Jesus Christ encourages us through the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1–13) to keep watch and prepare “to meet the bridegroom.” How should pastors and church leaders help people prepare without causing unnecessary division or engaging in false speculation when even the Son doesn’t know when He will return (Matthew 24:36)?
LIGHT + LIFE asked a diverse group of Free Methodist pastors how they preach or teach about the Second Coming and how to live in preparation for Christ’s return.
“Jesus warns us about trying to set a time for His return, but in the same vein, He instructs us in the matter of being ready for His return no matter when it may take place,” Manhattan (Kansas) First Free Methodist Church Pastor Lewis O. Smith Sr. said. “This is the most important part of the Second Coming of the Lord. It does not matter when He comes. It matters whether we are ready or not.”
Regarding the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Smith explained, “The number ten is probably used because it stands for completeness in God’s Word.” He also noted that Paul portrayed Christ as the groom/husband of the church, and he said we have the responsibility of preparing for Christ’s return.
“We cannot deny that there are various views among Christians about how the events surrounding the Second Coming will transpire. Some believe in a literal seven-year tribulation and a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Others interpret these events in a symbolic manner,” Smith said. “No matter how we interpret these events, the thing that should occupy our attention is the fact that Christ will return.”
Gerry (New York) Free Methodist Church Pastor Roberta Mosier-Peterson recently preached from Luke 12:32–40, which includes this instruction: “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants 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” (v.35–36).
Mosier-Peterson told LIGHT + LIFE, “The context of the whole passage is our relationship with possessions and money. Jesus challenges us to seek God’s kingdom as the primary passion of our life. He knows that ‘things’ get in the way of us being ready to do that. We often plan and prioritize our lives around our security. We worry about others and their evaluation of us when we are told by Jesus to plan and prioritize our lives around His Kingdom. Those who prioritize God’s kingdom first are ready for whatever comes. There is no fear in death, destruction from natural disasters, or the end times.”
That passage ends with Jesus saying, “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Mosier-Peterson explained, “It is clear that the details of the end are not for us to figure out or even worry about. To live as if Jesus will return soon essentially means living in the present awareness that Jesus is King. The kingdom of God is our current residence and come what may, we have nothing to fear.”
The word “eschatology” is one name for theology that discusses the end of the world or Christ’s Second Coming.
The Table Church (Oroville, California) Lead Pastor Jaymes Lackey pointed to the word “prolepsis” as carrying “the perfect connotations of eschatological living.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word as “the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.” Lackey explains that Christians can be “so sure and confident of the New Heavens and New Earth crashing into each other to become New Creation. We are so confident of our own impending resurrections that we can live now as if that reality is already present. All of our lives and work becomes a living out of that blessed eternal reality.”
Ron Hampton, the pastor of New Vision Community Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, said he teaches “on the premise of John 3:16 as the foundation in which all Scripture was written. I teach love given is love returned. I emphasize that Jesus is coming back to claim His own, and our obedience here grants us reward when we get there.”
Hampton said that by leading a multicultural congregation in an urban setting, he preaches to many people who “come straight off the street with issues of drugs, prostitution, domestic abuse violence, gangs and crime. For many of them, the only Bible they see is us. To convict them that there is another way to live is first meeting their immediate needs of food, water, clothing, shelter just as Jesus did and to share our personal story of victory through Jesus Christ of our own circumstances.”
Associate Pastor Christopher Noyes said that at Iglesia Nueva Vida in Cleveland, Ohio, “We base our preaching/teaching on Christ’s Second Coming in the Scriptures and the ancient creeds. It is an essential aspect of understanding who we are as Christ-followers, as we understand where/when we are in God’s great story. We live in that final chapter, after the climax of Christ’s victory over death and sin, but before the final resolution of the fullness of His kingdom.”
Noyes shared a favorite quote from Richard John Neuhaus: “We are premature ambassadors, having arrived at the court before the sovereignty of our king has been recognized. It is awkward, of course, and our authority is very much in question. We must resist the temptation to relieve the awkwardness by accepting a lesser authority from another kingdom” (fmchr.ch/rjn). Noyes added, “The import of stressing where we are in the story is so that we can be prepared and be about the business of establishing the kingdom.”
