If you believe you will meet Jesus one day, you likely also believe that you are ready for that occasion. On what is that confidence based?
In my experience, many Christians think they are prepared because of something that has happened in the past. Perhaps they got baptized or were confirmed or said a prayer at summer camp or whatever. The point is that their assurance of right standing on the Day of the Lord comes from, in essence, a “Get into Heaven Card” they have already received. For all intents and purposes, their preparation for the End is complete. They can rest easy, knowing that there is nothing of ultimate importance left to do. Unfortunately, this attitude is unbiblical. In this reflection, we will look at Jesus’ teaching on the topic. Jesus spent a lot of time warning people to be ready. Before we get to the text, however, let’s start our examination of this subject with a quick look at the nature of readiness.
The Nature of Readiness
Readiness is about being prepared for a future event. However, different categories of events require different types of readiness. We need to understand what type of event the coming of Jesus is so that we can prepare for it accordingly. Many people are ill-prepared to meet Jesus because they have been getting ready for the wrong kind of event.
There are at least two categories of future events. The first I will call the “Natural Disaster” category. This type of event would include earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. To prepare for these, people secure bookshelves, reinforce walls and over-passes, board up windows, build up levees, purchase insurance, evacuate, etc.
Please notice two characteristics about the events in this category. First, preparing for them involves doing jobs that can be completed. You can finish the work. There is a point at which you can sit back and say, “I am prepared, at least as prepared as I want to be.” For example, the hurricane is coming, but the levees are reinforced, the sandbags are filled, the windows are boarded, and you are in a hotel room 500 miles away, watching the coverage on TV. Your work is done. Now you can sit and do nothing but wait.
The second thing to notice is that unless you go and undo what has already been done, you never become unready. People who are prepared for the storm remain ready while doing nothing more. Sitting in the hotel room just watching TV is not going to cause you to become less prepared. After the checklist is completed, your readiness level remains the same.
Of course, natural disasters are not the only type of events that fit into this category. Think about being ready for a vacation. The car is serviced and full of gas, the bags are packed, the travel insurance purchased, the route mapped out, the dog sitter scheduled, and the passport renewed. Every task on the pre-trip checklist is finished, and you are able to relax on the couch the night before the trip and say “I am prepared.” The same principles apply. You were able to finish all the tasks, and are not going to become unready as you sit on the couch or sleep. Preparation is done. Now you just wait.
There is a second group of events, however, with different characteristics. I’ll put them in the “Unscheduled Return of the Boss to Work” category. A typical future event of this type would be the return of a supervisor from vacation or lunch at an undisclosed time. What does it take to be ready? Keeping busy. You need to be sure you know what to do and then you need to keep doing it. You don’t want to be found slacking off when the boss pops in.
Here is what to notice about being ready for this category of events. First, it involves tasks that must be continually performed until the event occurs. You need to work at being ready right up until the time it happens. The job is never completed. You can never rest and must always be vigilant.
Although there are tasks involved that can be completed, such as upgrading the computer so it won’t crash or making coffee to drink to keep energized, finishing those tasks only enables you to continue working. You don’t tell the boss “I was working but my printer ran out of ink, so I quit.” Nor would it be wise to say, “I filled up the ink cartridges on the printer and figured that was good enough, so I called it a day.” In both cases the manager will consider you unready for his or her return.
In this category of events there is no point where you can say, “I’m finished. I’ve done all I can. I am now completely ready for the person in charge to return.” Instead, it is necessary to watch, to work, and to be prepared to watch and work for the long haul.
The second thing to notice about readiness for these types of events is that you can be ready at one point and then stop being ready. As long as you are performing the necessary tasks, you are ready, but as soon as you stop working, you become unready. Have you ever stayed busy right up until two minutes before your supervisor came back and then decided that one quick game of computer solitaire wouldn’t hurt? You may have been ready up until two minutes before his or her return, but if the boss caught you playing electronic cards, you weren’t ready.
Another example of a future event that fits into this category is a terrorist attack. How do airports, for example, or buildings such as the White House prepare for a potential attack from terrorists? While they do some tasks that can be completed, such as installing concrete road blocks to keep cars at a distance, ultimately they would be less than secure if they did not also post guards to keep watch. These sentries are responsible to keep an around-the-clock lookout for suspicious activity. If the watchmen fall asleep on the job or don’t show up for work, places like airports and the White House stop being ready. The same principle of readiness applies.
