The second coming of Jesus Christ has to be one of the most widely accepted and least controversial subjects in the Christian world-right? It was the one idea that the early Church unitedly perceived in all its ramifications-wasn't it? Don't be too quick to agree. The answers might surprise you.
As we approach the year 2000, interest in the return of Jesus Christ is increasing. Will Jesus Christ return then? Why did He say He would return?
We can glean biblically sound information about Christ's return by looking at the accounts of His first coming and the years immediately after His death.
Expectations concerning the Messiah
The image of a conquering King was strong in the minds of the early followers of Christ, but their thinking was significantly different from yours or mine. They believed in one coming of the Messiah, not in a first coming and a subsequent return.
Since the early Church was composed of Jews and Jewish proselytes, the prophetic traditions concerning the Messiah were widely accepted among early Christians. The expectations of two elderly citizens of Jerusalem, Simeon and Anna, show the extent of that acceptance. To see the Messiah, or Christ, was a lifelong hope of each of them (Luke 2:25, 26, 36-38).
When Jesus began His ministry, He did not fit people's expectations of the Messiah. Notice the response of the residents of His own home area: "And when He had come to His own country, He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, 'Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this not the carpenter's son? ... Where then did this Man get all these things?' So they were offended at Him. But Jesus said to them, 'A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.' Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief" (Matthew 13:54-57).
Confounded disciples' expectations
The disciples did not understand that the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah were to be fulfilled in two separate events: a first and second coming. They did not grasp the purpose of His first coming, that He came to die for the sins of humanity.
The idea of a coming that would precede the triumphal arrival as a conquering King came as a shock to the apostles, whose stunned response was vocalized by Peter: "From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem ... and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, 'Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!'" (Matthew 16:21, 22)
Even after Jesus' resurrection, during their additional 40 days with Him, the apostles still did not understand that Jesus did not intend to establish His Kingdom at that time. They were still thinking that He would immediately fulfill the Messianic prophecies.
"Lord, will You at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?" they asked (Acts 1:6). You can almost see the wistful look in their eyes and sense the anticipation in their voices. Helping them through this major shift in understanding, God sent two angels with a reassuring message immediately after Christ disappeared up into the sky: "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).
Within that message was affirmation of yet-unfulfilled prophecies concerning the Messiah, as well as further clarification about a second coming. That reassurance was important, lest these men lose confidence in the validity of Scripture.
The message also contained a gentle reminder that Jesus' followers should get busy fulfilling the commission Jesus told them to carry out before His return. They had to mentally adjust to this new (to them) concept: that there would be an interval between the Messiah's first and second comings, and they would have to explain the new understanding to the many first-century Jews who anxiously awaited a conquering hero. Thousands of them would accept Jesus Christ as the true Messiah, eagerly believing that His return was imminent.
New question to answer
Once convinced of and understanding that there were indeed two distinct periods allowed for within the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, the Church was faced with another type of challenge: how to deal with the period between the comings. Would it be short? How long would it be until Christ came back? What could a Christian expect during this time? What should they do during the interim?
Paul wrote to Timothy on the subject, telling him that a Christian could expect to endure many troubles during this period (2 Timothy 2:3; 3:10-12). If one did not realize this, he or she could be easily discouraged. Christians were to see the coming like the finish line of a race. It would draw them, motivate them, give them capacity to endure.
Paul spoke of "that Day" as synonymous with a Christian's hope in the long-awaited Messiah King. "For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day" (2 Timothy 1:12).
The second coming of Jesus Christ was to represent a time of ultimate spiritual success: "Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him" (2 Timothy 2:10-12).
Paul understood that Christians would share in rulership with Jesus Christ in the Messianic age to be inaugurated at His return. As Jesus told John: "To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne . . ." (Revelation 3:21).
What does this have to do with us?
Just like those living in Paul's day, we also are living in a time between the comings. Therefore, everything said to the early Church on this subject applies just as well to us. Let's take a look at two letters written to congregations of the early Church some two decades after Jesus' death and resurrection.
