Second Coming of Christ
In Old Testament times the idea that in due course God would send his Messiah (= "Anointed One") made its appearance and this thought continued in the intertestamental period. The term could be applied to Gentiles, such as Cyrus ( Isa 45:1 ), but its characteristic use was for a great king whom God would send at the end of the world, a deliverer who would set God's people free from their oppressors. The Christians accepted this idea and built on it. They gave it a new twist when they spoke of Jesus as "the Christ, " "the Anointed One, " and saw him not only as having lived a life on earth here in time but as destined to return to the earth at the end of the age to set up God's final state of things. There was a difference from previous messianic expectations in that Jesus had lived out a life on earth so that the coming to which Christians looked forward was a second coming. And it was important that the one for whose second coming believers looked had already lived on earth and wrought redemption for all who believed in him.
The Teaching of Jesus. The greater part of Jesus' teaching concerned life here and now and the way people should live in the service of God. He drew attention to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (e.g., Luke 4:21 ; cf. Matt 12:17-21 ), and clearly saw himself as sent by the Father to inaugurate the kingdom of God. Some have seen this as "realized eschatology, " the view that the present kingdom of God, established in the life and the teaching of Jesus, is the whole story (C. H. Dodd argued for this view). But this perspective overlooks the fact that Jesus certainly looked forward to a future "coming" when this world order would be done away and a completely new state of affairs would be inaugurated.
Thus he warned his hearers that anyone ashamed of him and his teaching would find the Son of Man ashamed of him "when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels" ( Mark 8:38 ). This teaching is given as something already accepted and it thus appears to be part of Jesus' teaching from earlier days. There is no point at which he ceases to teach other things and begins to enunciate teaching on his second coming. Right at the beginning Jesus taught that "the kingdom of God is near" ( Mark 1:15 ) and this may be held to imply the second coming for it was when that took place that the kingdom would be set up in its fullness. That he spoke more about his second coming than is recorded seems clear from the question the disciples asked him toward the end of his life: "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" ( Matt 24:3 ). Not much teaching about his return is recorded before this time, but these words show that Jesus had previously taught the disciples that he would come back. All three Synoptists record significant teaching about Jesus' coming again in the Olivet discourse.
The coming will be sudden and unexpected ( Matt 25:13 ; Luke 12:40 ), but when it happens it will be like lightning, obvious to all ( Matt 24:27 ; Luke 17:24 ). Jesus makes it clear that his coming will take place at a time when people will not be expecting it ( Matthew 24:36 Matthew 24:44 ). His call for watchfulness is important ( Matt 24:42-51 ), for it indicates that the coming of the Son of Man has decisive importance. Earlier there had been a request that the places of honor in the kingdom should be given to the sons of Zebedee. Jesus did not deny that there would be such places, but said they were for those for whom the Father had prepared them ( Matt 20:20-23 ). The call for watchfulness is surely related to the coming of the kingdom. When Jesus comes it will be too late to make preparations, so he exhorts his followers to be watchful, ready for his coming, whenever it should be. We should also bear in mind the teaching of the parable of the talents. When the Master returns there will be an accounting of what his people have done with the talents he has given them.
An important part of Jesus' teaching about his second coming is the truth that it will form a strong contrast with his first coming. Then he had been a poor man, despised by religious and secular authorities and indeed probably quite unknown to many people. But when he comes back he will be "coming in clouds with great power and glory" ( Mark 13:26 ). Something of his eminence is to be discerned from the fact that he will "gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens" (v. 27); he will be seen "sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" ( 14:62 ).
Right to the end of his life Jesus firmly enunciated the idea that he would come again, for at his examination before Caiaphas he said, "you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" ( Mark 14:62 ). And Luke records Jesus' words just prior to his ascension: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority" and the words of the angels, "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" ( Acts 1:7 Acts 1:10 ). Acts also has a reference to God's having set a day "when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead" ( Acts 17:31 ). This book does not often refer to the second coming, but the subject is not absent from Luke's second volume.
There is a strong emphasis on judgment at the time of Jesus' return. This is seen first in the separation of the saved from the lost. Thus of two men working in a field and of two women grinding at a hand mill at that time in each case "one will be taken and the other left" ( Matt 24:37-41 ). This will be seen also in the mourning of "all the nations of the earth" when they "see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory" ( Matt 24:30 ; in Luke Jesus speaks on "the day the Son of Man is revealed, " Luke 17:30 ). What is stressed is that worldly people will be carrying on their usual manner of life without regard to their responsibility to God and without realizing their accountability right up to the time of Jesus' second coming. We discern the thought of final judgment also in such teachings of Jesus as the parable of the talents. Always there are the thoughts of human accountability and of final judgment which is to take place following the return of Jesus in triumph at the end of the age.
