How do we live as we wait Christ’s return?

Obedience to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission always brings opposition to the faithful servant


I attended a Bible study recently where we looked at Matthew 24 and the end times. Most present subscribed to the pre-tribulation rapture position. I sensed quiet relief in their voices given they believe no Christian will have to endure the great tribulation. But no one commented on the possible times of harsh suffering and persecution American believers could face in the future. No one alluded to the estimated 70 million Christians martyred over the last two millennia, more than half in the 20th century.

Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs describes persecution as “anytime that we’re forced to pay a price for what we believe (and) for what we stand for.” Nettleton speaks of a range of persecution, from something that we might call discrimination or harassment to losing one’s job, home and even your life because of the stand one takes for Christ.

Signs of the times

In the past five to 10 years there has been an upward trend in anti-Christian discrimination and marginalization of core Christian beliefs in America, including those touching primarily hot-button, socio-political issues related to human dignity and sexuality. The Family Research Council published a study in December 2022 that identified over 400 “acts of hostility” to churches in the last five years.

Award-winning writer and apologist Greg Koukl has shown how anti-Judeo-Christian values and practices have made deep inroads into America’s universities, school districts and schools, the press, Hollywood, government, big tech and big business.

According to Beliefnet, a Christian lifestyle website, “While it (Christian persecution in America) might not be at the level of beheadings or burned down churches as seen in other places of the world, it still is a problem that is growing.”

 MB history and persecution

There have been many examples of believers passing through tribulation even unto death within the Anabaptist and Mennonite tradition.

The deaths of Anabaptists living in various parts of Europe between 1525 and 1660 numbered in the thousands, including women and children. Many were burned at the stake, drowned or beheaded. One writer says of these martyrs, “Quite confident that they were living at the end of time, they expected the imminent return of Jesus Christ.”

Recently, I discovered a telling comment in the genealogy of my paternal grandmother. Evidently, the writer also wants the family to know something about the 16th century Anabaptist, our spiritual forefathers. She writes how Zwingli, the leader of the Swiss Reformed Church that persecuted the Anabaptists in the early 1500s, enlisted a special police force called the Taufer Jaegers, meaning “those who hunted Anabaptists.” She writes, “When Anabaptists were caught, they were tortured to death. The methods were quite horrendous.”

When writing about oppressed Mennonites in Russia, historian C. Henry Smith says, “Never since the days of the (Anabaptist) martyrs have the Mennonites suffered as much as during the twentieth century in Russia.”

An example of this is from the Russian civil war in 1918. In Why We Walk: Following in the Mennonites’ Footsteps, Iam Willms writes that during the Bolshevik Revolution, “entire Mennonite villages were wiped off the map in nighttime massacres that saw men, women and children struck down by Bolshevik soldiers on horseback. Those who were able to escape with their lives would return to their villages the following day to bury their neighbors and families in unmarked mass graves before beginning new lives as refugees.”

Several decades later faithful Mennonites suffered under Stalin. About those victims of the Spets Kommandatura (deportation regime) of 1941-55, the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online says: “There is no doubt that Mennonites were persecuted for their religious faith; other Christians and Jews suffered similar persecution from a self-proclaimed atheist government determined to impose absolute conformity on everyone for the benefit of all.”

How do we proceed?

In Matthew 24 and Mark 13, Jesus provides his followers with visible signs and warnings in light of possible times of suffering and persecution in a believer’s life. He also gives three commands by which to live in the meantime before his second coming.

Be looking (literally be you looking or seeing always, Matt. 24:4; also in Mark 13:5, 9, 23, 33). Spiritual vigilance is crucial for discerning the messages of the false Christs and false prophets preaching their false gospels back then and now.

Matthew 24:4-24 and Mark 13:5-23 outline the signs preliminary to Jesus’ second coming by warning about those who will mislead many. Such is Jesus’ concern that his people will not be deceived that he bookends this section of the Olivet Discourse with references to these false messianic pretenders. Paul also warns the believers in Thessalonica not to be shaken by the false teachers of their day.

Timothy Geddert, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary retired professor, understands Jesus’ counsel “to look or see always” (blepo) to mean, “1) Do not be misled by external appearances; 2) Do not be deceived by false words and misleading deeds; (3) Discern what it means to be persecuted as a Christian; and (4) Recognize the ways in which the secret kingdom is advancing.” Diligent vigilance provides the best defense.

