Return of Christ: The Centerpiece of Biblical Expectation
In traditional treatments of the Bible's teaching regarding the future, it has been customary to distinguish between "individual eschatology" and "general eschatology." The former addresses the kind of topics with which we have been preoccupied in several preceding articles, such as physical death, immortality and the state of man between death and the resurrection of the body. The latter addresses more directly the Bible's teaching about the "end times" or the future. Within the orbit of general eschatology, we consider such topics as the expectation of Christ's return or second advent, the "signs of the times," the millennium, the resurrection of the body, the final judgment and the final state.
To introduce the subject of general eschatology, I would like to begin by focusing upon the biblical teaching regarding the return of Christ. This is the great centerpiece of biblical hope and expectation for the future. All of the other subjects that will demand our attention are like so many points on the circumference of a circle, each related in its own way to what lies at the center. Whether the topic be the nature or timing of the millennium, the "signs of the times" which alert the believer to the certainty and prospect of Christ's return, the resurrection of the body, the final judgment, or the final state, each finds its focus and meaning in relation to this great and impending event which consummates and closes the present epoch in the history of redemption.
It is only fitting, then, that we orient ourselves to the broad subject of "general eschatology" by beginning with a survey of the Bible's teaching regarding Christ's return. Though the subject of general eschatology is a vast and difficult portion of biblical terrain to cover, the event that binds together all the aspects of biblical expectation for the future is the certainty of Christ's return at the end of the age.
Three Common Terms
Perhaps the best way to grasp what is basic to the biblical understanding of Christ's return is to note that there are three common terms employed in the New Testament to describe its nature. Though some have attempted to make too much of the difference between these terms, even arguing that they refer to different stages in the return of Christ, it is evident that they all refer to the same event.1 These terms are: "revelation" (apokalupsis), "appearance" (epiphaneia), and "coming" (parousia). Though it is impossible to cite all of the instances in the New Testament in which these terms are employed to describe Christ's coming again, the pervasiveness of the theme of Christ's return should be readily evident from the following sampling.
The term revelation, which literally means the "removal of a veil," disclosing an object otherwise concealed from view, is often used in the New Testament to describe Christ's return. In 1 Corinthians 1:7-8, the apostle Paul writes, "Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." Here the apostle parallels the revelation of Jesus Christ with what he terms the "end" or the "day of our Lord Jesus Christ." In a striking passage in 2 Thessalonians 1:7 we read that the suffering and militant church will be granted "rest ... when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels"! This language of Christ's return as a kind of revelation of the glory and majesty of His person is also found in similar passages in which the people of God are encouraged to continue steadfast in the faith in the hope of the day of Christ's coming (compare 1 Peter 1:5, 13; 4:13; 5:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 6, 8).
In language which belongs to the same arena of discourse as that of "revelation," the coming again of Christ is also termed an appearing (the word used is one from which we get the word "epiphany"). Christ's coming will mean that He will be visibly seen and manifest before all men whom He comes to judge in righteousness and truth. Christ Himself, in Matthew 24:30, speaks of how "the sign of the Son of Man (which) will appear in the sky, and the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory." When the apostle Paul encourages Timothy to obedience, he does so with a view to the "appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Timothy 6:14). In 2 Thessalonians 2:8 the description of the "man of lawlessness" concludes with the confident declaration that the Lord Jesus will destroy him "by the appearance of His coming." Frequently, references to the "appearing" of the Lord Jesus are used to encourage believers to remain faithful to the end (compare 2 Timothy 4:8; Titus 2:13; 1 Peter 5:4; Colossians 3:4; 1 John 2:28; 3:2), or to warn of the judgment that awaits the unbelieving when He comes (2 Timothy 4:1).
The third term, "coming," is of the three terms the most technical. Used in pre-Christian literature to describe the formal visitation of an emperor, king, or person of prominence, it is often used in the New Testament to designate the great event anticipated by believers, when Christ the King returns to judge the living and the dead and to complete His work of bringing all things into subjection to the Father.
This language of Christ's return as His "coming" is used several times in Matthew 24, in Christ's discourse given in response to the disciple's question, "And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (v. 3; cf. vv. 27, 37, 39). It is also frequently found in the epistles of the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 15, the "coming" of Christ coincides with the believer's participation in the resurrection harvest, of which Christ's resurrection was the "first fruits" (v. 23). The coming of Christ serves to heighten the exhortation to faithfulness and blamelessness on the part of His people, who are encouraged to be prepared for His coming (compare 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 5:23; James 5:7, 8; 1 John 2:28). Like the earlier references to Christ's "revelation" or "appearing," the language of His "coming" is also used to warn those who will be liable to judgment and condemnation (2 Thessalonians 2:8; 2 Peter 3:12). Other passages employ this language in a highly technical and generalized sense, as a kind of short-hand designation of the great event of Christ's return (compare 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:1; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:4).
In addition to these and other passages which speak of the "revelation," "appearing," or "coming" of the Lord Jesus Christ, there are others which employ less common, though alternative, designations of the same event. It is sometimes simply called "the end" (e.g.: Matthew 24:6, 14; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians. 1:13-14; 15:24). Elsewhere it is described as "the end of the ages" (Matthew 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20). In several passages, "the day" is used as a kind of technical phrase with various modifiers, such as "the day of judgment" (1 Corinthians 3:13; 2 Peter 2:9), "the day of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 5:5), "the day of God" (2 Peter 3:12), and "that day" (Luke 10:12).
Some Preliminary Conclusions
Even though we have only provided a sampling of the biblical passages which speak, alternatively, of Christ's return as a "revelation," an "appearing," or a "coming," these instances provide a basis for drawing some preliminary conclusions about the nature and character of this event. However, for the purpose of an introduction to general eschatology, the following points should be observed.