There is not a great deal about the second coming in the Fourth Gospel, but there is a persistent reference to Jesus' care for his own who will have eternal life and whom he will raise up at the last day ( John 6:39 John 6:40 John 6:44 John 6:54 ). This is seen also in his coming back to take the disciples to be with him ( John 14:3 John 14:28 ) and in the words about the disciples seeing him which puzzled them so much ( John 16:16-18 John 16:22 ). In the concluding verses of this Gospel there is another reference to Jesus' return ( 21:22-23 ).
The Parousia. Clearly Christ's second coming meant a great deal to the New Testament writers. Paul, for example, mentions it in most of his letters. He makes a good deal of use of the word parousia [parousiva] (14 times), which meant originally "presence" ( Php 2:12 ) and thus a "coming to be present" (other ways of referring to the coming see it as an apokalypsis [ajpokavluyi"], "a revelation, " or as an epiphaneia [ejpifavneia], "an appearing"; it is not infrequently referred to as "the day" or "the great day"). It was used of the "coming" of a king or emperor visiting a province and, in some religions, of the manifestation of the deity. In the New Testament it came to be used as a technical term for the second coming of a King. That Jesus first came in lowliness, despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, was important for those early believers. But that he would in due course come back in triumphant majesty was just as important.
The subject of the return of Christ is certainly important as the number of references to it in the New Testament makes amply plain. But there were difficulties in understanding what it meant even in the early church. Thus Paul counsels one group of early Christians not be "unsettled or alarmed" by teaching "that the day of the Lord has already come" ( 2 Thess 2:2 ). If the teaching about it could be so drastically misunderstood in the earliest days of the church we should not be surprised if we find it difficult to fit all that the New Testament says about it into one coherent pattern.
In what is certainly one of his earliest surviving letters, 1 Thessalonians, Paul devotes attention to the problem of believers who had died. Apparently some of the early Christians thought that these people would miss out on the wonders when Christ returns. Paul says that on the contrary, when Jesus returns they will be with him; the living will have no precedence. He goes on to say that the Lord will "come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God" ( 4:16 ). Clearly Paul is describing a majestic coming, a coming to rule and not as at Christ's first coming, a coming to serve. He goes on to speak of living believers as caught up to meet the coming Lord in the air. Traditionally this has been understood to mean that Paul is speaking of the end of this life as we know it and the ushering in of the final state of affairs.
But some Christians have seen in the words a secret rapture ("rapture" is from the Latin raptus, "seized, " "carried off"), wherein believers are caught up secretly out of this life and taken to be with the Lord while earthly life goes on without them for the rest of the human race. Pretribulationists hold that there follows a period of tribulation for those remaining on earth (Matt. 24), which will last for a thousand years ( Rev 20:5 ). Midtribulationists think that the church will experience three and a half years of the tribulation before being raptured (citing Dan 7:25 , etc. ). Posttribulationists hold that the church will remain on earth throughout the tribulation and that the return of Christ is after that. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that some have been far too confident in the way they interpret some difficult scriptural passages. That Christ will return at the end of the age, bringing "those who have fallen asleep in him" ( 1 Thess 4:14 ) and that living believers will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air is clearly taught ( 1 Thess 4:17 ). So is the fact that all this will be public and open, for the Lord will come "with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God" ( 1 Thess 4:16 ). But we must exercise care in the way we go beyond these words and in our attempts to relate them to other scriptural passages. Whichever way we interpret the difficult passages we must bear in mind Jesus' exhortation to his followers to watch ( Matt 24:42 ).
That the returning Christ will come in majesty is made very clear. He will be "revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" ( 2 Thess 1:7 ). It is "the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed" (v. 10). Paul can speak of waiting for "the blessed hope, " which he goes on to explain as "the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" ( Titus 2:13 ). There will be "praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed" ( 1 Peter 1:7 ; cf. "glories, " v. 11 ). In the opening of Revelation we read, "he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him" ( 1:7 ) and from then on right through the book we are left in no doubt as to the majesty of the Christ whose place is supreme in heaven, but who will come back to this earth.
