Whatever Became of Jesus Christ?
The Second Coming as Acccomplished Fact
Published by Mike Gantt at Shakespir
Self-published 2016. Originally written 1993.
Self-published with Shakespir 2017.
I claim no copyright for this book. However, English Bibles are copyrighted – hence the notice I am required to give below. You are free to copy anything of mine you want, but you do not have the same liberty where the Bible verses are concerned.
Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the
New American Standard Bible®, (NASB)
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995
by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
Table of Contents
Contrary to many opinions, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is not something future and physical – rather it is something past and spiritual. Extensive explanation of the relevant Bible passages will demonstrate that the Second Coming of Christ occurred just when He and His apostles said it would – in the 1st Century A.D. Jesus Christ is God, and the Second Coming is an outworking of that reality.
The title of this book is an allusion to a statement found in the Old Testament and repeated in the New Testament.
As for the Old Testament, when Moses delayed to come down from Mount Sinai where he had been meeting with God on behalf of the people of Israel, those same people confronted Aaron and demanded that he fashion an idol for them to worship and follow. (Aaron complied, and this was the infamous golden calf.) The people had tired of waiting for Moses, justifying themselves by saying
”… as for this Moses…we do not know what has become of him..”
As for the New Testament, when Stephen was hauled before the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and called to give an account for his belief in Jesus, he made reference to the incident above, including the statement about Moses (Acts 7:40).
Even today, quite apart from the Bible or any religious discussion, we use a statement like this in ordinary conversation whenever we ask, “Whatever became of so-and-so?” about someone from whom we’ve not heard in a long time. It’s the kind of thing you say when you feel out of touch.
Most people have heard that while Jesus was on earth, He promised a glorious return. And they cannot therefore be blamed for wondering – after all these centuries – whatever happened to Him.
This book was written so that people might no longer say of Jesus what they said of Moses, and what we say of “so-and-so.”
When you finish this book, you will have a clear understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. You will be able to give a straightforward answer to anyone who asks about it.
There is no need to wonder what became of Jesus Christ. He kept all His promises; He did everything He said He would. He is God Almighty and reigns supreme over and through all creation…and He will do so forever and ever.
“In Him we live and move and exist” Acts 17:28
Part One – The Second Coming of Jesus Christ
Chapter 1 – Sorting Out the Confusion
Most everyone, even those who take little interest in spiritual things, has heard of the Second Coming. In our time it has not been uncommon to hear newscasters report of some new cult sequestering itself from society in anticipation of the last days, Armageddon and all – its leader a self-professed reincarnation of Jesus Christ Himself. Or, in a more orthodox vein, some well-intentioned group with no members pretending to be deity will arise proclaiming urgently that Jesus Christ is on the verge of appearing from the sky in the flesh. And there are all sorts of variations on this theme – some sinister and despicable, some well-meaning, and some impossible to tell.
Some of these groups end with a bang and some with a whimper. Some actually go on indefinitely, boldly forecasting new dates for the Second Coming as if they didn’t realize that the passing of the old dates had already discredited them. When natural disasters and world tensions are on the increase, speculation about the Second Coming appears beyond the bounds of these types of groups we have mentioned. Even more people begin to ask, “Are these the last days?” “Is this the time that the Second Coming of Christ is about to occur?”
As a result, the knowledge most people have about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is a knowledge of hopes – raised and dashed. Repeatedly. For the one thing that all these forecasts, speculations, prophecies, and prognostications have in common is that they have failed to produce a Second Coming that matches what was promised. And so for many people, the hope for the Second Coming has become like the hope of many Jews for their Messiah: a hope not completely abandoned, yet a hope long overdue for fulfillment. The surrounding world cannot be blamed if it is confused by all this.
The New Testament Record
It is widely acknowledged that the writers of the New Testament expected the Second Coming in their lifetime. What are we to think about this? Are we to conclude that as fine a moral specimens as were Peter, Paul, John, and the others (not to mention Jesus Himself), that still they must fall into the same category as those groups we’ve mentioned who raised hopes they could not fulfill? Hardly! On the other hand, are we to believe Jesus and His apostles were mistaken about the Second Coming but trust them about everything else? That’s not reasonable either! The good news is that all that they promised did, in fact, come to pass. They did not raise hopes that could not be fulfilled. We can trust them fully and completely. That is the message of this book.
Part Two of the book will examine carefully just what Jesus and the apostles said about the timetable for the Second Coming. For now, we simply acknowledge that a straightforward reading of Matthew through Revelation will leave a reader unable to deny that these people had a great expectation; that they believed they were on the verge of that cataclysmic coming of the Lord that would climax in the last days of the old age they were living in and usher in the glorious new age. It is my contention in this book that Jesus and His apostles were absolutely right in everything that they said.
Why So Much Confusion?
There is no good reason for there to be confusion on the issue of the Second Coming. If we read the words of Jesus and the apostles in their context we will see that their words all fit together, giving a clear and consistent teaching on the subject.
There is no lack of written material in our day on the subject of Jesus’ return. Bookshelves are full. Bible reference works would be considered incomplete if they did not include articles on the subject. And there are a variety of headings and sub-headings: such as, Parousia (from the Greek word for “coming”), Eschatology (study of last things), Judgment (as in final, last, or the day of), the Kingdom of God, Resurrection, and others as well.
Therefore, what confusion there is about the Second Coming is not for lack of explanations. In fact, the many explanations have only created confusion. To someone who has been exposed to the literature, it will seem that there are as many positions on the subject as there are denominations in Christianity. But there is no one-to-one correspondence either, for even within a single denomination, a variety of theological interpretations may be found.
Of all these positions that hold the Second Coming as yet future instead of accomplished fact, none has emerged as the true answer acceptable to the majority of Christians. The only thing that prevails is disagreement. Why? Because all these positions begin with the unquestioned and unspoken assumption that the Second Coming is an event which could not be missed. In other words, they assume that there is no way possible that it could have already occurred.
Could the Second Coming Be Missed?
How, you ask, could the Second Coming possibly be missed? Well, was not the first coming of Christ missed by some people? (Recall that “Christ” and “Messiah” are synonymous terms, from Greek and Hebrew respectively.) And don’t the people who missed Him offer as a reason that the coming of Messiah could not be missed?
Take a moment and let it sink in that the Jews did not recognize their Messiah for who He was when He came to them. His coming had been promised and prophesied for years – even centuries – by Israel’s prophets, and recorded in the Scriptures. Nonetheless, the synagogues, as a general rule, refused to see Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. They missed His coming. This, therefore, is how you can miss a coming of the Lord: assume He couldn’t possibly come without your knowing about it.
If the first coming of Messiah could be missed, who’s to say that His second coming couldn’t also be missed? At the very least, we ought to abandon arrogance and humble ourselves to the possibility that the Lord Himself could be in our midst without our being aware of it.
How a Coming of the Lord Is “Missed”
In Matthew 17, after realizing that Jesus was the Messiah, but being urged to secrecy on the subject until after His resurrection, the disciples asked Him about Elijah. The scribes taught that Elijah would precede the Messiah based on the prophecy of Malachi. Since Jesus was the Messiah, the disciples asked, what were they to make of this teaching? Jesus’ answer was that John the Baptist, as the forerunner of Messiah, had been the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. That is, it was not a literal, physical return of Elijah himself but someone in his spirit of boldness calling the authorities, as well as the common people, to repentance.
Indeed there was much about John the Baptist that would bring Elijah to mind, even to the evil wife of Herod who incited him against the prophet just as Jezebel had incited her husband King Ahab against Elijah so many years before. As the writer of Ecclesiastes told us, there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus went on to explain that just as the Israel’s leaders had not recognized John the Baptist as Elijah, neither would they recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. These leaders were missing the fulfillment of prophecy.
Jesus the Messiah could be tried and crucified precisely because the Jewish authorities were sure He was not their Messiah. Even to this day, Jews who still hope for the Messiah reject Jesus on the basis that Messiah’s coming would produce effects (such as visible, universal peace) that could not be missed. Since they do not see these effects, Messiah could not possibly have already come. Ipso facto, in their minds, Jesus is not the Messiah.
From a Christian’s point of view, these Jews have closed their minds to the possibility of seeing Jesus as He truly is because they have made the unwarranted assumption that their Messiah’s coming could not be missed. (Note that we are using the term “missed” in the sense of “unrecognized,” not in the sense of “unexperienced.”) Do not some Christians make the same mind-closing assumption about the Second Coming that some of their Jewish brothers made about His first coming? And, in fact, isn’t our error as Christians worse, since we can see it in our brothers but do not notice when we are doing the same thing ourselves? Therefore, since we as Christians see how Christ’s first coming could be missed, shouldn’t we be very quick to acknowledge that his second coming could also be missed? Yes, for only pride could keep us insisting that Christ’s Second Coming could not be missed.
Now back to the idea of “missed” meaning “unrecognized” and not “unexperienced.” We would not say that Israel did not experience her Messiah, for all Israel experienced Him though not all recognized Him. The same is true for the Second Coming. No one in the world could have failed to experience the Second Coming, for it was a worldwide event. But the world could have failed to recognize it as such. By the way, have you ever wondered why throughout Bible times polytheism, including animal sacrifice, was the rule and yet today monotheism is the prevalent worldview, with most people getting nervous when someone wants to sacrifice animals? Is it possible that some cataclysmic event occurred in the unseen realm, having among its many results, that what the Greeks took seriously even school children today now know is mythology?
Could the Second Coming Be a Spiritual Event?
Obviously, I have begun to speak to you about the Second Coming as a spiritual rather than a physical or fleshly event. Is this such a strange idea? If it seems strange to anyone it should not seem strange to Christians. Christians proclaim a resurrection hardly any of them claim to have seen physically. If we can accept the resurrection by faith, why not the Second Coming?
Is there something unimportant about a spiritual event? Would it carry more weight with us if it were physical or fleshly? If so, what does that say about our spirituality? Certainly the resurrection “spiritualized” the first coming in a way some were not expecting. That is, Jesus ascended from a physical place to a spiritual place. The disciples had thought they were going to follow Messiah in earthly victory, vanquishing the Romans. But the resurrection meant they were to follow Him in spiritual victory through fleshly suffering, vanquishing the unseen forces of their own jealousy, strife, and pride. If to “spiritualize” something means to make it of no practical effect, then such spiritualizing is wrong. If, however, we take as spiritual something that is spiritual and apply it in our lives, have we not honored Him who taught us that spiritual things are more important than physical things? (See Luke 16:15.)
Spiritual things are not only more important than physical things, they are more enduring. “For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are forever.” (2 Corinthians 4:18.) The very reason that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is an event to last for eternity, never needing to be changed, altered, or improved upon, installing forever the reign of Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is precisely because it is not an event of the flesh but rather of the spirit. That is, it was unseen and eternal. In other words, if God wanted something to last forever and be the foundation of all eternity, wouldn’t He choose to do something spiritual rather than something physical? How much did Moses’ tabernacle or Solomon’s temple keep the people from going astray? We see that, great as they were, they had little lasting effect.
How would the faith in the invisible God that Jesus was working so hard to inculcate in His followers be helped by a physical Second Coming? If He were to come again in the fleshly display which so many seek, faith would not be necessary to greet Him and yet He asks,
“…when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:8
Jesus thus indicated the necessity to have faith in the Second Coming.
People who believe God is invisible and that Jesus is the Son of God should not find it so strange if Jesus should return as God, that is, invisibly. Since Jesus is who He is, isn’t it fitting that He should come the first time as man and the second time as God; the first time in the flesh and the second time in the spirit (2 Corinthians 5:16); the first time for sin and the second time for salvation (Hebrews 9:28); the first time in suffering and the second time in glory (Luke 24:26)? Should we be disappointed that we do not see Him physically when He told the apostle Thomas,
“Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” John 20:29
Making the Case
We may be getting ahead of ourselves. The case has only begun to be made that Jesus Christ has already come again. The overwhelming evidence comes in the next two parts of the book as we examine in detail the statements of Jesus and His apostles on the subject. The next part of this book will look at everything they said about “when” the Second Coming could be expected. Nothing they said would let us date it anytime past the 1st Century A.D. To say then that it has not occurred some 1,900 years later is to say that we know more about the Second Coming than they did!
Part Three of the book will look at what Jesus and His apostles said about “what” the Second Coming would be like. We will see that to regard their descriptions as referring to a physical event leads to all sorts of contradictions and inconsistencies – the very situation we find in the multiplied opinions about what the “future, physical” Second Coming will be like. If, however, we take their descriptions as referring to a spiritual event we will find that their teachings harmonize to present a clear, consistent, and undeniably magnificent portrait of our Savior’s enthronement and His eternal reign.
At this point, therefore, it is only necessary for you to maintain an open mind. For in the acceptance or rejection of any Bible teaching, one must engage his or her conscience. We must ask ourselves, “Am I willing to stand before God and say this is what I truly believe?” If we believe the crowd is right, we should stand with the crowd; but if we believe the crowd is wrong, then we must stand alone. It is that sort of honesty before God that tends to break up crowds.
