The Big Issue:”What about the Second Coming?” (Andrew Parfitt)

WHAT ABOUT THE SECOND COMING OF JESUS CHRIST?

Introduction

There are over 250 clear references to the Second Coming of Christ in the NT. It was the eager expectation of the Early Church (Phil. 3:20).

However, the subject is also surrounded with controversy. It is important to approach it with humility and tolerance of others’ views. We have to live with unanswered questions and paradoxes, yet still speak about it with clarity and certainty. Prophecy was given to strengthen faith, not cause dissension (John 13:19, 2 Pet. 1:19).

Much debate has centred on the time of His coming and the order of events. It is significant that the only matter on which Jesus professed ignorance was the date of His return (Mark 13:22).

1. Definitions

Parousia (lit. presence, arrival) is the most common word (Matt. 24:3, 1 Cor. 15:23, 1 Thess. 2:19, 2 Thess. 2:1,8). In ordinary use it described the arrival of a ruler or distinguished person, the invasion of a conquering army, the intervention of the gods.

Apokalypsis (lit. unveiling, disclosure, revelation) emphasises the fact that at Christ’s coming it will become clear who He is, and hidden things will be brought to light (1 Cor.1:7, 2 Thess.1:7, 1 Pet. 1:7).

Epiphaneia carries a similar meaning (lit. appearing). It also suggests the drawing back of a veil so that ‘all may be revealed’ (2 Thess. 2:8, Titus 2:13).

Eschatology (Gk ‘last’) is the study of Last Things. The term Day of the Lord is used both as a general description for future events in which God intervenes, and with reference to ‘end times’. However, even those end times can span a long period. The Jews believed that the Day of the Lord would usher in The Age to Come, when evil would be judged and purged, and the righteous would be redeemed. The Christian view is that The Last Days began with the first coming of Jesus (or the Day of Pentecost) and that they will end with the Second Coming. The Present Age will draw to a close with some final Last Days which will be characterised by an unprecedented intensity of evil. See Joel 2:28 with Acts 2:17, 1 Cor. 10:11, Heb. 1:2, 6:5, 2 Tim. 3:1.

2. The nature of His coming

Sudden and expected. It will be like a flash of lightning, or the coming of a thief in the night – ‘as in the days of Noah’ (Matt. 24:36ff, 1 Thess. 5:1-6). For Christians, the suddenness should not take them by surprise any more than the giving birth to a pregnant woman.

Personal. It will be the same Jesus who returns (Acts 1:11), ‘the Lord himself’ (1 Thess. 4:16). The promises of His coming are not fulfilled (as some maintain) at Pentecost, by conversion, or by death, but by His bodily appearance.

Visible and audible. Note that His coming is not secret. See Rev. 1:7, 1 Thess. 4:16, Matt. 24:30-31, 1 Cor. 15:52).

Splendid. In contrast with His first coming, His return will be a spectacular, glorious event, the climax of human history. Clouds in Scripture signify God’s glory and manifest presence among His people (2 Thess. 2:8, Titus 2:13).

3. The purpose of His coming

It is easy to lose sight of this and become preoccupied with details of the event itself.

Final victory. Sin and death will be defeated for ever, and all God’s enemies finally destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26, Rev. 12:7-11, 20:1-10).

Resurrection. All the dead, saved and unsaved, will be raised (John 5:28, 1 Cor. 15:51-57). The Church, the Bride of Christ, will be joined to Him for ever (1 Thess. 4:17, John 14:2-3).

Judgement. All will appear before Him at His coming (2 Tim. 4:1, Acts 17:31, 1 Cor. 4:5, Jude 14, Matt. 16:27, etc). This is the only (?) satisfactory answer to the problem of evil and suffering – justice will be done in the end.

New heaven and new earth. There will be completely new order and God’s purposes for the human race will reach their final realization (Acts 3:21, 2 Pet. 3:1-13, Rev. 22:1-15, 1 Cor. 15:28, Eph. 1:9-10, Col. 1:19-20).

4. Signs of the times

The End of the Age discourse: Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 (parallel passages).

