Nearly 2,000 years ago, people traversed the paths of the known world at great risk telling a story that had changed their lives and that they hoped would change the lives of others.
They spoke of One who had come from God—perfect, wise and loving in all His ways. In fact, He had been with God forever. Moreover, He was Himself God, yet He chose to live for a time as a man—on a mission of salvation.
Shockingly, though, this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was killed by those He had come to save. Seemingly everyone had a hand in it, whether Jew or Roman. Furthermore, those later hearing the story were told they had a part in it too, because He had died on their account as well. The last part really got people’s attention, as they leaned forward to make sure they heard correctly.
What initially sounded so wonderful was starting to seem a deeply tragic saga—until late in the account, when amazingly good news was revealed! The man telling the story told the audience that the man who was killed had previously told His closest followers that He was going to come back again. The audience leaned forward once more, as they had never heard such a thing. It was one thing to declare the past and the present, but to say what would be done in the future beyond one’s death was startling to contemplate.
The focus on His return was powerful and vital for those of that time—and it remains so today.
“I will come again”
The storyteller shared the same words the man from Nazareth had spoken the night before His death: “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John:14:1-3, New American Standard Bible).
The storyteller mentioned to the audience that this wasn’t the last time the prophecy “I will come again” was shared with those Jesus loved. It was so incredible that it had to be repeated often for it to sink in.
The storyteller went on to relate the awesome news that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and, after a number of meetings with His disciples, returned to His place in heaven at the right hand of God the Father. When He ascended from among them, angelic messengers appeared and declared to them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts:1:11).
It seems all early followers of Jesus, whether they had heard the words “I will come again” from His own lips, from the voice of angels or from the tongue of a storyteller, had a jubilant expectancy regarding His return. For decades and centuries onward this would be the Christian proclamation: God has come in the flesh, Jesus is Lord, and He is returning. Get ready! He will appear!
Yet He didn’t come immediately, as some had thought. Even the apostle Paul seems to have expected Jesus to return in His lifetime. But God’s perfection trumps human scheduling. Paul eventually came to see that Jesus’ return would occur much later.
Even so, the passionate desire and understanding toward that incredible future moment of “appearing” never departed from Paul’s message. Even as he neared the exit from this physical life, Paul’s full focus was on this specific prophetic promise of His heavenly Master. One of his last writings stated: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy:4:6-8).
The King James Version renders the end of this passage with a more active present tense: “unto all them also that love His appearing.” I like that. It offers a more immediate, ongoing sense of our joyful expectation and focus to look up rather than keep our attention chained to the muddled happenings down here below. The New Living Translation completes the picture by bringing the spectators and the experience together with this colorful terminology: “for all who eagerly look forward to His glorious return.”
One spectacular future moment
The phrase “glorious return” in this last translation, instead of just “appearing,” brings out the color of the rich Greek language in which the passage was first written. The Greek word here is phaino, which signifies “‘to shine’ . . . ‘to be brought forth into light, to become evident . . .’” ( Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, New Testament Section, p. 31, “Appear, Appearing”). Yes, there is one spectacular future moment that will burst brilliantly into human history when Christ fulfills His promise to come again and appear to His followers.
Let’s consider for a moment the scale of that appearing. Revelation:1:7 says, “Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him.” Long ago, William Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” and little did he realize the prophetic reality of his statement. Yet it’s Christ’s stage. His momentous return is going to play out across the heavens, with every inhabitant of the earth witnessing the dimensions of this divine D-Day to rescue humanity from the grips of Satan.
While the dimensions of Christ’s appearance are immense, its impact is likewise awesome. The brilliant appearance of Christ is not simply a celestial stained-glass impression of the divine, but is dynamic and sharply pierces into this “present evil age.” Paul speaks of evil opposition the Lord will “destroy with the brightness of His coming” (2 Thessalonians:2:8). Revelation:19:11-16 refers to One who is “Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. This passage speaks of the “armies in heaven” that follow Him as “He strikes the earth.” And yes, there is no doubt who leads the charge, because He’s identified as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (verse 16).
The prophet Daniel gives more on the impact of this appearance, stating, “And in the days of these kings [of end-time nations] the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel:2:44). This verse says it all about the “glorious return.” It is a complete reordering of human civilization, with carnal humanity in charge no more. Christ is not appearing alone, but is bringing a kingdom (a new order of civilization) with Him that will remain and be permanent. He will not be coming and going. He will be here to stay!
Intimacy—the best for last
The immensity and impact of His appearing are phenomenal. But perhaps the best is saved for last. It is the personal intimacy of His appearing that registers most. Let’s remember that when Jesus said, “I will come again,” He was speaking to those whom He loved and who loved Him. The words of 1 Thessalonians 4 spell out not only the immensity but the intimate personal transaction of what’s coming. It was written to Christians in Thessalonica to help them understand the resurrection, which had not been a part of their former Greek religious beliefs. Ultimately, the fulfillment of prophecy is not simply about the unfolding of world events and systematic time charts, but something very personal. It all comes down not to what you know, but to who you are because of whom you know and what He has promised.
Let’s look over Paul’s shoulder while he writes and get a sense of the moment. He wanted believers to know they hadn’t missed out and that this ultimate appearing would be worth the wait. So he spells it out blow by glorious blow. God wants to keep pounding away on the doors of our hearts to this very day with Jesus’ own promise, “I will come again.” And so Paul wrote:
“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [died], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (verses 13-18).
Those who comfort best are those who understand from the heart and don’t simply strive to reach others from our cerebral “gray matter.” So we need to care about this matter ourselves—deeply. The prophetic considerations of the passages we’ve seen are underlined by the important verb Paul uses regarding the appearing of Christ in 2 Timothy:4:8. He says the crown is laid up for those who love His appearing. You may never have noticed this singular call to action to love this future event, but there it is. The original Greek word in the verse is agape, referring to a godly love that is steadfast, firm and outward flowing rather than just fleeting feelings. So we are to love, savor and desire this spectacular moment just as God does. You see, God the Father loved it so much that He gave His own Son for it to happen.
When we have the same love God does for this moment to appear, our lives change. Our words and actions change and reveal our love for His appearing. We desire it more than this physical life because it is true life. And we thus give our mortal life away one day at a time as eternity stands at the threshold.
What or whom are you waiting for?
In considering that future moment when the clouds roll back and the trumpet sounds, what is it that we are actually waiting for? Is it simply a divine “New Deal” or heavenly “Great Society” that will rid the world of its current ills, or is there something more? If you go to the airport to pick someone up, what are you waiting for? Is it merely the plane to arrive on time? Or are you waiting for a person to arrive—perhaps someone very special whom you long for and wish to embrace? What or whom are we waiting for? Merely the landing of the plane of God’s Kingdom—or the arrival of the King, who is our Lord, Savior and Elder Brother? If you are simply waiting for a “New Deal” from heaven, I think your wait might be in vain. But if you are looking for a relationship with One who loves you, sealed in heaven by blood shed on earth, I’m certain your wait is more than worth it.
In 1 Thessalonians:4:18—“Therefore comfort one another with these words”—we perhaps hear the echo of “This is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah:30:21). Paul knew that we would find encouragement in discussing something bigger than ourselves and greater than the global drama playing out around us. So he exhorted us to comfort one another with these words. What words? The words that remind us, as all disciples of all ages need to constantly be reminded, that Jesus said, “I will come again.” And the more we think on it, the more we will grow to love His coming glorious appearing.