How and When Does Christ Return?
How Will It Be?
Many and oftentimes questions have been asked about the manner of Christ’s return and about the time of his appearing. Who wouldn’t want to know more about this? However, we need to be satisfied with what God has revealed to us in his Word.
After the Lord Jesus had ascended into heaven his disciples were told, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). From this we may deduce that he will come down in visible form (Calvin), or in other words, that “our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly” (Belgic Confession, Art. 37). All of humanity will see his appearance (Matt. 24:30; Rev. 1:7), and the believers will see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
In the time between his first and second coming he is not absent. He is true to his word: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). That is why it is confessed in the church of Christ, “With respect to his human nature he is no longer on earth, but with respect to his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is never absent from us” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 18). His spiritual presence is a real presence. We may expect that also according to his humanity he will be present in a new way. Those who are his will recognize him at his coming: it is he, our Saviour!
“The Son of Man is coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). Even though right now all power belongs to him in heaven and on earth, it is a fact that there are as yet powers in this world that oppose him, and that are a threat for his church. The power and majesty with which he will appear will be so overpowering that not a single power will be able to stand up against him.
Mention is made of tremendous signs at his coming. “The powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:25). But even without those promised signs his return will make a profound impression.
There will come an end to all opposition. “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25). It is all directed toward the final triumph. Satan and the demonic powers are already defeated now, but not yet permanently eliminated. It will happen then. It will become apparent that Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16; 20:7-10).
It belongs to the exaltation of Christ that “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10, 11). It is not that far yet. Not every knee is bending and not every tongue is confessing that he is Lord. But it will come to that confession, even if it will be a forced confession.
Christ will come to judge. “And he [the Father] has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:27). When the Son of Man appears in glory, he will take his seat on the throne of his glory. Then the great separation will be accomplished. There will be those who will hear, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you,” and there will also be those to whom it is said, “Depart from me, you cursed” (Matt. 25:31-46).
The resurrection of the dead has a direct connection to the final judgment (Rev. 20:13). Christ rules over death and the realm of the dead.
When Will This Great Day Be?
The moment of Christ’s return is God’s secret. Even Jesus himself said, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Whereas “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8), all human calculations are thwarted, bound to fail.
In the New Testament the image is used of a thief in the night, to stress the unpredictability of Christ’s coming (Matt. 24:43, 44; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10). There have been those who thought that Christ would be returning at night, or that it would be around midnight. That is not implied with this, because it is only a point of comparison. The thief is suddenly there at night, when you were totally unprepared for it.
It will be as in the days of Noah and Lot. Jesus characterized the days of Noah with these words, “They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage,” and of Lot’s days about the same: “They were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building” (Luke 17:26-30). People ate and drank, got married, and people did their jobs. It all had the appearance of everyday life, and people did not see the catastrophe coming. In this way people will be busy with their ordinary lives, and have attention for all sorts of things except for God and his service. They are fully involved with their everyday existence. Then the day will come, and that means the end.
The sudden return of Christ is a call to everyone to be alert, as it says in Mark 13:37, “And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” The meaning of the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins becomes clear in the end: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13).
In the New Testament we are shown that the Lord is near and the time is close at hand (Phil. 4:5; Rev. 1:3). On the last page of the Bible we can read, “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:12).
In the field of theology there is an ongoing discussion about the question whether Jesus and the apostles would have been mistaken when they spoke of the proximity of the end. That is the question of the “Naherwartung,” a German word that indicates how people in Germany have busied themselves about questions of this nature.
We may safely assume that Paul had hoped to see the day of Christ’s return in glory, during his lifetime. That holds true also for other people of his time. However, it has been pointed out correctly that there is also a prophetic “nearness.” In the language of the prophets it is a characteristic word in the announcement of the day of the Lord, the decisive day that was to be feared by many.
“The day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!” (Isaiah 13:6). “Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come; the day is near, a day of tumult, and not of joyful shouting on the mountains” (Ezek. 7:7). “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast” (Zeph. 1:14).
Just as the prophetic “nearby” or “soon” does not mean that we should be thinking of a definite timeframe, so too in the New Testament the word ‘near’ does not indicate that the day of the Lord will be realized in the short term. But it does express that we need to be watchful always.
We do not have insight into the schedule of Christ’s return, or of the day and the hour. And neither do we need it. If we did, we might be thinking, “we still have some time.”
The end is near, even though we do not know how near it is. Let us live our faith that our Lord Jesus Christ is coming, and let us expect him every day.