Part Two – The Timing of the Second Coming
This part of the book will address the timeframe of Jesus’ Second Coming. We will survey the entire New Testament. We will begin with what the Gospels say, then cover what the book of Acts says, and last cover what all the epistles say. We do this by dividing this part of the book into three separate chapters according to the three genres we find in the New Testament: the four “biographies” (that is, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the one “history” (that is, the Acts of the Apostles), and the 22 “letters” (that is, the epistles of the apostles – including the book of Revelation). By the time we’re finished, you’ll wonder how anyone ever got the idea that the Second Coming might be delayed or otherwise not occur by the end of the New Testament age – that is, the 1st Century A.D.
Chapter 2 – What the Gospels Say
The Times of Jesus the Messiah
To talk about what the Gospels say is to talk about what Jesus said, for the Gospels are the record of His ministry and teaching. And He is the first source we should consult, because no one on earth knew more about the subject of the Second Coming than He did.
The place to start our discussion is to recognize that Jesus lived His earthly life in a unique historical age. The time in which Jesus of Nazareth lived has been called a messianic age even by those who do not believe He was the Messiah. This age can roughly defined as 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Both Jewish and Christian historical sources confirm that the expectation of Messiah’s appearance was widespread. Messiah’s coming was associated with the last days and judgment which Israel’s prophets had foretold so you can imagine the questions and concerns that were running through people’s minds.
A whole class of literature arose during this time called “apocalyptic,” defined as writing which is characterized by “symbolic imagery and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling power of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.” Of course, we recognize the New Testament book of Revelation as matching this sort of description. So, although the book of Revelation may seem strangely different and out-of-place to us, people of that age – especially Jews – would not be thrown off, as if they had never seen this type of writing before. In fact, the book of Revelation is sometimes called the Apocalypse (from the same word as apocalyptic). “Revelation” is from a Latin word and “Apocalypse” is from a Greek word, both meaning the same thing: an uncovering or unveiling; that is, to reveal, or give a revelation.
To go along with the anticipation of Messiah, the consequential speculation about when and how he might appear, and the associated flourishing of writings which vividly and picturesquely described the end of the current world order and the establishing of a new age, we also find that there were many individuals ready and eager to accept the title of Messiah. In other words, there were many false Messiahs (or, you could say, false Christs). Such an atmosphere fosters pretenders, and there was always a group, whether large or small, ready to follow these leaders both in their rise – and in their inevitable demise.
This keen awareness and uncertainty about Messiah, the last days, the end of the world, and all else that went with these things, is clearly reflected in the pages of the four gospels. For if you read the Bible sequentially from Genesis you notice something radically different in the air when you get to Matthew. What were hints and promises in the Old Testament become full-blown expectations in the New Testament. The prophets had spoken of a great one to come “in many portions and in many ways,” but not until the New Testament do you see at every turn people asking, “Where is he? Have you seen him?”
This interest was not limited to Israel proper, for since the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. and Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Jews had been dispersed all over the world. Wherever they went, they built synagogues in which Moses and all the Prophets were regularly read. Many God-fearing Gentiles would join them. So it is not surprising that, as the second chapter of Matthew tells us, as far away as from the East some (that is, magi) would come asking, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” And King Herod could then ask the priests and scribes “where the Christ was to be born.” Herod’s mass murder of all the male infants in and around Bethlehem reveals just how much the coming of Messiah bore on people’s minds in that age. For this horrid act would not have occurred unless Herod and his subjects were thoroughly persuaded that Messiah was not only the promise of God, but also a promise everyone believed was on the verge of being fulfilled. This was a sustained and not a fleeting expectation, for this incident with Herod occurred thirty years before Jesus even began His public ministry.
No wonder then that when, a few decades later after Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, John the Baptist appeared preaching repentance and using apocalyptic-style language like “flee from the wrath to come,” and “every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire,” there were people more than eager to listen. Luke 3 tells us that ”people were in an expectant state and even wondering whether John himself might be the Messiah.” Even the religious authorities in Jerusalem sent a deputation to the Jordan River to ask John if he was the Messiah (John 1).
Of course, all through Jesus’ public ministry, speculation abounded as to whether He was the Christ. Here’s a sampling:
“When the Christ comes, He will not perform more signs than those which this man has, will He?” John 7:31
“We have found the Messiah” John 1:41
“…if anyone confessed Him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.” John 9:22
When we remember how reluctant Jesus was about making Himself known as the Messiah before His resurrection, we see once again the nature of these times. That is, the interest and fervor over the Messiah was not something Jesus created, but rather was something already present in the people of His day. This is important because as we look at Jesus’ description of the timing of His second coming, we will see that He is not so much bringing to the disciples’ minds whole new concepts (such as the last days, the age to come) as He is answering questions they already had.
Jesus did not want to make His identity as Messiah an issue until after His resurrection. The resurrection was the primary missing puzzle piece that would cause everything God said through the prophets to make sense. So, until people realized that, they would remain uncertain about how the “last days scenario” would play out. Without the missing piece of the resurrection, most people foresaw Messiah taking the throne of Israel and leading battles against the nations in the manner of King David, and ultimately, as a result of His victories, bringing righteousness, peace, and joy to Israel and the world.
Resurrection from death is one of the things, aside from His unique and exclusive claim to the title of Messiah, that so distinguished Jesus from the other possible Messiahs. For them, death was always the end of their messianic careers. For Jesus, however, it was only the beginning.
The resurrection was not just the missing piece to the puzzle, it was the missing piece that changed the fit of all the other pieces. It’s like having 4,999 pieces of a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle put together. You finally find the one missing piece behind the sofa. But in so doing, you see beautiful colors on the other side of the puzzle piece and you realize you have been working with the plain cardboard side of the pieces and have been putting the whole thing together upside down! This was not just true for the high and mighty religious leaders who condemned Jesus, but even the humble disciples expected Jesus to reign as an earthly king and did not know about His resurrection from the dead until it happened – even though He privately told them at least three different times that it would occur!
Such were the times in which Jesus found Himself. Understanding those times is not essential to establishing the timeline for the Second Coming, but it can help us understand why Jesus and the apostles often spoke as they did. That is, they did not always fully explain every term they used because they and their hearers had common understandings. Just as today, when there’s some new government scandal, we can say, “Looks like another Watergate” without going into details about President Nixon, the burglars, and the fact that there really was no water and no gate involved. Two thousand years from now archaeologists might have to look to a history book to try to figure out what our figure of speech meant to us. And so, just because “Armageddon,” “abomination of desolation,” and “end of the age” sometimes throw us for a loop does not necessarily mean the eyes of the disciples glazed over when they heard these and similar terms. It seems far more likely that Jesus and His apostles were communicating in a language that they and their audiences understood.
Having the context of the times in which He spoke firmly in our minds, let us now see what Jesus Himself said about the timing of His second coming.
“When Are You Coming?”
Several days before his crucifixion, Jesus was in Jerusalem, teaching in the temple. On one of those days, as He and His disciples were departing, they pointed out to Him the beauty of the temple and the surrounding buildings. And indeed Jewish sources confirm that it was a sight that commanded attention. Jesus tells His disciples that despite the beauty and glory, it would be completely destroyed. And sadly, the same Jewish sources will confirm this also. In fact, practically any encyclopedia will tell you that this great temple of Israel in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Now if anyone tells you that a Jewish rabbi walking through the temple around 33 A.D. on the eve of His own death told his followers that this temple would be destroyed in their lifetime, and indeed less than 40 years later that very thing happened, then you would probably want to know what else that Jewish rabbi said! (Would that we were all more zealous to know everything He says.)
Naturally, the ears of the disciples perked up at this pronouncement, for the temple had long been not only the unparalleled focal point for the nation (imagine lumping the White House, the Washington Monument, the Capitol, Mt. Rushmore, and Plymouth Rock all together), but also a sign as to how well the nation was doing in God’s sight. When Solomon built it, things were great. As the nation’s righteousness declined, so did the fortunes of the temple until King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed it in 586 B.C. It was rebuilt in the days of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah as some of the Jews returned from captivity. It endured more ups and downs over the years that followed. So, given the context of the times, when Jesus said, “temple destroyed” their minds (now believing He was the Messiah) translated “last days.” For the prophets had said that “the day of the Lord” would be a time of destruction as well as a time of glory. So Jesus’ disciples asked Him,
“Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Matthew 24:3
Do you see that, apart from the context of the times, that these questions would not make sense? For all He explicitly mentions is the temple’s destruction. In any other age, the likely question might be “Why will such a nice building be destroyed?” or “Why are you predicting such a dour future for our nation?” As pious Jews, they knew that Jesus must be speaking of the last days.
The primary text we are using for our discussion here is Matthew chapters 24 and 25. Bible scholars often call it the Olivet Discourse, or, less often, the Olivet prophecy. These names derives from the Mount of Olives which was opposite the temple and which was the place where this Q&A session with His disciples took place. Mark and Luke also record this episode (in Mark 13 and Luke 21) and we will use their accounts to supplement and help us understand Matthew’s. The reason we are focusing on this particular conversation is that it is the one time Jesus was asked point-blank by His disciples about the timing of His second coming. He gives an almost two-chapter answer. Could there be a better place for us to start if we want to move beyond confusion?
We will see that Jesus directly answers the disciples’ questions, giving them a timetable by which they can know the approximate time of His second coming. If he didn’t want them to know, or thought their line of questioning inappropriate, He could have rebuked them, or at least sent their thinking a different direction (as the gospels reveal that he did on a number of other occasions). Instead, we see Him giving a thoughtful and extended answer, as He always did whenever a question was appropriate. Since these men were going to bear witness to Him all around the world and suffer greatly in the process, most of them dying violently by persecution, Jesus thought it entirely proper that they should know the answer to their questions. After all, it was a key part of their message to say that Messiah would be coming in glory (that is, what we call His Second Coming) and that people didn’t have forever to get ready. And we will see that the disciples not only communicated repeatedly that Jesus was coming again but also passed on the same timeframe He was giving them on this very day. (As you read through Matthew 24-25, you may recognize various individual verses which have been ripped from their context by zealous but erring preachers bent on proclaiming a delayed Second Coming, contradicting each other in many respects. You will, however, see for yourself how these verses actually fit together in one cohesive narrative which clearly points to a Second Coming in that generation.)
In answering His disciples (and you can have your Bible open to Matthew 24-25 as I describe it to you), Jesus first tells them not to be misled or deceived by false Messiahs – for there would be plenty of them. Then He tells His disciples that wars, rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes will come. He tells them that these things do not denote the end, but only the beginning of pains they will see (birth pangs that bring in a new age). Then they themselves will be persecuted and even killed. It will be so bad that betrayal will occur among the ranks of Christ’s followers. And during this time, many false prophets will arise. But the disciples should stay on mission until the gospel is preached throughout the whole world, for, since that was the goal, only then would the end come. What end? The end of the age they asked Him about.
Jesus has completed the whole timetable without mentioning the temple so now He comes back to it in verse 15. He says that when they see the “abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (Matthew 24:15) they should flee Judea (the region in which Jerusalem was located). In giving his version, Luke says “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near.” (Luke 21:20) and then goes on likewise telling them to flee Judea. Since our main concern in this chapter is timing, we will not bog ourselves down with determining exactly what Daniel meant by “abomination of desolation.” Whether the disciples saw what was “in the holy place” or “the armies” lining up outside, the instruction was the same: flee Judea!
The reason for fleeing Judea was that a great tribulation would be about to ensue. There would be no deliverance from it except to escape to some other location. Normally, under such circumstances the people of Israel would flee to Jerusalem, seeking safety within her walls. Jesus wanted to make absolutely clear that such a strategy would be fatal in this case – for this destruction of Jerusalem was inevitable – even to the foundation of the temple.
Therefore, the fall of the temple was not the end, but it was the beginning of the end. There would be tribulation before that event, but it would be small compared to the tribulation after it. This tribulation would be so great that God would cut it short by finally bringing about the glorious kingdom of Messiah for which heaven and earth had been waiting for so long.
At this point in Matthew’s narrative (we are about halfway through Matthew 24), the disciples realize when Jesus would come: it would be some time after the temple was destroyed, but not too long after. Jesus went on to confirm to them that their generation would not pass away until all these things took place. Here are His words:
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Matthew 24:34
It would be hard to construct a sentence which communicated more clearly and emphatically that all the things that Jesus was talking about would occur in that generation. We know that Jesus spoke these words around 33 A.D. and that the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. Since Jesus promised to come sometime not too long after the tribulation that was ignited with the destruction of the temple, we see how the promise that His generation would experience all these events was to be fulfilled. The simplicity and consistency of his remarks on this timeline make us marvel at how we have so misunderstood them! There was only one century in which He told His followers to look for His return – the one that He and they lived in!
The Key Sign
The key sign of the temple being destroyed was now understood. It was Jesus’ mention of this fateful event that prompted the disciples’ questions in the first place. Note also what came before His bringing it up: His indictment of the scribes and Pharisees.