Jesus was answering two questions – 1. When would the Temple be destroyed?
2. What signs would precede the end of the age? Some say that the discourse is mainly about the Second Coming, others that it has both primary and secondary fulfilments, or that the two answers are as distinct as the questions.

Note the following (from Mk 13):

a) Jesus refused to give dates (also Acts 1:7). The signs are best regarded as things to expect en route rather than a timetable.
b) The details for each question do seem to overlap; this may be a case of ‘prophetic foreshortening’. The disciples were not yet ready to understand that there would be a gap between the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming.
c) Some of the signs indicate that the end has not come (v7).
d) ‘The abomination of desolation’ (cf Dan. 9:27, 11:31, 12:11) can easily find its fulfilment in the events of AD 70 when the Romans desecrated the Temple, massacred the Jews and destroyed Jerusalem; many Christians fled to Pella at that time. Is this what v30 refers to? However, some details seem to reference a later time (e.g. the Gospel preached to all nations, v10, also Mark. 14:9, Matt. 26:13).
e) It is possible that most of the signs apply to all the Last Days, beginning with the apostolic era through to The End, and that persecution, wars, earthquakes etc are simply a description of life in all ages.
f) If the AD 70 interpretation is correct, v24 (and Matt. 24:29, ‘immediately’) poses a difficult problem. Maybe it means that the Second Coming is the next major event, not that it follows straight away; or, that the previous verses, as suggested above, are a description of the whole Church era. Verse 30 is similarly problematic: ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened’ (see below).
g) The cosmic signs (vv24-26) cannot be paralleled in history, and must refer to the Second Coming. Are they to be taken literally? (Acts 2:17-21 also?).

The Antichrist sign (‘anti’ means ‘instead of’ as well as ‘against’)
He is only named as such in 1 & 2 John (e.g. 1 John 2:18, 2 John 7) but it is generally agreed that the Man of Sin/Lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:3) is the same person. Dan. 7:19-27 and Rev.13 use symbolic language to describe a similar power. He is a usurper, an enemy of God, and doomed to destruction. It seems that he is an individual, not a force, although his spirit is already at work (1 John 2:18,22 and 4:3). From 2 Thess. 2 it seems that he will display many of the features of the true Christ’s coming (note ‘parousia’, v9) including miracles. His number (666, see Rev.13:18) has been the subject of endless, and often foolish, speculation. The Greeks hid names in numbers by giving each letter a value (gematria). The name Jesus would be 888 – i.e. above the perfection of 777. Thus, 666 represents someone who attempts to reach the unattainable (an imposter). The reference may mean no more than that and it is incredible that some still try to identify living personages as the Antichrist by that method. He will, in any case, be destroyed by Christ. Christians should look for HIM, not ‘the evil one’.

The tribulation sign
The description of the abomination of desolation (above references) suggests what ‘the tribulation’ may be like, whether in AD 70 or before Christ returns. Although we use the phrase in a quasi-technical sense it is worth noting that it only appears in that form in Rev. 7:14 (‘the great tribulation’). The other descriptions of severe distress in the Last Days are quite general and make it difficult for us to judge when evil will have reached its final peak (1 Tim. 4:1, 2 Tim. 3:1-9, 2 Pet. 3:3-7).

Sooner or later?
There is a tension between the expectation of Christians throughout the ages that Jesus will come ‘soon’ and the acceptance that he may ‘be away’ a long time. Some believe He could come at any time (today?), others that all the signs have not yet been fulfilled. Similarly, the term Kingdom of God has both a ‘now’ and a ‘not yet’ significance.

A number of Scriptures reflect an expectation of His imminent return: Jas 5:8, Rom. 13:11-12, Rev. 1:1, 22:6. It seems that Paul, for a while at least, expected the event in his lifetime (1 Thess. 4:15). Many of the Thessalonians had given up work because they thought it was at hand. More difficult to understand are Jesus’ statements that imply that the early church generation would witness His return (Mark 13:30, Matt. 10:23, 16:28). There is no completely satisfactory explanation: some think that generation means ‘race’ (i.e. Jews), or that the ‘coming’ in Matt 16 (note: ‘parousia’ not used) might refer to the transfiguration (Mt. 17) or Pentecost.

