“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
The first story Jesus uses to emphasize the suddenness of his coming and the need to be ready for it was the destruction of the earth by flood in the days of Noah. This was a well known case of God’s judgment of wickedness in history, and it is referred to quite naturally by Old Testament prophets like Isaiah (Isaiah 54:9) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 14:14-20) and by New Testament writers like the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:7) and Peter (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5). Jesus refers to it in verses 37-39.
The point of these verses is that the waters of the flood came suddenly and that those who were not prepared were drowned. But we cannot miss seeing that this also points to a world that will be largely unbelieving at the time of Christ’s return.
I emphasize this because there is an understanding of prophecy that holds that Christ’s kingdom will eventually triumph in the world. This view is usually referred to as postmillennialism. The word “millennium” refers to the reign of Christ (for a thousand years, if interpreted literally), and postmillennialism means that Jesus will return only after his rule has been universally established. According to this view, Jesus reigns in and through the church and will return only after the church’s mission is fulfilled.
Postmillennialism was popular in former centuries when the supposedly “Christian nations” were extending their colonial power. It is not so current today when the west is in evident decline. True, the mission of the church does not depend on western Christianity and the greatest growth of Christianity today is in the third world. But even when we turn from history and restrict ourselves to explicit scriptural teaching there is not much that encourages us to think in this falsely optimistic way. On the contrary, those who were taught by Jesus say that there will be terrible wickedness and even widespread apostasy in the church when Christ returns.
Peter wrote of the presence of false prophets in the last days, saying, “They will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). Again, “In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:3-4). Almost all of 2 Peter 2 and 3, two-thirds of the letter, describes the evil of the final days.
Jude is almost entirely about such times, and he seems to be echoing Peter when he writes, “Remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, ‘In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.’ These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit” (vv. 17-19).
Paul wrote, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). Or again, explicitly, “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 31-5)
None of these passages teaches that we are to be pessimistic. We must preach Christ everywhere, knowing that all whom God has elected to salvation will be saved. Not one will be lost. But neither do these passages teach an increasingly successful expansion of the gospel, still less a triumphant expansion of organized Christianity, throughout the world. Rather, they encourage a faithful adherence to and preaching of the gospel in spite of the fact that it will not be universally received and in spite of the fact that there will be increasing entrenched unbelief.
It is such a time that Jesus envisioned when he told his disciples, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (vv. 37-39).
J.C. Ryle had it right when he wrote, “The world will not be converted when Christ returns,” adding that, “millions of professing Christians will be found thoughtless, unbelieving, Godless, Christless, worldly, and unfit to meet their Judge.”1 Will you be one of them and perish in that judgment? Or will you be ready and watching for the Lord’s return?
1 John Charles Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. Matthew (Cambridge, James Clark & Co, 1974), pp.326, 327