Matthew 23 (of course, the Bible wasn’t written in chapter and verse – those markers were added later) is Jesus’ stark warning to his fellow religious leaders in Israel. “Woe to you,” He repeatedly declares…and then explains. He finishes by saying,
“Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” Matthew 23:38
As He leaves the Pharisees, Jesus tells His disciples that the house that was being left desolate to the Pharisees was going to be completely torn down. Not only do we now see the flow of thought connecting Matthew 23 with 24 and 25, but also get a hint about what Daniel’s expression “abomination of desolation” meant. Jesus had taught, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,” (Matthew 16:25). The Pharisees could not let go of the temple God had given, even though its time had elapsed; its period of usefulness had expired. Rejecting the greater glory of Jesus, they clung to the lesser glory, and fading glory, of the temple. But having tried to save their life (that is, cling to the temple), they were only to lose it in utter devastation. “But whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (continuing in Matthew 16:25) Jesus had gone on to say. And so those humble Jews who followed Jesus, though they lost the temple and the land, would inherit the presence of God…and the whole earth as well (see Matthew 28:20 and Matthew 5:5).
God’s signs are not just signs of timing but of meaning as well. Fortune-telling, horoscopes, and the like have in common with the Bible the element of predicting the future. But anyone who had read from both types of literature notices the vastly different way they approach the subject. One aspect of this difference is that a Bible sign is not something you check off your list unemotionally, but rather is full of meaning, emotion, and your own experience. The destruction of the temple is something to be pondered and understood – something that is meant to communicate to us even today. Just as there is more to understand about Jesus’ healing a blind man than that God loves people and has the power to cure blindness. (For example, what does it illustrate about spiritual blindness?)
The temple was convenient as the key sign because it is a fixed, historically ascertainable structure – and its destruction a historical ascertainable event. That is, Jesus picked something that would be easy for subsequent generations to verify. But it was not merely convenient; it was immeasurably significant. And since its destruction has lasted even until our day, perhaps we should be pondering its significance even in our day.
Before going on, let’s remember that though the temple may have been the most notable sign, it was not the only one, nor was it the immediate sign of His coming. Jesus goes on to show this later in the chapter when He tells a parable of a fig tree. His point will be that a fig tree’s tender branches and new leaves tell you that summer is near. Summer is something you can’t see; rather, you experience it. It is a change in conditions, the results of which you see. When you look out your window, you can’t “see” summer or winter. You see a street, trees, and so on. Just so, Jesus was giving signs that led up to the Second Coming – signs they would be able to see. But the Second Coming was like summer – something you couldn’t see. It was a change in spiritual conditions (as summer would mark a change in meteorological conditions). This will become more clear when we discuss the spiritual nature of the Second Coming. For now, let’s return to the signs that would lead up to when “He was near.”
Other Signs To Be Fulfilled, Too
The temple was the key sign, but there were others as well. Jesus goes on to tell His disciples that no one could know the exact day or hour of His coming, which makes sense given the kind of timetable He gave them. The temple’s destruction was a sign, but the proliferation of false Christs and false prophets was also a sign. Jesus’ coming could not occur before the first sign. It would definitely occur sometime after the temple was destroyed and while the false brethren were in prominence.
These unfolding events were all backdrop to the essential mission of the apostles. Jesus made clear in His discourse that the conclusion of the timeline would be driven by the fulfillment of their mission.
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:14
The Acts of the Apostles and other New Testament books give evidence that the gospel was considered spread around the world even in that age. Paul could write to the Romans,
“…your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” Romans 1:8
And to the Colossians Paul writes,
“… the gospel which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing…” Colossians 1:5-6
Such an effective job was being done by the apostles of Jesus, that even unbelievers were aware of its worldwide influence, for when Paul finally arrived in Rome (the “Big Apple” of its day), he was asked about the movement of which he was a part:
“…this sect…is known to us that it is spoken against everywhere.” Acts 28:22 [emphasis added]
And it is no wonder, God Himself having paved the way for them, for even on the day of Pentecost when Peter first spoke about the resurrected Messiah there were Jews from all over the world present for the feast in Jerusalem to hear him (Acts 2). Of course, God would have to remain the final judge of when all the nations had heard enough and judgment should begin. He’s the only one who could be completely fair and impartial about it.
Someone may argue at this point that I am not dealing with everything that is written in Matthew 24 and 25 – that is, with all of Jesus’ answer to the disciples question. That’s right. I am only dealing with timing, or when these things would happen. In the next part of the book, we will deal with what would happen – that is, the nature of the Second Coming. If we can’t accept the when, about which the Scriptures are straightforward, clear, and emphatic, how will we ever accept the what?
Let’s review what we’ve learned to this point from the Olivet Discourse: As to when these things would happen (the question of timing the disciples first asked), Jesus could not have been clearer. As they preached the gospel throughout the world there would be wars, famines, and earthquakes. As the movement of disciples grew, they would be subject to persecution and even betrayed within the ranks (Judas, in a matter of days, would foreshadow this dynamic). The destruction of the temple would mark the beginning of the most intense period of their tribulation. (And if anyone should doubt that these dark times would qualify as “great tribulation,” as Jesus called it, let him read the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who gives gory details of the horrors that came on Jerusalem.) After that, the false leaders would appear everywhere in the Christian movement, tearing up what the apostles had worked so hard for…and then Messiah would come. We have confirmation in the New Testament that these false teachers did actually gain prominence (Jude 1:4-19; 1 John 2:18; 4:1). Though none of the disciples could know the day or hour, all of them could be sure that (excepting those who died as martyrs first, by His choice) if they endured to the end, they would see it. No soldiers going into lifelong battle could have asked for clearer marching orders.
Now some have said that Jesus’ coming was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D. You have seen that this is not so, for Jesus said the temple’s destruction was only the sign of worsening tribulation before his coming, and therefore was preliminary to, and not a climax of, His coming. People who see the destruction of Jerusalem as the Second Coming, however, are at least on the right track, honestly acknowledging that the destruction of the temple is a key piece of the timetable. Jesus said the subsequent tribulation would be so bad it would have to be cut short. By “cut short” do you think He meant a period of time longer than 1,946 years? This is just how many years have elapsed since 70 A.D. If that were the actual timeline, not even Methuselah (who attained to the age of 969) had he been an apostle, could have endured to the end!
The disciples rightly recognized the destruction of the temple as the sign of the end for Israel. Jesus explained to them exactly where it fit into the timetable of events. How can we today ignore so obvious a fact as its destruction? Hardly a week goes by that you don’t see a picture of the Muslim structure that dominates the temple’s former site and the shred of a wall (called “the wailing wall”) that sits humbly beneath it. All history testifies that Jesus’ prophecy about the temple was fulfilled. How can today’s “prophecy experts” ignore such realities and say that Jesus’ prophecies are meant instead for our age or beyond?
History will also tell us that there were wars, famines, and earthquakes that occurred, just as Jesus had said. We should probably not, however, regard these words as prophecy per se for these things have always occurred throughout human history with some periods of time being more intense with them than others. Jesus’ point, therefore, was that He didn’t want His disciples distracted from their mission when wars, famines, and earthquakes arose with greater intensity – the disciples must keep on going with His message of love.
Just before His ascension into heaven, Jesus told His disciples,
“It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority…“ Acts 1:7
In other words, the disciples should not be concerned with which nation was rising against which nation, which would include not being concerned about which nation would be the one to destroy Israel.
Paul said the same thing to the believers in Thessalonica:
Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 1 Thessalonians 5:1
Such curiosity would serve no useful purpose for God, and only distract the disciples from their mission of preaching the good news about Jesus.
Note how many of those who preach a “future, physical” Second Coming do this very thing Jesus and Paul said not to do. For example, such “prophecy experts” will say ”Iran is going to come against Israel in fulfillment of prophecy.” A quarter of a century ago, they uttered the same sentence except that it was the Soviet Union instead of Iran. God does not use His people to be geopolitical prognosticators and commentators. Rather, He uses His people to proclaim His name and demonstrate His righteous character.
History also tells us that, just as Jesus predicted, the apostles were hated and persecuted on account of His name. Most of the twelve died a martyr’s death. If you look up an account of their lives, you will see that they left very little information about themselves. They devoted their all to making known their Master. Whoever succeeded at so difficult a mission, or at a greater personal price, as they did? What we don’t know about Jesus is our fault, not theirs.
The Master’s Timetable
Once again we state the obvious: Jesus said that not too long after the temple was destroyed, while tribulation was prevalent and false teachers abounding, He would come. He made no mention that He might come in some succeeding generation but went out of His way to assure them it would be in that generation. Jesus raises the hope that, if they would endure, they themselves would see His coming. Which do you think had more risk of failing: their endurance or His promise? Of course, their endurance. Since, however, they did endure (save Judas, and the ones He chose to give their lives in martyrdom, including Peter and Paul), how much more did He come! We will really get mixed up if we start thinking we are the sure thing and God is the maybe. If He said (and He did) “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” (and His coming was the most essential of all the “things”) then we may rest assured that by the time that generation passed away all these things had taken place. And not only had they all occurred, but in the exact sequence He outlined. How can we say we believe Him and see it any other way?
As you read through the rest of the New Testament, you can see that the apostles follow their Master’s timetable exactly in what they say to people. For example, in his second letter to Timothy, when Paul is writing about the last days, he says to Timothy that “difficult times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1). Now when a guy who’s encountered the level of tribulation that Paul has (Have there been many other guys who’ve encountered that much tribulation?) tells you that difficult times are coming, you really have to call it “great tribulation.” And isn’t that just what Jesus called it (Matthew 24:21)?
In this same passage (2 Timothy 3), Paul speaks of the false teachers in these difficult times as being like “Jannes and Jambres” who “opposed Moses” (2 Timothy 3:8). This would bring to Timothy’s mind the magicians of Pharaoh who reproduced some of the signs and wonders of Moses and Aaron – a definite allusion to Jesus’ prophecy that the many false Christs and false prophets at the end would even in some cases perform great signs and wonders, seeming to imply divine authority was with them.
This is only one example of how the apostles always speak and write according to the timetable Jesus gives. Though they may use different words and phrases, they always stick to the same ideas and timing.
We will not only see that the apostles teach the same timetable, but that they, because they are writing through the period from the Lord’s resurrection to His return, can confirm to us that certain portions of the Lord’s prophecy were fulfilled before their eyes. For example, they tell of the various forms of personal tribulation they endured (mostly in an indirect way, for they were wanting to call attention to the Lord and not to themselves) and even of the false teachers near the end (e.g. 3 John 1:9, which we’ll examine below). Therefore, we will see that the apostles not only accepted and taught the Master’s timetable, but also verify for us portions of its fulfillment.
The Consequences of Rejecting Jesus’ Timetable
If someone does not accept the timetable for the Second Coming Jesus gave, then elaborate schemes of dates and events have to be established and verses have to be quoted out of context and given new meaning they never originally held in order to produce a teaching on the subject. For example, some have taken the verse “of that day or hour no one knows” out of context and presented it as if Jesus was saying no one could have any idea when the Second Coming would occur, when all He meant was that the exact day or moment could not be pinpointed. To say that no one could know when, is to contradict the clear and comprehensive answer Jesus gave His disciples in Matthew 24-25.
If you understand what the Second Coming was about, you realize that a pinpoint date was not necessary. I cannot give you a pinpoint date for when He came (though, of course, there is one) and I am not the least bit interested in determining it. The important thing is to know the sun has risen, not to be able to quote the exact moment it broke the horizon (though, of course, there was such a precise moment).
“Prophecy experts” also do mental gymnastics with the word “generation” saying that it means something other than its plain sense. For instance, they say it means “race” and therefore Jesus was saying the Jewish race would not pass away until all these things took place, which would render all that he said prior to this as utter nonsense. For if it could occur anytime the Jewish race was in existence, why did He give them all these signs to watch for? Why didn’t He just say, “You can’t really know when – it could be over 2,000 years from now”? But everything in His answer indicates that the events under consideration would take no longer than a lifetime. There is no “and to your seed after you” language like the Bible uses when God’s instructions extend beyond a generation, as they do in the Law of Moses. In this context, to say the word “generation” means “race” would also make the statement itself say almost the exact opposite of itself. Think about it. “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” would then become to their ears, “This generation may very well pass away before all these things take place.” Ridiculous.
Other teachers, recognizing these absurdities, seize on the word “this” for reinterpretation. They say that there is a generation in which all these things would come to pass but Jesus was not promising it would be the generation of His listeners. Therefore, each generation should look for the signs because it might be the one generation in which Jesus would come. Apart from the violence this does to the obvious sense of Jesus’ words, the approach falls flat on its face because the disciples’ generation was the only one which did see all the signs fulfilled, for theirs is the only generation in which the temple to which Jesus pointed was destroyed. No other generation can see that sign fulfilled. The temple was standing as He spoke. It fell just as He said it would. All historians, religious and secular, confirm it happened in 70 A.D. How then can anyone stand up today and say, “We may very well be the generation of which Jesus spoke”?