Be watchful (literally be you watching always, Matt. 24:42-43.) At first glance, this command appears to be similar to his preceding command, but such is not the case. Here the gospel writers use another verb to convey Jesus’ deeper truths. Today’s Bible students often overlook these important truths.

Once again, Geddert helps us understand the nuances between “look or see” (blepo) used in Matthew 24:4 and Mark 13:5, 9, 23, 33, and “watch” (gregoreo) used in Matthew 24:42 and Mark 13:34-35, 37. While “look or see” implies special contemplation and discernment so as not to be misled or deceived, “watch,” according to Geddert, “outlines the duty of believers in the interim period before the master returns.” This action has an ethical dimension involving “obedience and discipleship.”

John A. Toews, MB statesman, professor and historian, helps us understand what this involves. In his article, “The People of God in the Light of the Parousia,” Toews demonstrates how each believer is to live with watchfulness, holiness, faithfulness, peace and in mission in light of Jesus’ second coming. This is much more than mere contemplation. We are called to faithfulness in uncertainty and trial as we live in anticipation of Jesus’ glorious reunion with his children.

John E. Toews, retired Mennonite Brethren theologian and seminary professor, provides an excellent summation statement: “Jesus’ word is not ‘calculate the time.’ Rather, it is ‘watch,’ ‘be alert.’ The purpose of eschatological (end times) discourse is faithfulness: faithfulness against apostasy to false messiahs, faithfulness in spite of persecution, faithfulness in the face of unparalleled tribulation.”

Be ready (literally be you becoming ready-ones, Matt. 24:44). What does a ready-one look like and do? The text doesn’t give us any particulars as to what we should be doing in anticipation of Jesus’ coming.

Following this command, though, we find an illustration about the wise and faithful servant. “Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes” (vv. 45-46). Perhaps we will be among the blessed ready-ones today if we pursue what Jesus has already called all his disciples to do: practice the Great Commandment and the Great Commission—love and proclaim.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 24:12, “Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.” As we learn to love God, ourselves and others in more genuine ways today, our mission of love to others, both believers and unbelievers, will be all the more witnessed in times of possible tribulation tomorrow. But this must begin today.

Preceding Jesus’ second coming he states, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (Matt 24:14). For almost 2,000 years this gospel proclamation has been happening.

Ironically, the gospel is growing the fastest today in countries where opposition to the gospel message and persecution of believers occur most. Such is happening in Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, China, North Korea and many Asian and African countries.

We should not forget that the Anabaptist movement was also the first Protestant missionary movement of the Reformation. Mission to the lost and suffering seemed to go together. Might we American believers need a reset? Perhaps our love for a suffering-free life is influencing our lack of love for those who need to hear the gospel message.

The Great Call to suffering and persecution  

Obedience to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission always brings opposition to the faithful servant. A close study of the life and ministry of Jesus in the Gospels shows a continuous cycle of power and suffering. When the kingdom of God advances with power, opposition and persecution follow almost immediately. Ultimately, Jesus is crucified for his faithfulness. Such also happens in the book of Acts as the gospel witness grew.

History tells us that before the Roman siege, many Jerusalem Christians fled in obedience to Jesus’ counsel to his disciples (Mark 13:14-23) and were liberated from Roman persecution. God also kept the believers in ancient Philadelphia “from the hour of trial” because they had, according to Jesus, “kept my word and have not denied my name” (Rev. 3:8) and were living with “patient endurance” (Rev. 3:10).

But in other cases, the outcome is quite different, such as with the believers of the church in Smyrna. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for 10 days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

The hope of the American church is not that it lives untouched through times of intense tribulation at the end of the age or during possible periods of local, regional or national suffering prior to the end. According to J. Barton Payne in The Imminent Appearing of Christ, the church’s “fundamental hope is not even for its own rapture or resurrection. Rather, the blessed hope for which every Christian heart should be yearning is the ‘appearing of the glory of great God and Savior Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2:13) and the union with him that will result.”

If we have such hope and faithfully walk in this blessed reality, even in the most difficult of times, we will never be caught unaware.


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