Final Triumph of Goodness. The return of Christ will usher in the era in which goodness will be triumphant, a truth that is brought out in many ways. Thus throughout the Book of Revelation we are reminded that the power of evil cannot stand up to the might of God. The final triumph of good over evil is brought out in a number of ways, notably in the magnificent vision of the heavenly city and in the vision of the wedding of the Lamb. Sometimes this is emphasized with the thought of the defeat of the forces of evil as when Paul says that Christ will hand over the kingdom to the Father after he has destroyed all opposing powers ( 1 Cor 15:24 ). "The wrath of God" is coming ( Col 3:6 ), which surely means that that wrath will triumph over all evil. And Paul speaks of "the rebellion" as something that will occur and of "the man of lawlessness" as being "revealed." He goes on to say that "the secret power of lawlessness" is already at work in this world, but that it will be more fully manifested when "the one who now holds it back" is taken out of the way. But the Lord Jesus will destroy the evil power "by the splendor of his coming" ( 2 Thess 2:3-12 ). Believers "are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" ( 2 Peter 3:13 ).
Sometimes the strength of evil, especially in the last days before Jesus' return, is emphasized. "There will be terrible times in the last days" ( 2 Tim 3:1 ) and even among those who profess to be followers of Christ some will abandon the faith and accept "things taught by demons" ( 1 Tim 4:1 ). Paul speaks of "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" and says plainly, "that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed" ( 2 Thess 2:1-3 ). There will be scoffers who will say, "Where is this coming' he promised?" ( 2 Peter 3:4 ). In 1 John there is a warning against "the antichrist" and the writer goes on to speak of "many antichrists" as being present whereby his readers know that it is "the last hour" ( 1 John 2:18 ). In Revelation there are some vivid pictures of the evil that will be at the last times. The New Testament writers never underestimate the strength of evil; they encountered it in their own lives as they tried to live out the faith in the face of strenuous opposition, and they were sure that it would continue to the end of time. But they were equally sure that at the return of Christ all evil will be defeated and the kingdom of God finally set up, a kingdom in which righteousness will be supreme.
Unexpectedness of the Day. Though the second coming of Christ is plainly taught in a variety of ways throughout the New Testament it is also made clear that when it comes it will be sudden and unexpected. That day "will come like a thief in the night" ( 1 Thess 5:2 ). So also the risen Lord tells the church at Sardis to wake up lest he come to them "like a thief" ( Rev 3:3 ). People will be saying "Peace and safety" when destruction suddenly comes ( 1 Thess 5:3 ). Believers are exhorted that they "continue in him, so that when he appears [at the parousia [parousiva]] we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming" ( 1 John 2:28 ). Though there will be "signs" that herald the coming, its arrival cannot be calculated accurately and people will still be surprised when Jesus comes.
Sometimes it is said that this will happen soon: "For in just a very little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay'" ( Heb 10:37 ). We should understand "a very little while" in the perspective of eternity. In terms of one short human life the delay is already considerable, but the biblical writer is not thinking in those terms. His "very little while" speaks of what is certain, rather than of what is soon in human terms. That the second coming will be soon is stressed in Revelation ( Revelation 22:7 Revelation 22:12 Revelation 22:20 ). But it will be "soon" in God's time, not in ours.
Eager Expectation. The awe-inspiring nature of the coming and its unexpectedness should not make believers view it with apprehension. The Corinthian church "eagerly" awaits the day ( 1 Cor 1:7 ). The Ephesians are told that they by the Holy Spirit "were sealed for the day of redemption" ( Eph 4:30 ). This is an unusual way of referring to Christ's return but there can be no doubt that it is his coming that is in mind. Believers may have assurance as they look forward to that day. Until it comes they "wait for (God's) Son from heaven" ( 1 Thess 1:10 ). Paul can express his trust in Christ and express his conviction "that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day" ( 2 Tim 1:12 ). There is no need for him to explain which day "that day" is; so central was it to Christian teaching that Paul had no need to define it further. And we should notice his confidence about what will happen on that day. Similarly the writer to the Hebrews looks forward to the coming of "a kingdom that cannot be shaken" ( 12:28 ).