Each of these points is clearly disclosed in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, a passage which will serve us as a kind of specimen of biblical teaching regarding Christ's return:
For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when he comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed — for our testimony to you was believed.
- First, the return of Christ will be an event, at the close of the present age, in which the present splendor, honor and authority that belong to the risen and ascended Lord will be visibly, personally and publicly displayed in His being revealed from heaven. The return of Christ is, accordingly, not first of all an event that promises relief and comfort to the beleaguered people of God in this world. It means first of all the revelation of the triumph and consummation of the reign of the mediatorial King, the Lord Jesus Christ, who already from heaven by His Spirit and Word is bringing all things into subjection to Himself (1 Corinthians 15:25-28).
The outstanding and unifying thread in the biblical terms commonly employed to describe this event is this idea of the revelation and disclosure of Christ's Person and work, in all the glory and power conferred upon Him at His ascension to the Father's right hand. What is presently only known to believers through faith will thereupon become sight: that God has given Christ a name which is above every name, crowning Him with glory and honor at His right hand, and entrusting to Him the authority to govern all history in the interest of His church-gathering work. At Christ's return His present mediatorial reign will be concluded and a public demonstration will be given of His glory and dominion. What is presently concealed (and known only to faith on the basis of the Word of God) will then be revealed! Both those who love the Lord and long for His appearing and those who are His enemies, indeed even those who pierced Him, will see Him in all of His splendor and authority in that day (compare Acts 1:11; Revelation 1:1).
For this reason, it is a profound deviation from biblical teaching to detract in any way from the truth that Christ's return will be personal and visible, that it will be a real occurrence marking the end of the present epoch of history. Thus, the so-called "fundamentalists" were right in the early decades of the twentieth century, when they insisted that the bodily and literal return of Christ from heaven was a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith. They correctly discerned, for example, when a large number of liberal Presbyterian ministers signed the "Auburn Affirmation" in 1923, declaring that the visible, bodily return of Christ is only a "theory" and not an essential component of biblical expectation, that one of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith was imperiled! 2
- Second, to use an expression from Titus 2:13, the return of Christ is the blessed hope of the church of Jesus Christ and every true child of God. The children of God are people who can be defined as those who are "looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus."
It is interesting to notice how the revelation of Christ is described in 2 Thessalonians 1:7 as a revelation from heaven. This reminds us that the hope of every Christian ultimately lies — not in some political program or party, not in some new strategy for world evangelization, not in some denominational structure or institution, not in some economic system, not in some "war to end all wars," not in some educational program or psychology, not in the power of modern technology, but — only in the Lord who will come bringing full redemption from heaven to earth! That's why the Heidelberg Catechism, when it describes the comfort of Christ's return to "judge the living and the dead," speaks of the believer as one who "with uplifted head" looks for the coming of His Savior from heaven.
Perhaps this is the reason there is so little talk about or expectation of the return of Christ in many contemporary churches. In these churches, there is often a kind of triumphalism that says, "We will bring in the kingdom of God in history by dint of our own efforts." Or there is often present a kind of horizontalism which says, "We will build and expand the kingdom through feeding and clothing the poor, advocating social justice, and fighting oppression." Seldom is there present a humble awareness of the church's powerlessness to bring about the kingdom of God on earth, an awareness which compels believers to look for their King to come from heaven to destroy His and His people's enemies and to take "all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory." Admittedly, the expectation of Christ's return from heaven could give birth to an otherworldly piety and passivity in the face of this world's ills. Nevertheless, from a biblical perspective the return of Christ must always be the great and ultimate focus of the believer's hope for the full establishment of the kingdom of God.
- Third, the biblical descriptions of Christ's return often undergird urgent exhortations to constant wakefulness and eager expectation. Believers who might be tempted to despair under the weight of persecution are encouraged by the prospect of Christ's return, when He will grant them "relief" from their present distress and victory over their (because they are Christ's) enemies. Other believers who might be tempted to apostatize or lag in their zeal for the cause of the gospel, are also warned to live a life worthily of their calling, recognizing that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead and to deal with every man according to what he has done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10). These frequent exhortations, buttressed by the certain prospect of Christ's return, strike a fine balance between words of encouragement in the midst of present distress and words of warning in the context of the temptation to lose hope or fall away. They stress the truth that the Christian life is always framed between the ascension of Christ on the one hand, and His coming again on the other hand (Acts 1:11).
- Fourth, the promise of Christ's return, which brings such encouragement to the believing child of God, is invariably understood to be a fearful prospect for the wicked. When the apostle Paul writes to encourage the church in Thessalonica with the promise of Christ's revelation from heaven, he describes the returning Christ as coming with "His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus."3 There is something awe-inspiring and terrible about the return of Christ in terms of its consequences for the impenitent and unbelieving. As the apostle John describes it in Revelation 1:7, "Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him." The consequences of the Lord's return for the wicked are such as to lend great urgency to the preaching of the gospel and the call to faith and repentance.
Admittedly, any one of these features of the biblical understanding of Christ's return and its implications could be further elaborated. These, however, are the main emphases found in the biblical texts. Many of them will surface more directly as we travel through the biblical terrain relating to Christ's return and the subject of general eschatology. They provide us at least an initial glimpse of the great future of Christ, when He comes again to judge the living and the dead. And they provoke the inescapable question: are we eagerly awaiting His coming, or does the prospect of His return fill us with a sense of foreboding? For every child of God, they should provoke the prayer, "Come, Lord Jesus, yes, come quickly!"