I certainly mean no disrespect to those who promote these tortured interpretations and unjustified timelines for the Second Coming. I simply say that there is no reason to take Jesus’ straightforward answer to His disciples’ straightforward questions in some non-straightforward way. Our choice is simple: believe Jesus’ straightforward timetable or believe someone else’s convoluted timetable.
Other Things Jesus Said About the Timing
Having accepted and understood the master timetable Jesus gave in the Olivet Discourse, we now look elsewhere in the gospels to see any other references Jesus might have made to the timing of His Second Coming. It is reassuring, but not surprising, that what we find fits and harmonizes with what He said in Matthew 24-25 (Mark 13, Luke 21).
Matthew 16 records the meeting between Jesus and His disciples when He asks them about His identity. After Peter rightly identifies Him as the Messiah (i.e. the Christ), Jesus tells them about the crucifixion and resurrection to come. He also tells them about the Second Coming. He uses the expression “The Son of Man will come” which is the same way He repeatedly spoke of His Second Coming in Matthew 24-25 (see specifically Matthew 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44; 25:31). Here is what Jesus said in Matthew 16 and the other two gospels that record the incident:
“For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Matthew 16:27-28 [emphasis added]
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” And Jesus was saying to them, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” Mark 8:38-9:1 [emphasis added]
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:26-27 [emphasis added]
You can see that Jesus clearly promises to come while some of the disciples were still living – and He emphasizes that promise by preceding it with “Truly I say to you.” In Mark’s version He even uses the words “this…generation” adding the adjectives “adulterous and sinful” that characterized it as a whole. As we know, some of the disciples present (most of them, in fact) died for Him in the course of the mission. The sinfulness that characterized the age would manifest itself against these disciples in the same murderous persecution that crucified Jesus. We would not be surprised therefore if Jesus had to choke back some emotion when He came to the words “some standing here shall not taste death” knowing therefore that some of those present indeed would taste it on His behalf.
We see this distinction referred to particularly in John 21 where Peter hears Jesus foretell of his death as a martyr. Peter’s fellow fisherman and apostle John is standing nearby, so Peter asks if their fates would be similar, whereupon Jesus answers,
“If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” John 21:22
It was clearer still that some of them would be chosen to taste death and some to endure to the end, and that Jesus Himself would be overseeing who was assigned to which category. Either way, it would be an honor any disciple.
Also, going back to the Matthew 16 passage (also recorded in Mark 8-9 and Luke 9), we see that the questions the disciples asked at the beginning of Matthew 24-25 (Mark 13, Luke 21) – that is,
“Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Matthew 24:3
– were connected. Not only had the disciples been asking these questions in the context of the messianic age in which they lived, and in the knowledge of Jesus’ identity as Israel’s Messiah, but also in the specific knowledge (He had given them) that He would be coming before they all died. In fact, they had already known He would come in their lifetime by something He told them even earlier in the gospel of Matthew:
…truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes. Matthew 10:23
So, having already been informed that His coming would occur while they were still in the process of their lifelong mission, though they now also knew that some of them would die in that process, the questions which prompted the detailed answer of Matthew 24-25 were born of a general knowledge seeking a more particular knowledge. That is, the disciples knew they would see His coming before their generation passed away but were probably interested in a more precise schedule. When Jesus mentioned the destruction of the temple, emblem of the nation of Israel, it seemed the appropriate time to ask.
Note also from the Matthew 16, Mark 8-9, and Luke 9 passages that “coming,” “coming in His kingdom,” “coming in the glory of His Father,” and “kingdom of God coming” are all synonymous terms. The “Coming One” was even one of the titles for Messiah. In Matthew 11, John the Baptist asked Jesus, “Are You the Coming One?” Jesus was to “come” in His kingdom. England’s kings have a coronation; America’s presidents have an inauguration; Israel’s Messiah “comes” in his kingdom.
This understanding ties together things that generations of erroneous Bible teaching have torn apart. Jesus – and even John the Baptist before Him – had been preaching all along that the kingdom of God was “at hand” (e.g. Matthew 3:2 and 4:17). Israel had been governed by the Law and the Prophets but, going forward, all things would be governed by the kingdom of God (to which the Law and the Prophets testified). That is why, at the beginning of Matthew 24, the disciples asked about “the end of the age,” because that end was connected with the coming of the kingdom of God. The consummation of the then current age (including the destruction of Israel, both physical and spiritual, as God’s instrument of revelation) would mark the beginning of the new age. Therefore, in the Bible, whether the questions were about “the end of the age” or about “the coming of the kingdom,” it was always the same set of answers – because the end of the one age meant the beginning of the other. That is, “the end of the age” would bring with it “the coming of the kingdom.”
As Jesus was approaching Jerusalem and His greatest confrontation with the authorities, some thought the kingdom of God was about to appear (Luke 19:11). To correct that impression, Jesus went on to tell a parable. Based on their messianic expectations, people were still visualizing any war involving Messiah as resulting in the devastation of all opposition to him. The crucifixion, resurrection, and call to repentance would change this perception for those who believed Jesus. So in the parable (very similar to one in Matthew 24-25) Jesus points out that there will be a lapse of time in which their use of His grace would be evaluated. This lapse of time we now know to be the time between the resurrection (to occur within days of this interaction) and His coming in the kingdom (to occur much later in their lifetimes). We may rightly consider this the church age – the time in which the epistles of the New Testament were written, the time between Christ’s resurrection and His grand coming.
Our understanding that the coming of the kingdom is connected with the coming of the Lord and not with the resurrection (or even Pentecost) is affirmed by something we notice in the parallel accounts of Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21. In all three gospel accounts, Jesus tells a parable of the fig tree, saying that just as its tender branches putting forth leaves is the sign that summer is near, even so the completion of all the preliminary signs He has mentioned is indication that “He is near.” These signs (temple destroyed, rise of false teachers, etc.), of course, would not have time to have occurred by the resurrection or the day of Pentecost.
By the way, where Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts say “He is near,” Luke’s account says “the kingdom of God is near,” indicating that the coming of the kingdom and the coming of the King are one and the same event. It might seem unnecessary to make so obvious a point to you except that some divide the two statements saying that Jesus indeed came in His kingdom in the 1st Century A.D. as we have said, but that He is also yet to come in the flesh in the Second Coming. However, you cannot divide the Lord’s coming into two anymore than Solomon could divide that baby into two. Well, maybe he could have divided it but he would have ended up with zero babies and not two. The same dilemma occurs here for that would make the parallel accounts giving different and conflicting answers to the same question. Scripture cannot contradict itself! Therefore, the coming of the Son of Man was the coming in His kingdom, a single glorious event. He was telling them it would be fulfilled not in a few days (lest they confuse it with the resurrection)…but it would come before their generation passed away.
Speaking of the generation passing away, we recall how Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God belonging to children (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18). This is a principle, forever true. But it also had particular meaning for those little faces Jesus of Nazareth encountered, because when their generation became adults and their parents’ generation was passing away, the kingdom would be coming. They would receive it just as the children of the disobedient Israelites under Moses were the generation that would inherit the promised land of which their parents had proved unworthy. Looking ahead, the children of the children Jesus saw would have to grow up somewhere other than Judea (for He knew enemies would overrun it), but the kingdom of God could protect them wherever they went. In other words, that little generation He spoke to would be the first Jewish one for whom physical descent from Abraham and attachment to the land of Canaan was not to be prized. Something greater had come…and His name was Immanuel.
For this reason Jesus had said in John 4, “an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem shall you worship the Father,” The Law of Moses and the reign of David made Jerusalem the only proper place for Jewish worship, but with the coming of the kingdom of God and the reign of Messiah, Jerusalem would be fulfilled in people’s hearts. Being a Jew would not be a matter of the flesh, but rather a matter of the spirit (Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 6:16). The earthly temple of earthly Jerusalem was necessary for the fulfilling of the Law of Moses (animal sacrifices, etc.) but not for the kingdom of God. That’s why its destruction was a sign that the kingdom was close.
Summarizing Jesus’ Statements About Timing
There is more than one approach we could take here in summarizing the data. The case is embarrassingly clear. We could pull together statements of Jesus from all four gospels but let’s just list five unequivocal statements about timing from the single gospel of Matthew:
“…for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.” Matthew 10:23
“Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Matthew 16:28
“But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” Matthew 24:13
“Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” Matthew 24:22
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Matthew 24:34
Was not His message to them about the timing of His coming more than clear? Is there any way to deny that He led His disciples to expect His return before their generation passed away? Can’t you almost hear the disciples from heaven crying out to us, “Why don’t you believe what He said?” Jesus left no room for doubt that the Second Coming would be in the lifetime of His contemporaries. He went out of His way to make His meaning clear on this point. He was not one for equivocating.
Now if we insist that Jesus has not yet come, we have a problem. A big one. He would be, not the Messiah of Israel, but a false prophet. For Israel’s prophets, by decree of God (Deuteronomy 18:22), had to be exactly right about events and their timing (see Jeremiah 28 and how a prophet named Hananiah who prophesied falsely about timing lost his life as a result). Jesus, however, is no false prophet. He’s the truest of the true! Compared to Him, there’s not an honest man among us. The elaborate schemes of interpretation that have been devised to explain why He has tarried are not necessary. He has not tarried! He has kept His word!
Since Jesus has been so clear about the timing of His Second Coming – that it would occur in that generation – we would expect His apostles to be in agreement with Him and with each other. Indeed they are, as we shall see in the next two chapters which cover the rest of the New Testament.
Chapter 3 – What Acts Says
There is much less history in the New Testament than there is in the Old Testament. Other than the Gospels telling us about the life of Jesus, the only history of the New Testament age that we have is the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which tells us about the work of the apostles that Jesus had given them to do. Therefore, this chapter will be a very short one. Nonetheless, it will be consistent with, and therefore confirm, all that we found about the timing of the Second Coming in the Gospels, and all that we will find about it in the Epistles which we will cover in the chapter that follows.
In Acts 2:17, Peter announces that Joel’s prophecy of ”the last days” is being fulfilled. Peter preaches to the crowd that it’s time to repent before the coming of “the great and glorious day of the Lord.” If Peter and His contemporaries were in the last days, don’t you and I have to be in something else?
In Acts 13, Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk saying on behalf of God,
“’Behold, you scoffers, and marvel, and perish;
For I am accomplishing a work in your days,
A work which you will never believe, though someone should describe it to you.’” Acts 13:41
Notice that it doesn’t say God is beginning a work in their days that will take almost 2,000 years or more to accomplish. Rather, he says, it is being accomplished in their days. In this, Paul is absolutely consistent with Jesus about timing.
In Acts 20:29-30, late in Paul’s ministry, as he was speaking his parting words to the leaders of the church in Ephesus, he warns them of the coming rise of false leaders, whom he called “savage wolves…not sparing the flock.” He knew that as the time of Jesus’ return was approaching, the rise of falsehood among teachers and leaders was the inevitable and final phase of the timetable.
There is a sense of urgency that permeates the book of Acts from one end to the other. The apostles were not lethargic. They had a mission to reach all their fellows Jews before the great judgment against ancient Israel commenced. Along the way, they would learn that Gentiles could also be taken into this “ark of salvation” that was being built for the deliverance of God’s true people from the great flood of judgment that was about to be released on the whole world.
The apostles were not focused on buildings or institutions – the very things that have occupied so many Christian leaders since that age, down to this very day. Rather, the apostles were zealous to reach every person they could – building up in that person the knowledge necessary to grasp and cling to the salvation God was offering. Contrast the pace of Acts with the pace of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. Moses could afford to be slow and deliberate; there was even a forty year delay when the people rebelled. The apostles had no such option. They had to get their message out, and they knew just how long they had – their lifetimes…and no more. Behind this sense of urgency we see in them was their understanding of the timeline Jesus had given them.
Chapter 4 – What the Epistles Say
What Paul Says About Timing (Romans through Philemon)
In Romans, written nearer the end of his ministry than the beginning, Paul says to those believers,
Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near… Romans 13:11-12
In 1 Corinthians 2:6 Paul says “the rulers of this age…are passing away” and in 1 Corinthians 4:5 to wait “until the Lord comes.” This is strange language if the timing was elastic enough to include the 21st Century and beyond as possible dates. In 1 Corinthians 10:11 Paul refers to he and his contemporaries as the generation “upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” How then can we say that the ends of the ages are yet future? In 1 Corinthians 15:51 he says “we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” “Sleep” in this context, of course, is a euphemism for death. Therefore, he is simply paraphrasing Jesus: “We will not all sleep” = “some shall not taste death” = “this generation will not pass away until…” If Jesus did not come, then they did all sleep and Paul’s words would have been a lie, a false prophecy. It makes far more sense for us to believe that Paul was right about the timing of Christ’s Second Coming than to believe he was wrong, doesn’t it?