The delay motif is seen in the parables of the virgins and the talents (Matt. 25:1-30). Paul’s reminder to the Thessalonians about the Antichrist sign was intended to encourage patience, and in his later epistles he speaks of his impending death while still expressing his longing for Christ’s appearing (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Peter’s teaching about the Day of the Lord (2 Pet. 3) indicates that some were already asking about the delay.

Israel and the Church. This is a contentious issue, and feelings run high. Are the promises about ‘The Land’ still relevant? Is national Israel the key to understanding the Bible? Are the prophecies about Israel now fulfilled in the Church, ‘the new Israel’ (Gal. 6:16)? Has God rejected Israel as a race? Will sacrifices again be offered in Jerusalem, and is the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:16) going to be a literal event? What is the significance of the return of the Jews to Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel? How do you interpret Gal. 3:26-29 and Eph. 2:11-22? Why is there a scarcity of NT promises regarding national Israel and ‘The Land’?

Note the following passages:
On the future of the Jews – Rom. 11 (esp. v26, ‘all Israel will be saved’).
On a triumphant Church in this present age – Eph. 5:27 cf Rev. 19:7-8.
On a remnant, besieged Church – Matt. 24:22, 2 Thess. 2:3 (‘falling away’ AV), Luke 18:8.
On both together, triumphant and besieged! – parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30).
On the rejection of Israel – Mark. 11:12-14, Matt. 23:38.
Israel as a type of the Church – see Hebrews, esp. 12:22-24, 1 Pet. 2:9-10.

5. The main event

Before looking at the divergent views of the Second Coming, we need to define the word rapture (from Latin, rapio, to catch up, snatch. Gk harpazo). It is found only in 1 Thess. 4:17, as a verb (not ‘the Rapture’), in reference to the Second Coming. Other passages describe the instantaneous transformation and resurrection of believers when Christ returns (1 Cor. 15:51-52, Phil. 3:21-22).

Matt. 24:40-41 also speaks about people being ‘taken’. None of these Scriptures suggests a secret rapture; the emphasis is always that although sudden and unexpected (as a thief in the night) the coming will be public and noisy.

Millennium simply means 1,000 years (from Latin mille) though occasionally chiliasm (from Gk) is used to describe the 1,000 year reign of Christ. The term is only used in Rev. 20, though many Christians assign to it features about God’s rule from other Scriptures, especially the OT. As with ‘the tribulation’, note that it is not used as a narrowly defined theological term, or as ‘the millennium’.

There are four main schools of thought regarding the order of events and the nature of the Millennium:

1. Historic premillennialism

This assumes that the return of Christ (Rev. 19) and the first resurrection will be followed by the millennium (Rev. 20), but that the tribulation (Rev. 7) precedes both events (2 Thess. 2:1-3 may suggest that the Church will go through the tribulation). Some, on the basis of Dan. 9:27, would say that the tribulation will last seven years. During the millennium many OT prophecies will be fulfilled, many Jews will be converted and evil will be restrained. Satan will be released towards the end of this period but will be overcome by Christ. The dead who were not raised at His coming will now be resurrected and judged, and there will be a new heaven and new earth. This view takes Rev. 20 literally. It does not distinguish between Israel and the Church.
View held by: Early church fathers – Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr; and by Henry Drummond, Edward Irving, C.H. Spurgeon, G.E. Ladd, David Pawson.
Summary: Great Tribulation – Second Coming and First Resurrection – Millennium – Satan’s rebellion and final defeat – Second Resurrection, the Judgement, new heaven and earth, eternal state.

