World-shaking events like those of September 11 cause many Christians to think about the return of Christ and the end of the world. Such cataclysmic events certainly feel like “signs of the times” signaling the end of the age. Unfortunately, we also have to admit with some embarrassment that Christians have wrongly seen signs of Jesus’ return in many historical events. Christians have been certain they saw the signs of the end in the rise of Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler, Henry Kissinger, and many others. During the Gulf War, there was such a demand for books connecting Saddam Hussein with Armageddon that bookstores could not keep them on the shelves. So far, we have a 100 percent failure rate; we have never been right. In response to this embarrassing picture, other Christians have decided that it is foolish to concern themselves with the second coming at all. They see any concern with the “signs of the times” as naïve and pointless. What should our attitude be toward the events that will lead up to the return of Christ? Is trying to sort out the prophetic puzzle essential for believers or foolish? One thing is certain: as Christians, we are followers of the one who said concerning His coming, “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” But what does it mean to be on the alert? Jesus clearly means us to take His second coming seriously, but what exactly does He want us to do?

Near the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives and talked to His disciples about the future. As He came to the end of this “Olivet Discourse,” Jesus said:

Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will. (Matthew 24:42-44)

In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus is telling His disciples a very surprising thing. Who would have guessed that the Messiah would come into the world only to go away again? Instead of announcing to them that He was going to establish His kingdom today, or tomorrow, or next month, He tells them instead that He is going away and that His return is going to be unannounced and unexpected. In fact, He is going to come like a “thief in the night.” Thieves do not announce that they are coming. The homeowner goes to bed assuming tonight will be like any other night, but he is wrong; tonight, a thief will creep in through the window and overturn his life. If the homeowner had known the thief was coming, he would have been ready for him. But who ever knows in advance that a thief is coming? Jesus is saying that His return is going to catch the world by surprise in the same way.

The followers of Jesus, however, should not be taken by surprise. Why? Have we been told in advance exactly when Jesus is returning? Not at all; the day and the hour of Jesus’ return is just as much a mystery to us as it is to the rest of the world. We do, however, have a critical advantage. We do not know when Jesus is returning, but we do know that He is returning. While the rest of the world is asleep, we are on the alert, waiting expectantly for the day that Jesus promised would come.

Now we are getting to the heart of the issue. What exactly does it mean to be “on the alert”? Jesus goes on to tell a parable that shows very clearly what it means to be ready for His coming:

Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that evil slave says in his heart, “My master is not coming for a long time,” and shall begin to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know, and shall cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth.

(Matthew 24:45-51)

In this parable we have a picture of two kinds of slaves, one who is ready for his master’s return and one who is not. Notice that neither kind of slave knows when the master will return. The “blessed” slave has not predicted when the master would return, but he knew that the master would return. The master might be gone now, but it does not matter; the slave has been given a job to do. Sooner or later the master will return, and the slave knows he will have to give an account of his service. On the other hand, the evil slave has let the master’s absence lull him into thinking that the master can be safely ignored. “Oh, the master is not here now, and he will not be back for a long time. I can do whatever I want.” In the slave’s mind, an absent master is virtually irrelevant. Naturally, then, the master’s return catches that slave off guard. He had gotten into the habit of living as if the master were never coming back, and so the master came back into his life like a thief in the night, unexpected and unwelcome.

This parable provides us with a very clear picture of what Jesus meant by being alert and ready for his return. We live in a world that does not take seriously the idea that Jesus is coming back. Therefore, his coming will be like a thief in the night, a totally unexpected event. For those who follow and believe in Him, however, his return is not unexpected. We do not know when He will return, but that He will return is certain. To be alert and ready for His coming is not a matter of reading the signs of the times; it means remembering that He is indeed coming back, and living in the light of His coming. Being on the alert means remembering at all times that I am a servant of Christ, who truly is King and Master, who truly is coming back, and who truly will be my Judge and Savior.

Paul, borrowing Jesus’ metaphor of the thief, makes the same sort of point about what it means to be “alert”:

Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. (I Thessalonians 5:1-8)

The world around us is in the dark. Thinking that life will go on as it always has, the world will be saying “peace and safety” even as the day of the Lord comes upon it unexpectedly and with devastating consequences. But we, Paul says, will not be caught by that day, because we are not asleep, but “alert and sober.” And what does it look like to be alert and sober? We “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.” In other words, we know and live out the truth. We believe God’s promises, and we pursue the love of God and man, and we set our minds on the hope of salvation. We do not know when Jesus is going to return, but that does not matter. What matters is that we are awake. When He returns, we will be among those who are eagerly waiting for Him.

What then shall we think about our urge to read the signs of the times? I have come to the following conclusions:

• Being alert does not mean figuring out what 666 means and where the battle of Armageddon will happen; it means living with the constant expectation that I will one day stand before Jesus as my Judge and Savior. If I am living as a faithful follower of Christ, then I am ready.

• On the other hand, seeking to understand biblical prophecy is not a bad thing; it is a good thing. We should be eager to understand anything that God has revealed in the Scriptures. Where we go wrong is jumping to hasty conclusions about current events, or pulling prophetic verses out of context, or putting an unhealthy priority on prophecy above the rest of the Bible’s teaching.

• There may in fact be details in biblical prophecy that will be important for the last generation to know. I have to say, however, as a longtime student of the Bible, that trying to figure out those facts in advance is much harder than some popular teachers of prophecy suggest. Prophecy is among the most cryptic and enigmatic teaching in the Bible. The prophetic message is woven inextricably into the rich, complex tapestry of biblical theology, and building a solid and coherent picture is a challenging task. I believe that we should continue to attempt that task. However, I would not be surprised to find that, when Jesus comes, the actual events totally surprise us, just as the first-century Jews were caught off guard by Jesus’ first coming.

The return of Christ is the great hope of every believer; in one sense, it ought to be the preoccupation of our lives. Let us be careful, however, that we put our priorities where they belong, on faith, hope, and love. Many towers may fall before Christ returns again, and we do ourselves no good by pretending to know more than we do.