In Philippians 1:6 Paul tells the believers of that city that God will perfect the work He began in them “until the day of Christ Jesus.” If the day of Christ Jesus has not yet come then Paul’s words to this flock are empty. If the day of Christ Jesus has not yet come then the perfecting or maturing process was interrupted, for we have no reports of any Philippians still walking the earth today being perfected according to Paul’s promises. On the contrary, Paul seemed to believe that his assurance was meant for that generation.
1 Thessalonians repeatedly mentions the coming of the Lord – a big mistake if its approach was not something he wanted them to seriously consider. Paul also resolves a concern that had developed about the Thessalonians who “tasted death” before Christ’s coming. Paul assured the living Thessalonians that they who were “alive and remain until the coming of the Lord” wouldn’t precede those who had “fallen asleep.” Paul then urges the living to a life of alertness so they won’t miss the day. Apparently, some of them got overly alert because he had to write 2 Thessalonians very soon thereafter, correcting their impression that the day of the Lord had already come (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). Paul takes pains to remind them of what he taught them while present: that false Christs and false prophets, even with signs and wonders, must arise before the end. Paul uses the terms “man of lawlessness,” “son of destruction,” signs and false wonders,” and “the deception of wickedness,” but the conformity to Jesus’ Matthew 24-25 timetable is unmistakable.
By the way, if, as those who believe in a “future, physical” coming of Jesus say, Jesus’ coming is something that could not be missed, why in the world did Paul answer the Thessalonians the way he did? The fact that the Thessalonians thought the day of the Lord had already come, and that Paul explained that it had not yet happened in terms of the signs Jesus gave, indicates that none of them considered the day of the Lord to be something physical and visible. For if they were looking for Jesus to appear physically from the skies, then they never would have thought the day of the Lord had come! And if Paul was looking for Jesus to appear physically from the skies he would have corrected them by saying that since that sort of physical event hadn’t happened, the day of the Lord couldn’t have come. But we will say more along this line when we get to the next part of the book about the nature of the coming. Here we are still focused on timing.
Paul again makes reference to “deceitful spirits” and “doctrines of demons” as being signs of the later times in 1 Timothy 4:1. By the time he pens 2 Timothy, Paul realizes that he will be one of the ones who will “taste death” before the Lord’s coming. History tells us he was beheaded in Rome in the mid-60’s. 2 Timothy reads like a last will and testament of all that was precious to Paul. He warns extensively of the false teachers with their signs and wonders who would abound in the last days, reminding Timothy that godly living and adherence to the Scriptures would keep him safe until the kingdom came. Earlier in the letter, Paul made reference to two men who were saying the resurrection (another way people referred to the Second Coming, since these events had been linked by the prophets) had already taken place. Paul condemns the two teachers because their teaching was not in line with the time outline Jesus had given. In Matthew 24 Jesus had said of the time just before His coming “at that time many will fall away” (Matthew 24:10) and “most people’s love will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). In 2 Thessalonians, Paul said “the apostasy” must come before Christ’s coming. And here in 2 Timothy 3:1, Paul says “in the last days difficult times will come” and describes the ways in which people will be “holding to a form of godliness although they have denied its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). All these phrases speak of the same penultimate phase of the Lord’s timetable for His coming. There is no inconsistency because Paul believed and taught what Jesus had taught (whether it had been passed on to him by the original apostles or he had received it directly by revelation from the Lord). Indeed we are seeing unfailing consistency in how the apostles understood, taught, and lived according to the timetable Jesus laid down.
What Hebrews Says About the Timing
The letter to the Hebrews begins, “God…in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” In Hebrews 9:26, these last days are referred to as “the consummation of the ages.” Throughout the letter, reference is made to the approaching “end,” “the day” that is coming. The immediacy of the hope is spelled out in chapter 10 where Habakkuk’s prophecy is invoked as being fulfilled:
For yet in a very little while,
He who is coming will come,
and will not delay. Hebrews 10:37 [emphasis added]
Whatever other impressions the original recipients of this letter may have received, they knew that its author was persuaded that the Lord was on the verge of coming.
How can we expect people to take seriously this letter’s claim of the superiority of Jesus if we do not take seriously its claim that it was written in the “last days” and that Jesus would come in “a very little while”?
What James Says About the Timing
Let’s just quote James directly as he closes his letter:
Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! James 5:3
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. James 5:7
You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. James 5:8
Just like the writer of Hebrews, James is committing himself unequivocally to the position that the Lord’s coming is soon – not centuries away. Today, most people who say the Lord is coming soon at least hedge their bets. They leave themselves an out in case, “the Lord chooses to tarry” as they say. But you are seeing that the apostles left themselves not one inch to maneuver. The coming of the Lord was at hand and that was that. Wouldn’t the apostles know more about the Lord’s coming than any of us?
What Peter Says About Timing (1 and 2 Peter)
Along with the rest of the apostles, Peter considers he and his readers as living “in these last times” (1 Peter 1:20) and that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). He says that Jesus is “ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5) and that “it is time for judgment to begin” (1 Peter 4:17). He then coaches the church leaders to be ready for the appearing of the Chief Leader (1 Peter 5:4) giving no instruction whatsoever about how to pass on church government just in case Jesus should change His mind and decide to come in some subsequent generation. The church would need no human government because the Lord Himself was on the verge of taking charge of His own flock.
2 Peter is for Peter what 2 Timothy was for Paul – a farewell letter. We know from John 21 that Peter was to die before the Lord’s coming. In the first part of 2 Peter he says the Lord has now made it clear to him that his fateful time had come. History tells us that Peter was crucified, head downward, in Rome – probably within a few years of Paul’s execution. No wonder there was to be such a rise of false teachers near the end – so many of the good ones were dying! And what do Peter’s parting words concern? The same things Paul’s parting words concerned. The same thing that concerned all the true apostles – protecting the flock from the flood of false teachers and false messiahs that were arising on the eve of the Lord’s coming.
Any social movement, especially as it encounters success and gathers momentum, will attract those whose motives are not as pure as its founder and earliest followers. The movement Jesus started was no different in this regard. Peter explains that false teachers will introduce their false teaching, some going so far as denying the Lord Himself. Peter says such false teachers will be immoral and sensual and will mislead many who are not seeking purity of life. Peter concludes his letter by exhorting his readers to keep looking for the day of the Lord, including new heavens and a new earth (we’ll say more about this in the next part of the book on the nature of the Second Coming).
Peter says that his fellow disciples should be ”looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). This was no time to set people up for a false hope; no time to encourage people to pin their hopes completely on a coming event that might be delayed for centuries. Obviously, it never occurred to Peter that the Lord might not come in the time frame He gave. And why should it? Peter knew in the most personal and unforgettable way that the Lord would not make a mistake in His prophesying, even when you thought He might (“…before a rooster crows, you shall deny Me…”). Therefore, Peter told people to pin their hopes completely on assurance of the Lord coming when He promised (1 Peter 1:13). To maintain that the Lord did not come in that time frame is to accuse Peter of false teaching.
What John Said About the Timing (1 and 2 and 3 John)
Most Bible scholars and historians agree that the apostle John lived long and wrote late in life. Both Peter and Paul are deemed to have died in the 60′s A.D. and therefore before the destruction of the temple (70 A.D.) and the onset of the great tribulation. John, who also penned the book of Revelation, is probably writing his letters during that great tribulation. Of course, this is not a complete surprise given what the Lord said to Peter in John 21 about John when the three of them were together (that Peter would die before the Lord came but that John might make it until the Lord came). It also fits with what John says in 1 John:
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.
1 John 2:18
The last sign to appear before “the Son of Man comes on the clouds” (Matthew 24, 26; Mark 13, 14) has now been manifested – that is, the rise of lawlessness and the proliferation of false teachers. John uses the term antichrist(s). Other terms we have heard are “false Christs,” “false prophets,” “false teachers,” “man of lawlessness,” and “son of destruction.” There are other synonyms as well.
How strong an influence these false leaders came to have is seen when this great, and now aged, apostle said, “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say” (3 John 1:9). Thus we have a leader dominating a church and refusing the words of a true apostle. This you’ll note is a clear sign from the Lord’s timetable that His coming is near. (I should ask you parenthetically if you have noticed that prophecy experts and churches today who look for the coming of the Lord in the future, that is not within the Lord’s timetable, also “do not accept what” the apostles say?)
In 1 John 4:3, John calls antichrist a false spirit. This fits with what Paul said about “deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). Just as the Holy Spirit had gotten into the true apostles, this was the time when the devil’s spirit got into the false apostles. Just as Jesus was betrayed at the last when Satan entered the erring Judas Iscariot, even so His larger body was being betrayed all over the world as Satan’s evil spirits were entering into erring teachers. But just as the Lord’s resurrection overcame Judas’ betrayal, so the Lord’s return would overcome these betrayals. (It is not hard to conclude that the Lord placed an ultimate traitor within His chosen twelve to foreshadow and prepare His followers for the betrayals they themselves would face.)
If the apostles saw themselves living in the end times before the Second Coming of Christ (and you have seen that they did), then John saw himself writing at the end of the end times. This point of view will be amplified when we get to the book of Revelation in a few moments.
What Jude Says About the Timing
The whole point of Jude’s one-chapter letter is to bear witness that the false teachers they had been hearing about for years were now fully present. In essence, Jude says that all Peter prophesied in 2 Peter has come to pass. In other words, the false teachers Peter speaks of in future tense, Jude speaks of in present tense. Though Jude doesn’t mention Peter by name, he does use language which no one who had read both letters would fail to notice. Furthermore, Jude directly quotes “the apostles” using a phrase straight out of 2 Peter 3 (compare Jude 1:18 with 2 Peter 3:3) indicating that Peter was not the only apostle who predicted what Jude was seeing. Of course, all the apostles received their information from Jesus so we should never be surprised when we find them saying the same thing! Jude urges his readers to remain faithful through this final, most difficult period before the Lord’s return. (Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 24:21 – “For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will.”)
Need I say it? Jude does not say to his readers that the Lord could come in any generation. There is only one generation and church that had that honor. Jude was writing to strengthen that generation.
What Revelation Says About the Timing
It is most fitting that the book of Revelation be the last in the New Testament, for at this point we see that all steps leading to the Second Coming have been taken except the very coming itself. The branch of the fig tree has become tender, and put forth its leaves; the disciples now know that summer is near (Matthew 24:32). Revelation, this extended apocalyptic description of the coming of the Lord that is just about to occur, pierces the air like the trumpet of God announcing the King’s imminent entrance. No earthly king ever had a more glorious fanfare than the book of Revelation.
This trumpet was blown by the apostle John. We have already looked at what he said about the timing issue in his previous letters. Revelation deserves its own section in this focus on timing, although you will see that John’s thoughts about timing remain the same as what we saw in the gospel that bears his name and in his letters. We have already seen his own testimony that he was alive and well in “the last hour” before the Lord’s return. We know also that Paul and Peter were called upon to bow out gracefully before the final curtain came down. John’s “alive and well” status was in spite of the great tribulation going on around him. He wrote the book of Revelation from the island of Patmos where he had been imprisoned. This book was a letter commissioned by Jesus, who had sent the contents through His angel to be written down by John. It was one letter to be circulated among seven particular cities of what we today call Asia Minor. (The island of Patmos was situated just off the coast of this region.)
Of all the passages in the Bible that deal with the Second Coming, Revelation is unquestionably the longest and most extensive. And it is, of course, the only book in the Bible for which the Second Coming in the central subject. Most people would agree that there are parts of this book that are hard to understand. They also are likely to agree that the salutation and closing of the letter are among the easier parts to understand of a hard-to-understand book. Fortunately, it is these very parts that speak most directly about the timing of the Second Coming. In the beginning of this letter “to the churches” of what we today call Asia Minor, John says he is writing on behalf of Jesus Himself about
…the things which must soon take place… Revelation 1:1
John also says also that the recipients of this letter should heed the things written in it
…for the time is near. Revelation 1:3
At the close of the letter, after the full parade of awesome, shocking, and glorious images has passed, John writes again that they refer to
…things which must soon take place. Revelation 22:6
Then he quotes Jesus Himself as saying,
And behold, I am coming quickly. Revelation 22:7
John goes on to write,
Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Revelation 22:10
Then he quotes Jesus again as saying,
Behold, I am coming quickly… Revelation 22:12
The letter then closes with Jesus saying a third time,
Yes, I am coming quickly. Revelation 22:20
How can we ignore all this emphasis on the imminence of the timing? Especially after it is so consistent with all that has come before it in the New Testament? It is not only obvious that the time of the Lord’s coming was now very near, but equally obvious that Jesus expected to be doubted on precisely that point. And so the point is hammered home – incessantly – until the alert-but-now-weary reader of Revelation begs for relief, “Okay, okay – I get it!”
The passing of centuries, however, and our refusal to believe what Jesus and His apostles were so utterly clear about, has proven that there was not a single repetition of the idea that was not necessary. We can thus now appreciate the repeated confirmations. Like a loving parent, God is willing to repeat Himself for the umpteenth time because sometimes it’s only then that a child really begins to listen.