Larry D. Bailey Jr. — the pastor of Living Water Free Methodist Church in Huntington, West Virginia, and a professor of biblical studies at Marshall University — said he tries to inform and educate his “congregation, students or audience about the different theological views some hold.” He said he finds himself “clarifying the difference between prophetic literature and apocalyptic literature in Scripture, and how translating apocalyptic literature through the same methodology as the prophetic is bound to lead to skewed interpretation.”
Bailey said he encourages questions even though they “can be hard and are often from defensive emotional responses due to exposure to points of view different from the widely accepted religious pop culture ‘Left Behind’ theology.” He added that he does “not teach that people should live as if Jesus is returning soon. I feel that if we are teaching from such a position, we are using unhealthy fear to manipulate people to do and act in certain ways that may or may not be authentic, and it has been my observation that such faith is often short-lived.”
Laura J. Hunt, the associate pastor of New Beginnings Community Church of Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor, Michigan), said she has “really disliked some church discussions about the implications of Jesus returning soon, because sometimes people seem to think that this means that they should be doing something completely different than they already are. And maybe some should — each has to decide that for themselves. But if I am called in this moment to sweep the floor, I do not believe Jesus would be unhappy to return and find me sweeping the floor. I think it’s important to preach both the possibility that Jesus could return at any second alongside the fact that He does not judge or value different tasks the same way we might tend to.”
Hunt recently preached on Matthew 24 and 25. During the sermon, she said, “Jesus is coming back, He will come unexpectedly, and we need to live with His image in our minds. Our response to that revelation of God, through Jesus, the Bible and the Holy Spirit, is to worship Him both in church on Sundays and in our everyday lives.”
Don’t Be Deceived
One of the pastors cautioned that we should not be deceived as we await Christ’s return. Smith pointed to Jesus’ warning: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:4-5).
“This means that we as believers must always be on guard for Christ’s coming is described as ‘a thief,’” said Smith, who also cited Luke 12:39-40. “In describing it as a thief, Christ did not intend to show that it would be quiet, but that it would be sudden and unexpected, that the wick would be taken by surprise.”
Divisive or Unifying?
Is the Second Coming a divisive issue for the church?
Hampton has not found that to be the case for his congregation. He said, “We are fortunate to have people with teachable spirits that have a hunger and thirst for the Word of God. They live with an expectation of His return knowing that they’ve accepted Him as their Lord and Savior. There is no division as we are all of one accord.”
Smith agreed and said, “I don’t believe that this topic brings division in the church. If anything, it opens the eyes of all believers and nonbelievers in their decision to either follow Christ or not follow Him. The only way to teach in a way that will unify God’s people is through the Word of God and only through His Word.”
Bailey also said discussion of the Second Coming has not caused division in any local church he has served, but “in speaking in terms of the church universal, I have personally seen heated arguments between professing believers of different denominations and friendships severed.”
Bailey advised several ways to avoid division: “First, listening to the differing point of view without becoming defensive or attacking it; just simply try to understand the what and why of the different position. Secondly, go back to the most common belief that Christians agree upon, only by the price that Christ paid can any be saved. … Finally, if we can all agree that after having come to believe that Jesus could, would and did wash away our sin, we are a new creation, living a new life, a life given to our Lord.” He said we should live this way “no matter how or when God decides to bring this world to its corrupt conclusion.”
Hunt teaches Free Methodist Experience classes for the East Michigan Training Institute, and she has found her students to be pleased that the Free Methodist Church allows multiple views about the end times. “The broad construction of the FMC works,” Hunt said.
Noyes traces division within the body of Christ “to the popularity of the ‘Left Behind’ series.” He said popular works like the series “are loosely based on ‘rapture theology,’” and “we try to redirect our congregation to the actual Scriptures. There we find that God doesn’t provide an escape plan from a world wasting away. Rather He has a plan of salvation, redemption and restoration. Christ doesn’t come to steal away His faithful; He comes as we welcome Him to rule ‘on earth as in heaven.’ We try to contextualize divisive passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:17 by pointing out that the idea isn’t escape, but we ‘meet the Lord’ as a welcome party as He returns to earth to rule His kingdom.”
Noyes added, “Even Revelation speaks of God making his home among mortals, that He will dwell with them. The whole thrust of Revelation 21 is that the new Jerusalem comes down. Nothing can be more unifying than understanding that God restores all things; that there is no fear in the coming of His kingdom. Our goal/role is to be full participants in the coming of that kingdom.”
Jeff Finley serves as this magazine’s executive editor and previously worked as a reporter and editor for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church in Indianapolis where he serves as a delegate.2