It is widely reported that the 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther once said: “If I knew for sure that Jesus was coming back tomorrow, I’d plant a tree today.” Luther wasn’t trying to be cute, nor did he think that his words were contradictory. He was simply pointing out that no amount of speculation or confidence or doubt or belief about when Jesus might return should ever undermine the fulfillment of our basic ethical obligations or lead us to abandon the routine responsibilities set forth for us in Scripture.
Sadly, many Christians through the centuries have taken an altogether different and unbiblical approach to this problem. Convinced that Christ was to return very, very soon, they abandoned their daily tasks and embraced a form of hyper-spirituality that served only to bring reproach on the name of Christ and disaster to their own lives. How often have we heard and seen something like this?
- The end of all things is at hand. Therefore, let’s shave our heads, adorn ourselves in white robes, sell our possessions, and run to the hills!
- We are certain that Jesus is coming back before we die. Therefore, let’s set a specific date for Jesus’ return, then write it up in a best-selling book!
- The end of all things is at hand. Therefore, let’s abandon the local church and forget about higher education, paying our taxes, getting married, having children and mowing the grass!
Well, not exactly. The Apostle Peter’s advice is of a different spirit. “Yes,” said Peter. “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly” (1 Peter 4:7-8). You should also be hospitable to one another without grumbling about it, and use your spiritual gifts to serve and minister to one another, always seeking the fame of God’s name, not your own (1 Peter 4:8-11).
Let’s consider how we should react to the reality of Christ’s impending return. What kind of person does God want you to be in view of the end of all things (2 Peter 3:11)? Peter provides answers to this question in both of his letters. One might think that the reality of the end would lead Peter to call for extraordinary deeds of great power, works that would capture the attention of the world and gain for us fame and glory. No, in 1 Peter, he emphasizes the simple, basic tasks of everyday life that must be pursued: Praying for one another, loving one another, hosting one another, and serving one another.
The apostle clearly says that our first responsibility, in view of the impending end of all things, is to pray for one another as mature and level-headed intercessors (verse 7). Thinking about the end of all things has led some to panic and lose their composure, to forsake common sense, to ignore the Scriptures and to act irrationally. But one can be a faithful and fervent intercessor without losing perspective or composure. Use the nearness of the end as an incentive and opportunity for prayer, but don’t lose your head in the process. What we desperately need in today’s out-of-control world are self-controlled, level-headed, mature, sober-minded prayer warriors.
Our second responsibility, in view of the impending end of all things, is to keep loving one another. Peter here calls for earnest and passionate affection for other Christians in the Body of Christ (1 Peter 4:8). Peter’s use of the present tense requires that we translate this exhortation as “keep loving” (ESV), “maintain” love for one another (NRSV), or “hold” love (RSV). Love already existed, was already active and real, and Peter calls for them to retain and sustain their fervency.
As you think about your final days on this earth, as you reflect on the glory and majesty of the return of Christ in the heavens, as you envision the skies above set ablaze by the myriad angels who will accompany Jesus at His return, as you contemplate the destruction of His enemies and the impending inauguration of the eternal state … love one another.
Our third responsibility, in view of the impending end of all things, is to graciously and generously host one another. Peter makes an appeal for happy hospitality (1 Peter 4:9). It’s really quite shocking to discover how important hospitality is in the New Testament and how essential it is to defining those who are truly followers of Jesus. Hospitality is one of the defining marks of the Christian church (see Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; and Hebrews 13:2).
This sort of hospitality was especially important in the first century when public lodging could not be afforded or was not available. We often forget that in the first century there was not a Motel 6 or Hampton Inn on every corner. The Christian mission depended on believers providing lodging and food and finances for those traveling with the Gospel (Matthew 10:11, 40; Acts 16:15; 3 John 7-11). I call it “happy” hospitality because of Peter’s qualifying phrase, without grumbling (verse 9). Hospitality is hard. People can take advantage of you by staying too long (“are they ever going to leave?”) and may exploit your generosity. It is easy to begrudge your charity to others.
Our fourth and final responsibility, in view of the impending end of all things, is to use our spiritual gifts to serve one another. Peter here calls for grace-empowered, Christ-centered service (verses 10-11) that is pursued for the glory of God through Jesus Christ (verse 11).
In Peter’s second letter, he emphasizes the idea that we are to wait for the day of the Lord’s coming in holiness, living lives that are “without spot and blameless” (2 Peter 3:14). Sadly, many think of “holiness” almost exclusively in terms of what we don’t do. Of course, in one sense that is certainly a part of what it means to live a holy life. One cannot indulge in sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3) or drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18) or lewd speech (Ephesians 5:4) and remain consistent with the Biblical call for a life that is “without spot and blameless.”
But holiness begins with the awareness that we have been set apart and consecrated unto God as His unique and treasured possession. From this sense of personal identity emerges a life that is characterized by daily repentance and confident trust in Jesus as our source and supply for every need.
And we certainly can’t conceive of holiness apart from the understanding that we are to be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). In other words, to be holy, as Peter, Paul and the other New Testament authors envision, is to be increasingly like Jesus: loving what He loves, turning from what He hates, speaking as He would speak, loving and forgiving and bearing with one another as He has with each of us. If people don’t see and hear Jesus in us, we have fallen short of what the New Testament means by the word holiness.
So, if I may again use the words of Peter from his second epistle, chapter three: what sort of person are you going to be as you patiently await the end of all things? The answer provided by the Word of God is unmistakably clear and must be heard by us all. ©2017 Sam Storms
Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version. The quotation marked NRSV is taken from The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version; the one marked RSV is from the Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version.
Sam Storms is the lead pastor for preaching and vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City. He is an author and is president of the Evangelical Theological Society.