2. Dispensational premillenialism

This development of the historic view was popularised by J.N. Darby (Brethren Movement, 19th c.) and the Scofield Bible. It posits seven dispensations – Innocence (before the Fall), Conscience (up to Noah), Human Government (to Abraham), Promise (Abraham to Moses), Law (Moses to Christ), Grace (Church Age), Kingdom (Millennium). Christ returns before the tribulation, and removes the saints in a secret rapture. During the tribulation there are many conversions (including the 144,000, mainly Jews?). Christ will then return again (third coming!) and set up His 1,000 year rule from Jerusalem, where the Temple will be rebuilt, sacrifices offered and the Feast of Tabernacles celebrated (Zech. 9). During the Millennium the OT promises to Israel will be fulfilled to the letter. Some impose extreme literalism on this – lambs and lions lying down together, for example. This view regards the Church as a parenthesis to the real purposes of God for Israel.
View popularised by (as well as those above): Hal Lindsay (‘Late Great Planet Earth’), Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (‘Left Behind’ series). This view seems to be gaining strength in the more sensational charismatic media.
Summary: Apostasy, calamity, World War III? – Secret rapture of Church, Tribulation begins – Satan bound at the end, Temple rebuilt etc – Millennium begins (Jews are preeminent) – Satan’s rebellion and final defeat – Resurrection, Judgement etc.

3. Postmillennialism

This is a more straightforward interpretation – Christ will come at the end of the Millennium (which may already have started). It will be/is a period, not necessarily of a literal 1,000 years, during which the light shines brighter, and the world becomes more peaceful and prosperous. This view was popular in the 19th c. missionary era – the Gospel was being preached to all nations, so the Bride was preparing for the return of the Bridegroom. At the end of the Millennium there will be both apostasy and a revival which will draw in the Jews. This view emphasises the ‘Kingdom Now’ perspective and was more obviously attractive during a time of Gospel and Empire expansion, when life generally was ‘getting better’. It does, however, recognise the present rule of Christ from heaven, and the fact that the Church is meant to expand and be triumphant (Matt. 13:31-32, 16:18, 1 Cor. 15:25). An extreme form of postmillennialism is reconstructionism, which has a political dimension.
View held by: the Puritans, John Bunyan, Wilberforce, B.B. Warfield
Summary: Millennium is already here (probably) – a golden age of prosperity, missionary expansion, sin on the decrease as Christ reigns through His people – revival at the end – Satan defeated – Resurrection, judgement etc (as other views).

4. A-millenialism

This view stresses the symbolic nature of Revelation, and does not look for a literal millennium; the rule of Christ is expressed by a perfect and complete number (1,000). Satan was bound during Christ’s earthly ministry (Luke 10:18) and especially through His death (Col. 2:15). Some would say that the whole Gospel age is Christ’s rule from heaven through the Church on earth. A-millennialists do not try to press all the details in Rev. 20; for them, spiritual truths and principles are more important. Again, this is a ‘Kingdom Now’ perspective. Many would expect a time of persecution before Christ’s return – which is a single-stage event.
View held by: Polycarp, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Henricksen and, more recently, Stephen Travis and Michael Wilcock.
Summary: Satan bound by Christ’s death – he is now reigning in heaven with the saints – we are now in the Gospel Age (symbolic millennium) – revival among the Jews near the end, and revelation of Man of Lawlessness – Second Coming marks the end of the age (1 Cor. 15:23-24) – Final defeat of Satan, Resurrection, Judgement

Conclusion

Eschatology should encourage – not confuse – us! It should inspire hope (Titus 2:13, peace and confidence (John 14:1-4) and longing (Rev. 22:30). We need to always be ready (Mt. 25:13, 1 Thess. 5:6). The Aramaic expression ‘Maranatha’ used by the early Church could be both a prayer (Come, Lord) and a promise (The Lord comes). It is a practical doctrine: ‘You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming’ (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

Select bibliography

C. Blomberg & S.W. Chung, A Case for Historic Premillennialism – an Alternative to ‘Left Behind’ Eschatology (Baker Books)
Robert Clouse (ed.), The Meaning of the Millennium, Four Views (IVP)
William Cox, Biblical Studies in Final Things (Presbyterian & Reformed)
W.G. Grier, The Momentous Event (Banner of Truth)
David Pawson, When Jesus Returns (Hodder & Stoughton)
Stephen Travis, I believe in the Second Coming of Jesus (Hodder & Stoughton)
Michael Wilcock, I saw Heaven Opened: the Message of Revelation (IVP)

Teaching by Andrew Parfitt – November 2011

Posted Under: The Big Issue

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