When I think about the issue of the study of the end times, I find two major extremes among fellow Christians. For the most part, I will see people who are either so fascinated with the end times that they focus on almost nothing else, or I find people who have decided that end times thinking is so hard that it simply should be ignored. Neither position, however, fits a biblical point of view.
In Acts 1, Luke shares for us the account of the final earthly conversation between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. They have all gathered atop the Mount of Olives, and Jesus makes a final promise. The disciples are curious about when Jesus is going to set up an earthly kingdom in Israel (v. 6), and Jesus tells them, basically, that this is not for them to know. Instead, Jesus told the disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit, and they would then go and be his witnesses all throughout the world (vv. 7-8).
The entire conversation makes some sense. The disciples are expecting Jesus to continue what it looked to many like he was starting during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They think maybe he is now going to gather up followers who will be really amazed by his conquering of death. They expect him to head to Jerusalem, become king, and overthrow the Romans.
Jesus, for his part, tells them that they need to be thinking in an entirely different way. They need to be ready to receive the Spirit of God, something new and wonderful in the experience of the people of God. And, they need to be ready to go tell all kinds of people about Jesus. They need to be ready to tell the Jews, the Samaritans, and the world about him. They need to start there in the city, hit the countryside, and expand to a global mission of telling people about the risen Savior.
Then something absolutely amazing happens. Jesus ascends to heaven. He simply is lifted up from the earth and leaves this world.
Acts 1:9-11 – 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
The departure is stunning. Jesus was caught up into the air. It had to remind people, at least a little bit, of the Old Testament story of Elijah, caught up to God in a whirlwind. But this is different. There is no violent storm. Jesus goes up, is hidden by a cloud, and is gone. In the sky, the Savior crossed out of this physical world and entered heaven, the throne room of God, and remains there physically, eternally alive.
Obviously, the disciples marvel at this. They are just staring at the sky. And then, to put the proper teaching close on this event, a pair of angels stand before the disciples with last instructions. The command is for the disciples not to stand there staring at the sky. Instead, the command is to get out there and get to work. The disciples are to obey Jesus’ commands, wait for the Spirit, and then take the gospel to the nations.
However, the angels did not tell the disciples not to think about the return of Jesus. In fact, the angels made it plain that the return of Jesus is a big deal. Jesus is going to come back in just the same way that he left. Jesus will descend to earth from heaven. Jesus will come on the clouds, just as a cloud had hidden him at his departure. Jesus will physically stand again on the Mount of Olives, just as he was physically standing there before his departure. And all this is to comfort the disciples enough to press them on toward obedience.
So, what should we see? Ignoring the end times is foolish. The promise of the physical return of Jesus is critical. That promise is a promise of something to come that is the hope of the church and the fulfillment of promise.
At the same time, to become so fascinated by the end times that we only look at the skies and argue about the order of upcoming events is not helpful. The angels told the disciples that Jesus would return visibly and physically. Then they told the disciples to go and get to work.
What then should we do? We should think about the words of Scripture, because they all matter. To pretend that the prophecies surrounding the return of Jesus and the close of the age do not matter is foolish and is dishonoring to God. To be, however, so fully consumed by that topic that you hurt others by being argumentative and refuse to do the things that God calls the church to do is also foolish. May we strike the proper balance between longing for the return of the Savior and keeping our heads down and doing the work of Christian ministry. May we love thinking about what is to come as we do what needs to be done now. May we find courage to take the gospel to the nations in the fact that the Savior is going to come down from heaven one day to make all things new.