A final example of an “Unscheduled Return of the Boss” type of event is a bridal entrance. To be ready for a bride to make her appearance at a wedding, you have to be watching for her. You may have already accomplished many tasks to be ready for that moment (showering, traveling to the wedding site, purchasing a gift, etc.), but if you are not watching for the bride to enter, you are not ready.
This actually happened to me. My wife and I attended an outdoor wedding in a beautiful Southern California location. We found our seats among a large group of old friends that we had not seen for a while, and everyone started visiting. Because of the acoustics of the setting, the music accompanying the ceremony was very hard to hear, and in the midst of our talking and laughing, we did not notice the wedding start. By the time we realized what was happening, most of the wedding party had already marched down the aisle and was waiting at the front for the bride. As everyone stood up to welcome her, we finally took notice. We were not ready, much to our embarrassment.
Again, readiness for this type of event involves tasks that must be continually performed until the event occurs. One must work at being prepared right up until the time the event happens. The work is never completed. There is no rest; one must always be vigilant.
That difference between the two categories of events is clearly seen in the answer to the question: “How do we know we are ready for a future event?” In the “Natural Disaster” category we would say, “We have accomplished certain tasks” or at least, “Certain tasks have already been accomplished.” In the “Boss Returning to Work” category we would say, “We have performed certain tasks or certain tasks have been accomplished, and we are performing certain tasks and are prepared to perform them (or at least have them performed) indefinitely.”
The Big Question
With this understanding of the nature of readiness as a background, we come to the big question: Which type of event is the return of Christ?
People often speak of Jesus’ return as if it was a natural disaster. They talk of being ready using references to things accomplished in the past: “Jesus died for me. I asked him into my heart. Both of these events are done. My insurance is purchased, my windows are boarded up, and my bookshelves are securely fastened to the wall. I’m ready. I can rest. Hurricane Jesus is on the way, but all that can be done is done. I will be spared.”
Jesus, however, never talked about being ready for his return in this sense. According to Jesus, his return fits perfectly into our second category of future events. Indeed, he spoke of himself as a master, a thief, and a bridegroom, metaphors that coincide precisely with being a boss, a terrorist and a bride.
For example, in warning his disciples about the coming judgment at his return, Jesus compared himself to a master of household servants:
No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 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 13:32-37)
It is clear which type of event this is. Jesus is the boss making an unscheduled return.
In a similar warning, Jesus compared himself to a thief in the night. The arrival of a burglar is to be treated exactly as we would treat a terrorist attack: with constant watchfulness:
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:42-44)
Jesus then proceeded immediately to another story in which he is the master returning to his servants.
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.(Matthew 24:45-51)
Then, just in case his listeners had not yet apprehended the point, Jesus compared himself to a bridegroom, another person whose coming must be prepared for with constant vigilance.
At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”
“No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
Later the others also came. “Sir! Sir!” they said. “Open the door for us!”
But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13)
In one teaching episode, Jesus used all the metaphors. He pulled together images of a boss and a thief and even threw in a reference to a wedding banquet, perhaps to remind his listeners of his other lessons on this subject.
“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Peter asked, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?”
The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.” (Luke 12:35-46)
In all of his teachings, Jesus spoke of his return as an event that belongs in our second category. There is not a single example of Jesus telling us to prepare for his return as though it is natural disaster type of event. We are not to prepare as if the coming of Jesus is like a hurricane or earthquake, but rather as if the returning Jesus is like a thief or a boss coming back to the job site. Jesus tells his followers to be continually working, always watching, constantly on guard. Disciples are to never stop doing this; they are not to fall asleep. To be ready for Jesus means to keep busy until he returns, not rely on past actions. There is no point at which anyone can say, “I have done everything I need to do to be ready, and my preparation is complete.” Rather, we must persevere in our work to the end.
The rest of the New Testament echoes the Gospels in teaching this principle. For example, Paul told the Thessalonians, “Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape”(1 Thessalonians 5:1-3).
Being ready for Jesus is not a matter of having a nice list of past experiences to refer back to. It is a matter of working and watching for Him right now. It is a matter of growing in righteousness until the very moment we die or he returns. It means not falling asleep on the job. Living holy lives to the end is essential. Peter paints a very clear picture:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.(2 Peter 3:10-18)
The potential for falling from a secure position is exactly what worried Jesus about the church in Sardis. He declared through John that they needed to wake up and follow the example of those who overcome and do not get their names blotted out of the Book of Life.
To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.(Revelation 3:1-6)
Are we listening?