Conclusion About the Timing of the Second Coming
There is no getting around the fact that those who wrote the documents we call the New Testament considered themselves as living in the last days, to soon be climaxed by the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if you have read the New Testament very much you are probably aware that what has been said in this part of the book about timing is not all that could have been said in support of this point. There’s hardly a page of the New Testament that does not pulsate with the expectation of the coming of the Lord. Even when the coming of the Lord is not explicitly stated, it is the driving force of urgency, the common understanding between the writer and recipient of every letter, and the underlying reason why, even though the apostles had a lifetime to do their work, there was not a moment to spare.
It is also important to notice what the New Testament does not say. There are no contingency instructions for what people should do if the Lord didn’t come in that generation. No directions about the exact method of church government to be followed and how the leadership was to be passed from generation to generation. The apostles made no plans to be succeeded by anyone – except the Lord Himself. There is not a single instance where the apostles give themselves a way to save face by saying that though the Lord’s coming would probably come soon it could possibly be delayed for nineteen centuries or more. Note that if some group today were to take the type of strong position that the apostles took, leaving themselves no out, they would be regarded as irresponsible and shunned by evangelicals as being unscriptural. Maybe then we should not be surprised that so many of today’s “Bible believers” don’t really give serious consideration to what the apostles taught.
By the way, we should also note and appreciate that Jesus and the apostles work out of a sense of general time periods and not specific calendar dates. This is much in keeping with the nature of God who, for example, when he gives us time to repent, does not assign a date and time when the period of grace expires but rather watches us from heaven and decides in His own impartial goodness when we’ve had enough time. As for the end-time prophetic interpretations of man, there is something in all their stiff and overly literal schemes of date-setting and year-counting that some people have produced to state when the “future, physical” Second Coming would be that sounds more like a fortune-teller than the God of justice whose primary interest is that people live right – not how to decode some secret number or date. The apostles were definitely not saying that Jesus would return by some fixed day, month, and year. Rather, they just kept saying, “He is coming” and as the time drew closer they kept saying, “He is coming soon.”
In our conclusion we should also make clear that nowhere in the New Testament does it say that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ has occurred. Therefore, it would be wrong for anyone to claim that it does say such a thing. What it does say – repeatedly and emphatically – is that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was to occur in that generation. Therefore, it is up to us who believe the New Testament, and who live after that generation, to say the Second Coming of Jesus Christ has occurred. That is, the New Testament does not explicitly say that the Second Coming is accomplished fact, but given what the New Testament does explicitly say about the Second Coming, we have to believe it is accomplished fact if we are to believe the New Testament.
Just as the Old Testament does not say that Jesus is the Messiah (because it was written before He was born), but is the very tool God gave to prove that He is the Messiah, even so the New Testament does not say that Jesus has come again (because it was written before He came again), but is the very tool God gave to prove that He has come again. If we do not believe the promises, then Jesus stills chides us, “O foolish and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25)
The Old Testament proves that Jesus is the Messiah in primarily one way: the promises about Messiah are seen fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament, however, proves that Jesus has come again in primarily two ways.
First, since it says He is coming soon and its witnesses are unimpeachable, and since all the visible signs Jesus predicted are confirmed as having occurred, then we may assure ourselves that sometime in the 1st Century A.D. after the year 70 when Jerusalem’s temple was destroyed, that Jesus indeed came. By the multitude of consistent statements they made, it had to have occurred sometime in the latter part of the 1st Century A.D. Since that time period has long since passed we know that Jesus has already come again. Only if we are willing to say Jesus and His apostles were wrong about the timing, can we hold to the notion that the Second Coming is yet future. I hope you are as unwilling as I am to say that Jesus and the apostles were wrong about anything they taught.
The second way that the New Testament proves Jesus has already come again, as if we needed another one, is that its description of the Second Coming can be shown to have been fulfilled. It is to that task we now turn. Or to put it another way, having paid closer attention to when Jesus and His apostles said the Second Coming would occur, let us now pay closer attention to what they said would occur.
Part Three – The Nature of the Second Coming
As we have said, the New Testament’s scheduling of the Second Coming of Christ for sometime late in the 1st Century A.D. only presents a problem to those who insist that Jesus was promising to show up in a fleshly body similar to the one He left in. However, the prophetic descriptions of the Second Coming in the New Testament add up to a spiritual, not a physical, event. And this is consistent with the whole movement and direction of the New Testament which is to wean the people of God from a physical orientation to a completely spiritual one.
Fleshly people do not welcome spiritual explanations. Let us not be like those Paul had to chastise in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3.
Chapter 5 – How the Bible Describes Truth
From Flesh to Spirit
The apostle John candidly shows us in his Gospel how he and his contemporaries were constantly misunderstanding Jesus. The most common type of misunderstanding was that Jesus would be speaking of something spiritual when they thought He was speaking of something physical.
In John 2, for example, Jesus says to the Jews in Jerusalem who opposed Him, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought He was speaking of the physical structure that was the pride of Jerusalem, but, as John tells us, “He was speaking of the temple of His body.”
In John 3, the teacher Nicodemus reacts to Jesus’ use of the term “born again” by protesting that a man “cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born.” Jesus then explains that there are things of the flesh and things of the spirit; and each produces after its own kind. We might understand this distinction better in our day by using the terms visible and invisible. Most people recognize that there are these two dimensions of creation. Nicodemus couldn’t get his mind out of the visible dimension long enough to fully appreciate the invisible dimension.
In John 4, Jesus asks a woman at a well for some water and then proceeds to tell her that He Himself has some “water” for her. It is obvious to us now that His “water” was spiritual water meant to quench spiritual thirst. When His disciples returned and encouraged Him to have something to eat, He kept up the “nourishment” metaphor saying, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” The first thing to their minds was not spiritual but rather, they say, “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?” Jesus then explains that the “food” He eats is “to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish his work.” Jesus then goes on talking about sowing and reaping and a harvest that is not four months off but rather ready now. John does not say if any of them thought He was contemplating that they should change their occupations from fishing to farming.
So far it’s only been amusing as we have seen the disciples become, just as we probably would have become, confused and disoriented by Jesus’ manner of speech. But by John 6, when Jesus tells people they must “eat” His flesh and “drink” His blood, it’s become a serious matter. Many of His disciples protested, saying, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” Jesus then tells them plainly that the spirit gives life while the flesh profits nothing: “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Even so, there was an exodus of disciples who could not handle this focus on spiritual understanding. When Jesus asked the twelve if they want to leave, too, Peter spoke for them saying, “you have words of eternal life.” They may not have understood everything Jesus said…but they wanted to, believing He and His words were from God.
These are just a few of the misunderstandings over fleshly versus spiritual meanings that the apostle John passes on to us. Nor was he the only Gospel writer to do so. For all the gospels attest that it was part of the phenomenon of the Nazarene Jesus that He was at least partially misunderstood by everyone – friend and foe! Even so, we do see cases where some individuals not only picked up on the way Jesus was looking at things – that is, spiritually – but actually adopted His perspective. This invariably pleased Him.
In Matthew 15, for example, when Jesus initially refuses the request of a non-Israelite woman to cast a demon from her daughter, He explains that He was “only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and that “it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She retorts, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” He promptly exclaims that her faith is great, and grants her request.
The disciples themselves, being dedicated students of the Master, did eventually learn this outlook and language of the spiritual life. For by the time 1 Peter was written, we see the man who had stumbled as much as anyone we read about in the New Testament spouting off this stuff like the Master Himself. In that letter he called Jesus a “stone,” the devil a “lion,” and the believers a “flock” of sheep. But so far as we know, none of the apostles surpassed John (perhaps because he outlived so many of the others and had longer to get it deep in his thinking) who closes out the New Testament talking about such things as a “Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes standing as if slain.” Who but God could give a humble Galilean fisherman the ability to say things that great minds would chew on for ages. (Did I say “chew” on? Was I speaking of physical chewing?)
This is a good time to say that we are not talking about simply the literary niceties of metaphor, similes, and such. We are talking about truth – which cannot be fully appreciated through physical senses alone, if at all. Yet visual images of physical things abound because any teacher must work from what is known and relate it to what is unknown. By the association of something unknown to something known, ignorance is converted to knowledge – or, shall we say, darkness to light. Jesus had so much truth to communicate that images were flying fast and furious. If we become more concerned about not mixing metaphors than finding truth then we cannot keep up as the woman did when Jesus is one second talking about “lost sheep” and the next second talking about “children at the table” never having changed His subject. One must focus on the truth Jesus is wanting to communicate. In this way, the images work together to establish a coherent message.
Flesh and Spirit…and the Second Coming
This use of multiple visual images to communicate a single spiritual truth certainly occurs with the subject of the Second Coming where, for example, Jesus may be spoken of one moment as “coming on the clouds,” and the next as “coming like a thief in the night,” and the next as “coming as the master of the house.” It’s hard enough to understand if you’re trying to keep up spiritually, but if you’re bent on taking everything in a physical sense you become absolutely dizzied by the images.
In the dizziness, some people have tried to cope by interpreting the different images as different events. Thus you have the pre-tribulation, mid-trib (there are so many positions, a shorthand has developed for identifying them), and post-trib views of one aspect of the Second Coming. There is also the pre-mill (“mill” is an abbreviation of millennium, a reference to the thousand-year period mentioned in Revelation), post-mill, and a-mill (meaning no millennium). He’s coming back this time for the church and that time for everyone else. There’s a rapture which is different from the Second Coming. Such interpretations proliferate and have even found their way into popular Christian literature. Yet, such explanations are impossible to reconcile. All this confusion is as if the non-Israelite woman had responded, “Look, Lord, I’ll help you find your lost sheep and I’ll even sweep up the mess on your kitchen floor; but once we’ve solved your animal and children problems, could you please help me with my daughter?”
Some, in an honest and appropriate response to all these conflicting opinions about the Second Coming, have humorously declared themselves to be “pan-mill” believing it will all “pan out” in the end. The good news I bring to you in this book is…it did!
The different images of the Second Coming are not different events but different ways of expressing the arrival of the King and His Kingdom. The Kingdom itself is described in different images. In Matthew 13, Jesus gives a series of parables to explain it. It’s “like a seed sown,” “like a man sowing seed,” “like a mustard seed,” “like leaven,” “like treasure hidden in a field,” “like a merchant seeking fine pearls,” “like a dragnet catching fish,” and so on. The very fact that multiple images are used to explain a single reality is proof that no one of those single images can fully explain it. For if all the truth of the kingdom of God could be revealed in one image, why would God confuse the issue by bringing up more images?
The kingdom of God is a simple, yet immeasurably profound, reality which requires multiple images to convey its many facets. If the kingdom is described in a series of parables in Matthew 13, is it not consistent that Jesus would describe its coming by a series of parables in Matthew 24-25? For in the latter passage He says the arrival of the kingdom will be like, among other things, “a master returning to his house servants,” “a bridegroom coming for his bride (actually ten of them), “a master returning to his commissioned servants,” and “a king separating nations like sheep and goats.”
Now if we take these parables of Matthew 24-25, and, instead of regarding them as parables, treat them as if they were descriptions of physical events, then shouldn’t we be required to go back and do the same with the parables of Matthew 13? That is, if we interpret the parable at the end of Matthew 25 as requiring Jesus to physically appear and physically separate the physical nations to His physical right and physical left, then should we not also go back to Matthew 13 and re-interpret the final parable as requiring angels to appear physically and cast a physical dragnet over all human beings? Since this would be patently silly, let’s just regard the series of parables in Matthew 24-25 in the way we’re accustomed to regarding parables – that is, as conveying spiritual truths through figurative expressions.
After all, though some spiritual speech can be misinterpreted as physical, there is a way to make it more difficult. And that is by making it incongruous or physically absurd. This is done over and over in the book of Revelation. When John describes, and thereby asks us to picture, Jesus as riding a white horse in the sky wearing a bloody robe and lots of crowns on his head with a sharp sword coming out of his mouth, has not John not practically begged us to take him spiritually and not physically? And doesn’t it glorify Jesus to understand this image spiritually, and, by contrast, trivialize Him by preferring a physical fulfillment (which would make Him into some sort of science-fiction version of Don Quixote)? Why then are people afraid that a spiritual interpretation of the Second Coming will diminish or minimize the Second Coming of Christ…when actually the reverse is true!
Let us proceed as the disciples did, not fully understanding spiritual things…but wanting to learn more about them. With this attitude, we recognize immediately that the bridegroom coming to pick up ten brides on His wedding night in Matthew 24-25 – count ‘em, ten – is an image demanding a spiritual interpretation. The God of monogamy has not lost His morals. Neither are we to think God has renounced the eighth commandment when Jesus promises to come like a “thief in the night.”
