Recently God has convicted me of how anemic my longing for Jesus’ appearing is compared to what I read about in the New Testament. Yet as I strive to “hope fully” in Jesus’ revealing (1 Peter 1:13), I wonder: how did the apostles sustain a longing to see Jesus when they realized he might not return in their lifetime?
Thankfully Paul’s writings span a long enough period of time that we can trace his eagerness to see his Lord again. His first letter, 1 Thessalonians, is permeated with references to the coming of Jesus. He envisions presenting the Thessalonians to Jesus at his coming as his “crown of boasting” (2:19) and prays that Jesus would “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (3:13). In chapter 4 he gives one of the most extended accounts of Jesus’ return, climaxing in the hope, “and so we will always be with the Lord” (4:17).
In the 10 years between writing 1 Thessalonians and Philippians, Paul experienced much of the persecution and near-death experiences recorded in the later chapters of Acts–beatings, stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, and the incitement of more than one riot. All the while God used his gospel ministry to save sinners, plant and equip churches, and display the authority of the kingdom of God.
Appropriately, Paul’s love for Jesus burned brighter and his sense that he might die before the Lord’s return grew. Thus he wrestles between his options in Philippians 1:21-23–“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Even though Paul knew that he might die before Jesus’ appearing, this did nothing to diminish his hope in that glorious moment. Later in the letter he writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21).
By the time Paul wrote his final letter, death was no longer an option but an imminent inevitability. In 2 Timothy 2:4-5 he penned his famous valedictory–“The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” In these final months of his life, his sights remained set on the coming of his Savior as he anticipated receiving the crown of righteousness “which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).
Jesus may or may not return in our lifetime, but he will indeed come in the same way that he ascended. May we follow Paul’s example and love his appearing as the supreme climax to our lives, even to death.