Early in his letter to the brethren in Thessalonica, Paul reaffirmed their belief in the second coming (1 Thessalonians 2:19). Chapter 3 contains another emphasis of this truth (verses 11-13), directing Christians toward love, clean consciences and spiritual growth so that Christ may finish the establishment of these qualities at His return. Paul pointed grieving Christians to the resurrection of the dead that will occur at Christ's return (1 Thessalonians 4:9-18).
An unanswered question
This doctrine brought with it a new, compelling and difficult question, still unanswered to this day. When will these things happen? When will the coming take place? Paul warned the Thessalonian congregation that most people will not anticipate the timing of the coming, but those same people need not be caught off guard.
Some modern readers assume that means we can read these instructions, found in 1 Thessalonians 5, and we can then know when the coming will be. That's not what Paul said. His message spoke of a way to protect oneself with a breastplate and helmet symbolic of faith, love and the hope of salvation (verse 8). He cautioned his readers that an unshakable belief in and anticipation of the coming would keep them from being caught off guard, but it would not reveal to them a specific date. He made clear to them the behaviors and attitudes Christians should pursue in the time between the comings.
Paul wrote a second letter to the Thessalonians on the heels of the first to clarify certain misunderstandings. Paul assured them that Christ's return would be more like the historically anticipated coming of the Messiah: It would be with great power (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10).
Why did Paul need to write that? It was because strange ideas about the second coming of Jesus Christ were already beginning to spring up in scattered congregations.
Some were teaching that, while there were indeed two comings, they had both already occurred (2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2). This misunderstanding is not so absurd as it might first seem when we realize that, up until only about 20 or 25 years earlier, no one understood anything other than a single coming of the Messiah. If they had been ignorant about so major a prophesied event, why wouldn't there be gross misunderstanding on the subject in all its details?
So Paul had to remind the Thessalonians of the nature of the second coming, that it would be with great power (2 Thessalonians 1:7-11). Obviously "that Day" had not already passed unnoticed by them.
In our eagerness for the Messiah's return, we can easily project an inaccurate interpretation onto current events-just as the Thessalonians did.
Checklist for the second coming?
Today, some read into Paul's correcting of this wrong teaching a virtual checklist for Christ's return. But that was not Paul's point. Jesus had made it clear that His followers would not know when He would return (Matthew 24:36, 44; 25:13; Acts 1:6, 7).
Instead, Paul's message in this chapter is consistent with the other prophetic messages throughout the Bible-Christ will return. Meanwhile, we are to concentrate upon the responsibilities incumbent upon us before that event.
Paul wrote another letter, to the Corinthian church, dealing with the doctrine of Jesus Christ's return. The problem at Corinth? Some taught that there wouldn't be a resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12, 16, 19). But, as Paul had earlier written to the Thessalonians, the resurrection was inextricably linked with Christ's second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Paul challenged the Corinthians' mistaken belief by reasoning through the question: "What if there is no resurrection of the dead at a future coming?" In verses 13-19 of 1 Corinthians 15, he detailed the consequent conclusions of that erroneous premise:
- There would be no hope of rescue from the miseries of this physical existence (verse 14).
- There would be no forgiveness of sin, since forgiveness is tied to another resur- rection, that of Jesus Christ (verses 13, 14, 16, 17).
- There would be no hope of comfort for the loved ones of those who have died (verse 18).
- There would be no judgment to come, no invitation to join the Messiah in bring- ing peace to the world (verse 19).
- Christians' beliefs would be without focus or meaning, gutting life of any hope (verse 14, 17, 19).
Who can know?
Who can possibly misunderstand the second coming? You can. I can. Many Christians have misunderstood, both recently and in centuries past. Yet the second coming of Jesus Christ remains sure.
The apostle Paul understood that the second coming is a key to our present conduct: "Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober . . ., putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation . . . Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing" (1 Thessalonians 5:6, 8, 11).
Paul knew that Christ's second coming is a key to understanding our collective destiny. Like the other apostles and thousands of other members of the early Church, he went to his grave secure in the unshakable certainty of Jesus' return and the resurrection of the dead at that time. He was confident of the priceless reward in store for him.
Writing to Timothy, his beloved friend and companion in the faith, he said: "... The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8, New International Version).