Now I can almost hear those who insist on a so far unfulfilled fleshly (that is,” future, physical”) Second Coming protesting that indeed they do interpret these parables spiritually. Perhaps so in some cases, but why do they interpret them as referring to different events? They say one refers to the rapture, another to the subsequent final judgment (they vary on whether it’s seven, three and a half, or a thousand years later). When Jesus strings together parables of seeds, treasures, pearls, and fishing in Matthew 13, the constant theme or subject is the kingdom of heaven. And when He strings together another series of parables – this time of nocturnal thievery, household service, midnight nuptials, and so on – in Matthew 24-25 the constant theme or subject is the coming of that kingdom. There is no warrant for carving up these parables and saying they each apply to different events. Read them in context. Jesus reels off one after the other in the context of explaining His Second Coming. He never says anything about changing His subject. You might as well go back to Matthew 13 and say He is describing multiple kingdoms as to chop up Matthew 24-25 by saying He is describing multiple comings. The proper way to understand the parables of Matthew 24-25 is to recognize that they are meant to describe different aspects of the same event.
As we said earlier, the reason for giving multiple parables or visual images to explain a single spiritual event or reality is that no one single parable or image can do it justice. If a mustard seed fully explained the kingdom of God in every respect then the kingdom of God would not be the kingdom of God – it would be a mustard seed. Likewise, Jesus’ coming is not fully explained in the image of a thief in the night. Otherwise, we have a criminal for a Savior. Rather, we look for the respect in which the spiritual reality is similar to the physical image presented. In these cases, the kingdom of God, like a mustard seed, may start small but grows tall; and the coming of Jesus, like a thief in the night, escapes notice. But wait a minute. Jesus was talking about coming on the clouds, and lots of angels and a great trumpet earlier in Matthew 24. Now He says it will be like a thief in the night. These images – if taken physically – are utterly contradictory. One is a picture of broad daylight, big crowd, fanfare; the other, darkness of night. How are we to understand Him?
Putting Together Images
We have already seen the error of assuming that the additional image must refer to an additional event. And we have also seen that it is only the insistence upon a physical Second Coming that forces one into such an error. But since we are spiritual people looking for spiritual answers, let’s look at this issue spiritually.
Fortunately, the apostle Paul has already done the work for us on this one. In 1 Thessalonians 4-5 he is coaching his disciples about the hope of the Second Coming and mentions the clouds, angels, and trumpet we heard about from Jesus in Matthew 24-25. Paul then goes on to say that
…the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief;
1 Thessalonians 5:2-4
Aha! Jesus’ coming will be like a parade to those in the light…and like a pickpocket to those in the dark. This is not so difficult. Jesus is telling us that His coming will be open and obvious to some…and totally undetected by others. The key concern should then be – how do I make sure I am one of the people who sees? This same contrast between those who see and enjoy the Second Coming and those who are oblivious to it, is seen in Paul’s next letter to the Thessalonians. For in its first chapter we seen him speaking of Christ coming “to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.” But Paul also mentions “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” and who, as a result, will be “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” You and I can see the same sort of contrast today, for, to some, God is a great light, but to others He is nowhere to be seen. The contrasting images are different facets of the same reality.
Such contrasting images take us back to the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord,
“Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose heart turns away from the Lord.
For he will be like a bush in the desert
And will not see when prosperity comes,
But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness,
A land of salt without inhabitant.” Jeremiah 17:5-6
Note the phrase “and will not see when prosperity comes.” Jesus and Paul were speaking of these kinds of people. These people would not see because they were not willing to see. Prosperity, for them, would come and go like a thief in the night and they would never be the wiser. For them, life is a desert waste. They wonder why God has taken so long and not answered their cry. They had missed Him because they had made “flesh their strength.” That is, things they could see with their physical eyes became their only source of encouragement. Wasn’t the entire ministry of Jesus to lead us away from a reliance upon flesh – that is, what we can see with our physical eyes – to a reliance upon spirit (that is, upon the Lord’s word – remember how He said that His words were “spirit” in John 6:63?).
For those who would trust in the Lord there was a far different outcome. Jeremiah goes on to say in the passage started above:
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord
And whose trust is the Lord.
For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
That extends its roots by a stream
And will not fear when the heat comes;
But its leaves will be green,
And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
Nor cease to yield fruit.” Jeremiah 17:7-8
The contrast is striking: bush in a desert versus tree by a stream. “Which do you want to be?” asks Jeremiah. Of course, he’s urging a move to the spiritual orientation. And Jesus picks up the same theme in the Gospels. As a result of the resurrection, the temple of God was no longer to be the stone structure in Jerusalem, but rather the body of believers in Messiah. But a Christian who put his trust in that temple of believers would eventually be in just as bad a shape as the Jew who kept looking to the stone structure. This because that body of believers that one can see is flesh.
Even if Jesus should appear to us one day in the flesh, wouldn’t that just put us in a faith quandary? Who would we trust: the God we could see (Jesus in the flesh) or the God we couldn’t (the invisible Father in heaven)? No one can serve two masters. In Jesus’ first coming there was no conflict, for He came not to reign but to serve as a human being. He sought to downplay that He was the Messiah until the resurrection because it was only the resurrection that would reveal the true nature of Messiah’s role. How much more was it necessary to conceal the fact that God was walking around in the flesh! In the Second Coming, however, Jesus comes in “the glory of His Father,” meaning, of course, a divine, and not human, presence. We will say more about this later. The important point here is that a physical, human Second Coming of Jesus would present us with a dilemma of choice between focusing on the Father and the Son while a spiritual coming allows them to be what they eternally are – One.
Therefore, we have seen that the contrasting images are understood as referring to the contrasting ways the Second Coming will strike people. And the question of, “How do I make it strike me correctly?” is dealt with in other parables. The one that rounds out Matthew 24 and the three that comprise Matthew 25 have a common element. That is, what happens at the moment of arrival is determined by what happens before it. To put it simply, the more righteously one lived prior to the Lord’s coming the better the reward one would find. This is perfectly consistent with all we’ve been taught from the Bible. Righteous living is rewarding – both in this life and the one to come.
What we have said about the parables the Lord told in Matthew 24-25 in referring to His Second Coming does not, of course, exhaust their meaning. There is much richness of thought waiting to be mined. But then what exposition of the kingdom parables in Matthew 13 ever exhausted their meaning? Won’t there always be more to learn from them? Our purpose has been to show that since Jesus used spiritual language – parables – to explain His Second Coming, then we ought to understand Him spiritually and not force His words into some physical mold they were never intended to fit.
Why does the Lord use parables in the first place? Fortunately, the disciples had the same curiosity, for they asked Him this very question. We have His direct answer in Matthew 13 where Jesus answered that question by saying:
…because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Matthew 13:13
Jesus was explaining that while His disciples could understand Him, those who refused to be His disciples could not. A parable, therefore, was a means of conveying truth to both groups.
The disciples could understand the parables, Jesus said, because
“For whoever has, to him more shall be given…” Matthew 13:12
In other words, the more you understand, the more you are able to understand. The disciples had understood His call to repentance and responded to it. This resulted in a humble attitude which enabled them to learn more about God This did not mean that they would automatically understand all the parables right away, however. In fact, we see them on occasion asking Him for an explanation . And He, in His graciousness, was prompt to give it.
The parables, however, were a flexible enough tool to allow Jesus to pass truth to those who hearts were not yet truly yielded to it. For a parable is a catchy little story. And stories are far easier to remember than abstract prose. Whoever “tried to memorize” the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Most of us have long since forgotten things we stayed up half the night memorizing to recite in school, yet we can still remember stories we were casually told as a child. A parable then works like a “timed-release” medicine for the unrepentant. Once they become repentant, the parable, having been previously stored in their memory bank, is ready to release meaning to them as they need it. This is why Jesus closes the parables in Matthew 13 by saying,
“Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” Matthew 13:52
Once having encountered opposition to His teaching, therefore, Jesus starts using parables so that the truth might not be wasted (He didn’t want any of the leftover fish and bread lost; how much more then, food for the soul!). Both the disciples and the unrepentant could hang on to these “truth packages” and be taught by them all their lives. The key that opens the package is a teachable spirit – that is, becoming a disciple, one who learns. We should also admire Jesus at this point for His intense love even for those who criticized Him. His every word to them, however harsh they might seem to our ears, dripped with the fullness of His love and desire for their deliverance from lies and confusion.
Parables, therefore, lent themselves quite well to teaching about the Second Coming, and for several reasons. First of all, parables are a means of teaching about spiritual things – things you can’t see. And that’s what the Second Coming was – something spiritual that could only be seen spiritually. Second, parables are pictures that act as a “truth packages” for the hearers. The disciples were better served by Jesus’ parables than if they’d had a dozen steno pads and a tape recorder. What they heard about the Second Coming of Jesus on that hillside east of Jerusalem would have to carry them through some of the most difficult times men have ever faced. They needed, in the worst way, to be able to retain what they heard. The fact that the whole world can today read what those disciples heard, after all the tribulation that ensued, is testimony to the effectiveness of Jesus’ teaching method (which involved, of course, the Holy Spirit). And third, parables were useful to teaching about the Second Coming because not all who came to hear the disciples in the churches were true disciples – anymore than all those who came to hear Jesus in His earthly ministry were true disciples. The unrepentant, too, needed a way to hang on to the truth so that they might come back later and absorb what they’d missed the first time. Though the unrepentant were spiritually blind, there was always the hope they would eventually repent and return to the God who can heal such blindness.
The Language of Sight and Sound
The issue of parables brings us face to face with the fact that we use the language of sight and sound in two distinct senses. For Jesus said, in justifying His use of parables, “while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear.” He is using the same word in two different senses. Otherwise, His expression is self-contradictory, right? For how can you see and not see simultaneously? Obviously, what He meant was that people were seeing Him physically but not seeing Him spiritually (that is, not understanding who He was). They were hearing Him physically but not hearing Him spiritually (that is, getting His words but not getting His meaning).
These two different senses in which the language of sight and sound is used are not just found in the Bible but are common to all human speech. We go back and forth in our own conversations without giving the transitions a moment of thought. One minute we ask, “Do you see my new ring?” and the next minute, “Do you see what I mean?” We never stop to explain that we are switching the sense in which we are using the word “see.” We don’t have to. People pick it up from the context. Likewise, when the drill sergeant booms in your ear, “Do you hear me?” he is not asking if your auditory nerves are registering the reverberations of his vocal chamber. He wants to know if you understand him. Therefore, when we read Jesus saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” we can understand what He means because we speak this way ourselves. Any parent knows that children are able to hear without actually hearing.
Since the purpose of the Bible is to help us understand God (that is, to see what He means) we will see the language of sight and sound used a great deal – and in both senses. We took an example from Jesus; let’s take one from Paul.
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:20
Paul is talking about us “clearly seeing” things (“attributes”) that are invisible. Isn’t that contradictory? Only if you deny the fact that in the Bible, as well as in everyday life, people constantly use the words about seeing and hearing in two different senses, with the context determining which sense is intended. Of course, what Paul means when he says we “see” God’s attributes is that we understand them, which in this verse he explicitly states, using the expression “being understood”.
The apostle John says, “No man has seen God at any time” (John 1) and Paul says God is the one “whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6). In the same vein, Jesus says, “God is spirit,” meaning that God is not flesh and therefore not detectable to physical senses. All three statements are in agreement that God cannot be seen. And yet we have Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount promising, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5). Are we puzzled by this “contradiction” or does it not seem to us that we are being promised a greater understanding of God as we purify our hearts? And when Jesus from heaven offers the church at Laodicea “eye salve to anoint your eyes that you may see” in Revelation 3, do we not recognize that He is concerned about their spiritual blindness, resulting from their lukewarm attitude? Why then, when the writer to the Hebrews in exhorting them about the great day to come says, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord,” do some insist that he was preparing his readers for a physical manifestation of Jesus? Is it not obvious that his meaning is right in line with that of Jesus and Paul? (Whether or not Paul was the writer to the Hebrews, the point remains the same.) That is, the pure in heart would see (understand) the Lord’s coming and the impure would miss (not understand) it. For one kind of person it would be like the Lord had filled the sky with light and for the other it would be like the dark of night in which a thief had come.
Sometimes we are not quite sure whether a word like “see” is being used in the physical (flesh, visible) sense or the spiritual (invisible) sense. As we said, the context usually clarifies. For example, when the New Testament says “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds” (Matthew 24 and other places) are we to take it in a physical or spiritual sense? We already know by the additional visual images (parables, if you will) that follow it that it must be taken spiritually; otherwise, the pictures result in a mass of physical contradictions. But let’s assume we didn’t have that piece of knowledge and had to look elsewhere for our answer. In this case, the phrase shows up again in Matthew 26 when Jesus is on trial before the high priest and the Sanhedrin.
