen it particularly if you have kids—it’s something I remember from my own childhood. Jack got two huge Lego sets for Christmas—one from his grandparents and one from his aunt and uncle—and he was so excited. So he went to work building them, and he finished both within a couple days. And then, he sat back and he looked at what he’d built, and he was like… “Now what?” He doesn’t want to play with what he’s built, because they’re Legos, and they fall apart. So now he’s sort of left wondering what to do with all this free time.
I’m exaggerating, of course—he’s not bored. My point is that the payoff is always less impressive than the anticipation, isn’t it?
Of course it is—it’s inevitable that that would be the case, because most of the time, what we’re anticipating at Christmas are temporary, fleeting pleasures. Even if the Christmas we had was the perfect Christmas, it would still be a letdown, because all the gifts and the lights and the songs and the decorations are a pale imitation of what we’re really celebrating when we celebrate Christmas. We’re celebrating the birth of Christ, who came and lived and died and was raised to reconcile us to God and secure for us an eternal life of joy with him when we die, or when he returns…
But we’re not dead yet. Jesus hasn’t come back yet. There is a huge part of this story we’re still waiting for. So we work ourselves up and try to give ourselves other things to anticipate…but these “other things,” even if they’re good, are nothing compared to the real thing—the return of Christ, the renewal of the earth, and the beginning of our glorious eternity with him.
Jesus has already secured our salvation. He has already come and lived and died and resurrected. We are already counted righteous in Christ.
But he hasn’t yet returned. We are not yet home.
I want to insist on this because in this church we talk a lot about finding our joy in Christ, being content in Christ, being satisfied in Christ. And recently we’ve had to have a lot of conversations with people about what exactly that means.
Being satisfied in Christ does not mean being fully satisfied now—because the only place we’re going to be fully satisfied is the New Heavens and the New Earth.
Finding our joy in Christ does not mean never being sad, never weeping, never mourning—because the only place we’ll no longer weep or mourn is the New Heavens and the New Earth.
It means, as Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 4.13, “mourning as those who have hope.” It means remembering in our weeping that our joy is still intact. It means being thirsty for more of what we have already tasted.
We live in the already and the not yet. Christ has already reconciled us to God, but we are not yet with God in the New Heavens and the New Earth. We are already rejoicing in Christ, but we have not yet reached the culmination of our joy. We are already content in Christ, but we have not yet reached our full satisfaction in him.
The only way this kind of language will make any sense to you, the only way this kind of life will make any sense to you, is if you fix your eyes regularly and faithfully on heaven—on the renewed earth where we will spend eternity with Jesus. Let me show you two ways this plays out in our lives.
Firstly, fixing our eyes on heaven gives us hope in suffering. I’ll give you just one example. Several couples in the church, including Loanne and me, have had miscarriages this year—in some cases more than one. We were broken because of this, we mourned the loss of these children. It was a difficult year for many of us. But because we know where we are going, because our eyes are fixed on heaven, this pain does not have the power to break us. Our ultimate hope is not in our children; it is not in the lives or the families we are building for ourselves here. Our hope is in our eternity with Christ, which Lord willing we’ll spend with those children we’ve lost.
Secondly, fixing our eyes on heaven protects us in happiness. It is our protection against idolatry. As you know, this church is practically exploding with babies. We’ve had four babies born so far this year, and Lord willing, five more will arrive between now and June. Some of the women who are pregnant right now are the same women who had miscarriages earlier. It is an incredibly tempting thing for parents (especially new parents) to let their children become the center of their world—parents are happy, as they should be, and the anticipation of seeing these babies born is considerable.
But just as the loss of our children should not have the power to rob us of our joy in this life, the promise of new children must not become our hope for joy in this life. Our ultimate hope is not in our children. Our ultimate hope is not in the lives that we’re trying to build for ourselves here and now. Because even if all goes perfectly well, and our children are born healthy and they grow to be happy and well-adjusted adults, our lives and the lives of our children on this earth are temporary and fleeting and wildly imperfect. Nothing on this earth can be our ultimate hope for joy, because if it’s on this earth, it will disappoint us.
The only protection we have against idolatry is knowing who our God is, and what he has done for us, and where he is bringing us.
According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
We must dwell on heaven often, brothers and sisters, for heaven is our home; heaven is where we will see God most clearly; heaven is where we will enjoy God most fully.
And we’ll find that, sort of surprisingly, if we dwell much on heaven, we’ll be more useful for God on this earth, because our priorities will always be kept in check. No project, no endeavor, no ministry, will ever be too important for us; and no soul will ever be unimportant for us.
We must anticipate the New Heavens and the New Earth, brothers and sisters. We must let the knowledge of Christ’s impending return produce in us a greater desire for evangelism; a greater awareness of what is temporary; a greater desire for holiness; and a greater thirst for heaven.
And if you don’t know Christ this morning, my prayer is that you would feel uneasy right now at the possibility of missing this. The only way to inherit this eternal life we are promised is faith in Christ. I want you to realize that if today you haven’t placed your faith in Christ, and repented of your sins, you will miss out on this. You won’t be there with us. You will be judged based on your sin, not on Christ’s righteousness.
The good news is that God never turns away those who come to him in faith; he never turns away those who accept the gift of his Son. So if you want to enjoy God forever on the new heavens and the new earth, all you have to do is ask. Repent of your sins, turn from them, and trust Jesus for your salvation. The promise of heaven, which all of us will enjoy and which shapes our lives today, is only a prayer away.