Sometimes this is expressed in terms of hope. We have been saved "in hope" ( Rom 8:24 ), a hope that is not centered on this life ( 1 Cor 15:19 ), but is "stored up" for us in heaven ( Col 1:5 ). This hope is "held out in the gospel" and it can be spoken of as "Christ in you, the hope of glory" ( Colossians 1:23 Colossians 1:27 ). Christ is himself our hope ( 1 Tim 1:1 ). Christians wait for "the blessed hope the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" ( Titus 2:13 ). Peter speaks of the "living hope" given to Christians and goes on to refer to "the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time" ( 1 Peter 1:3-5 ). He exhorts his readers: "set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed" ( 1 Peter 1:13 ). Believers must always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them ( 1 Peter 3:15 ). In 1 John we find that "When he appears, we shall be like him" and we are told that "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself" ( 3:2-3 ). Instead of hope the writer may refer to confidence: "Love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment" ( 4:17 ).
Judgment. That the return of Christ leads on to judgment for all is made very clear. This may be expressed in terms of confidence for believers, and there are many passages that speak of their final state. Thus Paul assures the Corinthians that Christ will be "revealed" and that he "will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" ( 1 Cor 1:7-8 ). That they will be "blameless" indicates that blame will be assessed. A little later Paul has his teaching about Christians building on the foundation Christ laid and his reminder that "the day" will bring judgment. Fire will test everyone's work. What survives the flames will lead to a reward and what does not means loss ( 1 Cor 3:11-15 ). It is said of believers that when Christ appears they will "appear with him in glory" ( Col 3:4 ), and further, that we wait for the coming of him who "rescues us from the coming wrath" ( 1 Thess 1:10 ). Paul prays for the Thessalonians that their "whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" ( 1 Thess 5:23 ). And that apostle speaks of "the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day, " a crown, which he adds, will be given "also to all who have longed for his appearing" ( 2 Tim 4:8 ). Sometimes there is a reference to judgment without specific reference to the coming of Christ, but where this is clearly implied (e.g., 1 Peter 4:5 ; cf. v. 7 ).
Paul can use the certainty of the coming of "the day" as a way of motivating believers to be active in the service of their Lord. Thus he prays that the love of the Philippian Christians may abound more and more so that they may have discernment "and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ" ( Php 1:10 ). He asks the Thessalonian believers, "What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes?" and answers, "Is it not you?" ( 1 Thess 2:19 ).
The Supremacy of Christ. At his first coming Jesus was "despised and rejected by men" ( Isa 53:3 ), but the New Testament makes it clear that it will not be this way at the second coming. Then the Father will have "put everything under his feet" ( 1 Cor 15:27 ). At that time all his people will be "gathered to him" ( 2 Thess 2:1 ), and they "will be with the Lord forever" ( 1 Thess 4:17 ). This confidence Paul can speak of as "the blessed hope" which he proceeds to explain as "the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" ( Titus 2:13 ). We should understand passages referring to the kingdom here, for the thought is that Christ will be King in that day, as Revelation makes so abundantly clear. The writer to the Hebrews adds an interesting point when he says of the Old Testament saints that God has provided "that only together with us would they be made perfect" ( 11:40 ). And Jude adds the thought that "you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life" (v. 21). There is, of course, a sense in which believers already have eternal life, but Jude is referring to the sense in which the consummation will be reached only when Jesus returns.
The Millennium. The thought of Jesus' second coming dominates Revelation with its vivid imagery expressing the certainty of his return and the transformation of all things when that happens. There are problems in knowing exactly how the visions are to be interpreted, none more so than in the reference to the binding of Satan for a thousand years and the reign of certain believers with Christ for that period ( Rev 20:1-6 ). The interpretation of this chapter has divided evangelical Christians. Pre-millennialists hold that Christ will come before the thousand years, post-millennialists that the return of Christ will follow the thousand years, and amillennialists that the thousand years are to be understood symbolically; this period refers to the whole time before the second coming.
Leon L. Morris
See also Antichrist; Apocalyptic; Armageddon; Judgment; Resurrection; Revelation, Theology of
Bibliography. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God; L. Berkhof, The Second Coming of Christ; G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ; E. Brunner, Eternal Hope; C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments; E. Earle Ellis, Eschatology in Luke; J. E. Fison, The Christian Hope; T. F. Glasson, Jesus and the End of the World; idem, The Second Advent: The Origin of the New Testament Doctrine; G. E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope; idem, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God; idem, The Presence of the Future; J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope; A. L. Moore, The Parousia in the New Testament; J. A. T. Robinson, Jesus and His Coming; G. Vos, The Pauline Eschatology.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Second Coming of Christ'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".