When asked if He is the Messiah, Jesus responds,
“You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matthew 26:64
Since the verb “see” applies to both His sitting at the right hand of God and His coming on the clouds, we know that whatever sense applies to the one also applies to the other. Now, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, when the disciples went about preaching that Jesus was seated at the right hand of God, they did not do so on the basis of physical senses. These witnesses could testify of Christ’s resurrection by their physical senses and it was crucial that they do so. However, as to the right hand of God, all they physically saw was Jesus ascending from the earth and then disappearing behind a cloud (Acts 1). They knew He was at the right hand of God because Psalm 110 declared that to be His specific heavenly location “until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet.” Therefore, the apostles saw Jesus at the right hand of God by faith; that is, by the eyes of the heart (as it says in 2 Corinthians 5, “we walk by faith and not by sight”). Likewise, these apostles encouraged their hearers to see Him there, too (that is, to believe and relate to Him as if He were there – because He was). The apostles certainly didn’t enter a town, point to the sky and say, “Look: see for yourself; there He is.” But they did tell people to join with them in “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” who “has sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 12). I myself have heard many preachers exhort me and others by this verse and never once did they mean to train my physical eyes on Jesus. If we do not object to seeing Jesus at the right hand of God spiritually, why should we object to seeing Him come on the clouds spiritually? Especially since he spoke of seeing the two in precisely the same way in this statement from His trial?
Given the way regular people use words of sight and sound in two distinct senses, and given the fact that the Bible does the same, it seems reasonable to approach Scripture passages about the Second Coming with this in mind. Strangely enough, some people will insist that a word like “see” or “appear” in these contexts can only be taken in a physical sense. It appears (in which sense am I using this word?) that they are unwilling to let the Bible speak as it wishes. To make it more personal, they appear unwilling to let the Lord speak as He wishes. – and as any human being has the freedom to speak in either sense. Thus, such people experience what a writer of old called “the inevitably cramping influence of a pre-conceived opinion.” Once you close your eyes, you can’t see a thing – even if it’s right in front of you. I am not saying, however, that people like this cannot become more open-minded. I did. For I once held strongly to the view that the Second Coming of Christ was “future and physical.” Studying the Bible more thoroughly while attempting to practice what it taught opened my eyes. (Do I mean my physical eyes?)
Signs To See
The disciples weren’t the only ones to ask Jesus about when He was coming. The Pharisees, too, asked. But while the disciples framed the question around “Your coming,” indicating their faith in Him, the Pharisees put it in terms of when “the kingdom of God” was coming – a less personal way of seeing the event. That is, while they didn’t believe in Jesus, they did still hope for the kingdom of God. We have already seen, by the way Jesus interchangeably uses these terms, that their meaning is synonymous but it is interesting to see the disciples approach the subject so personally while the Pharisees show interest in the kingdom without recognizing Jesus would be the King of it. Jesus, however, took no offense (He gives the word “class” a whole new meaning, eh?). Here is His answer:
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Luke 17:20-21
Before we say anything else about this answer, we should note that it clearly rules out a physical Second Coming. How could He have been more to the point? Will you pause for a moment and simply contemplate the profundity of His words…and our obtuseness in nevertheless insisting that His coming will be physical? “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed.”
I’m tempted to end the book here for what more needs to be said? (If you actually paused to think as I just asked you, you would ask probably ask me to stop the book here.) Nonetheless, I will continue so that you might have even more reinforcement for the sake of your faith.
We see in this exchange Jesus telling the Pharisees that the kingdom was already present in Himself and they couldn’t recognize it. If they couldn’t recognize it when it was right in their midst then (in Him), they wouldn’t be able to recognize it when it was right in their midst later (in others).
The disciples did recognize the kingdom of God in Jesus though they might not have expressed it in just those words. They knew Jesus was “from God,” “of God,” “being directed by God.” They could “see” that much. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were blind (“they are blind guides of the blind” Matthew 15:14) because they could not “see.”
This explains a discrepancy. Actually, it’s just a difference between believers and unbelievers in terms of the ability to perceive. When the disciples asked for signs, Jesus reeled off a string of them (as we saw), but when the Pharisees asked for signs, He had none to give them. Why? Because, as He said elsewhere, the evil generation does not does not get a sign. Because God does not want to give the evil generation a sign? No, because the unrepentant can’t see signs. They’re blind.
The only sign they get is the sign of Jonah. That is, having thrown Jesus overboard into the abyss of death and having experienced as a result a temporary tranquility of circumstances, they would later be shocked – just as those sailors surely were, to hear that, having been spared from death, He was still preaching repentance.
The righteous are given signs that the unrighteous simply cannot recognize. This dynamic is actually very easy to understand. For example, Jesus could tell His disciples that their persecution and the destruction of the temple were signs that things were moving on schedule toward the great day and that they would be delivered. The Pharisees (the unbelieving ones, that is) could never see these signs because they could never interpret these events from that point of reference. The Pharisees would not “see” the apostles as the godly being persecuted. Rather, the Pharisees would see the apostles as blasphemers and heretics in rebellion against the God-ordained authority of the Pharisees. And the destruction of the temple, from the point of view of the Pharisees, would be something to be prevented at all costs, for the temple was the expression of God’s glory. If they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies they could never dishonor God (as they saw it) by the cowardice of flight! And so it goes. Things just don’t look the same from the faithless, and thus disobedient, side of the fence. It’s not so much that God is treating believers differently from unbelievers, but rather that belief itself is the ability to see things that unbelievers have no ability to see.
Paul speaks of the phenomenon of signs for the righteous in this passage in which he exhorts the believers in Philippi to walk in a manner worthy of Christ:
in no way alarmed by your opponents–which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you… Philippians 1:28
When you are persecuted, it is a sign to you that you are on the right track (“all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” 2 Timothy 3:12) and that you will eventually be delivered (“many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all” Psalm 34:19) while the persecutor will eventually be destroyed (“Then He will speak to them in His anger” Psalm 2:5). Paul makes known to these Philippians the kindness of God. The opposition that they would otherwise find alarming is actually a comforting sign to them of God’s presence in them, and surrounding protection of them. We see then that God’s signs could have no meaning for the unrighteous. They could not even see them, for the unjust would not “bear up under suffering while suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19). Moreover, the unjust would never see themselves as opposing the righteous, for those who inflict religious persecution always see themselves as the righteous.
God does indeed have signs to give, but they are signs for those who have, by faith, chosen to be players on the field…and not mere observers in the stands. This is why Jesus was clear with the Pharisees that His kingdom was not coming with signs to be observed: “nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’” The kingdom of God is not a spectator sport. The signs can only be observed if you are personally engaged in the action.
Chapter 6 – How the Old Testament Prophets Set the Stage
The Language of the Prophets
In seeking to better understand the Second Coming of Christ, it is essential to recognize that it is not an concept that originated with Jesus – at least not with Jesus in the flesh. Rather, Jesus and His apostles were explaining and elaborating on something that the prophets of Israel had written about in the Scriptures centuries before the time of Jesus and His apostles.
We have already noted that Jesus’ location after the resurrection and ascension was the right hand of God, and that this expression, so often found in the New Testament, originated with Psalm 110:1, written circa 1,000 B.C. Likewise, the expression “Son of Man coming on the clouds” was not coined by Jesus of Nazareth but rather taken from the Old Testament – in this case from Daniel 7:13, written circa 500 B.C. In this passage, Daniel is conveying a vision God had given him. In the vision, Daniel saw “the Ancient of Days” (presumably God the Father) sitting on His throne with a garment white as snow and hair like pure wool. The throne was ablaze with flames and its wheels were a burning fire. A river of fire was flowing from before Him. When the Son of Man came on the clouds, He came up to this Ancient of Days and received a kingdom. Re-read the last few sentences if necessary, but be sure you have Daniel’s entire picture in mind. Got it? Okay. If someone expects to see Jesus physically coming on clouds, he should also expect to see in the same moment all the rest of this scene. It can’t be right to say that the Son of Man part of it will be physically fulfilled but the Ancient of Days part will not.
Such a scene physically acted out would make the coming of God’s kingdom exactly what Jesus said it would not be – a spectator event. Not only this, but would such a scene physically acted out even be worthy of God? Jesus goes to all the trouble (crucifixion being only the centerpiece of His efforts on our behalf) to teach us that God is spirit, just so it can one day be revealed that He wasn’t spirit after all but rather someone with hair like wool, who could burn without burning up, and who we could see with our physical eyes if we just wait long enough? Is this what Jesus died for?
Besides all this, those who insist that Jesus must physically appear coming to earth on physical clouds as if He would take delight in riding a cosmic surfboard before the physical eyes of humanity, have Him going the wrong direction! For in Daniel’s vision He’s coming up to the Ancient of Days, not down to earth.
Daniel was not the only prophet who communicated using this sort of imagery. Moses had written some thousand years before Daniel that
“There is none like the God of Jeshurun,
Who rides the heavens to your help,
And through the skies in His majesty.” Deuteronomy 33:26
There is no record that anyone took Moses to be describing the physical sight to be seen whenever God was coming to someone’s help.
Moreover, if Jesus must come to physical Jerusalem as those who teach the “future, physical” Second Coming say, how are people in the Western hemisphere even going to see it? Some have gone so far as to say that the Second Coming will be televised – as if it were an extravaganza you could watch on TV! When will such teaching nonsense end? What will it take before we recognize that God would rather we forgive one sin, show compassion to one person in need, do one act of spontaneous kindness…than to wait for Him to put on such a physical show for physical eyes?
Has God not already proven that His displays of power are unequaled? The wonder of a rainbow, a thunderstorm, a sunrise – who could do such things but God? Yes, He could put on a physical display of Jesus that would dazzle every eye, but is that what God wants? If physical displays of His power and glory were sufficient to make people believe then all humanity would be converted at every sunrise, for no human architectural or scientific feat was ever half as glorious. And all of Israel would have been converted every time Jesus did a miracle. Unfortunately, we humans have shown a remarkable resistance to being moved by physical displays of God’s glory. So could this be God’s crowning act through Jesus Christ? That’s not what the prophets of Israel said. They said He wanted us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). That’s the display He put on through Jesus when He humbly walked this earth. Indeed, some saw the spectacular nature of it for the apostle John said, “and we saw His glory” (John 1:14). John came to appreciate that spiritual glory was greater, more meaningful, more significant, more lasting, and far more important than physical glory.
Surely Daniel would be disappointed if all we received from his vision was hope for a physical display of God. The main point was that this Son of Man was coming into authority – the authority of God. Did not Jesus say, “My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36)? If He was going to reign on earth in a physical body then the crucifixion was unnecessary, for there was no flaw in Him – spiritual or physical. He was perfectly qualified to reign before He was crucified, if that was the type of kingdom God wanted to establish. But Jesus declined such a kingdom for a place instead with the Father, for he said, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
Let’s consider one other example of prophetic language that is relevant to our study, and that will help us appreciate the manner of the prophets’ and Jesus’ appropriation of it. This example and ones like it are found in several places in the Old Testament as well as being quoted in several places in the New Testament. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus said,
The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky Matthew 24:29
You’ll recognize from the book and chapter reference that Jesus spoke these words as He was describing His Second Coming. But if someone quoted you these verses apart from their context and told you that they were a physical description of the end of the universe as we know it, you might believe them. And if you did, then every time you came cross these verses your mind would translate a physical interpretation. You would be reading something into a the Bible because of what you were taught and it would be very hard to break free from that thinking. This is what has happened with so much of the teaching about the Second Coming. We have had verses lifted out of their contexts and given new meaning that they never originally had. We saw an example of this phenomenon in the previous part of this book with the phrase “But of that day or hour no one knows.” That phrase has been separated from the rest of what Jesus said, and impressed on people’s minds that the time of the Second Coming cannot be known. Thereafter, when this verse is read, the listener relies upon the previous understanding. He is perhaps confused by the context, but most people just don’t have the time or inclination to sit down and sift out what they’ve heard for so many years.
For those who do have the time and inclination, one way to correct such misunderstandings is to locate the respective passages in the Bible and to read what comes before it and after it. And not just the immediate context, but their place in the Bible as a whole. The phrase above from Matthew 24 appears first not in Matthew but in the Old Testament prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Therefore, we note that this phrase was not coined by Jesus, but by the prophets before Him. Therefore, it makes sense to look at how these prophets used the term, for Jesus would expect His hearers – fellow citizens of Israel -to recognize that He was quoting Israel’s prophets.
Focusing on just one of these prophets, we see Isaiah using the expression in Isaiah 13:10 to describe the fall of Babylon. Now Babylon had fallen long before Jesus ever lived. If the expression is meant to be taken physically then we have a problem because the physical sun, moon, and stars were still in operation during the time of Jesus as they are today. But if we take them spiritually – that is, understand them to be a figure of speech, then we have no problem, for history confirms that the mighty Babylon fell just as Isaiah said it would.
The expression of sun, moon, and stars falling or failing is a figure of speech indicating that the powers that be, or the status quo, or the existing power structure, or prevailing order is going to fall or fail. In creation on the fourth day, these lights were established to rule or govern. They came, therefore, to symbolize ruling or governing powers. This is why when Joseph tells the dream of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him in Genesis 37, his family had no problem understanding that it referred to the existing family authority structure yielding to the much younger Joseph. That is, though Joseph was next to the youngest and possessing hardly any authority in their family, the entire family would be subjected to him. That they understood the metaphor and what it meant is why they got so upset with him. They did not think he was predicting radical alterations in solar and lunar movements that would astound the scientific community.
We use similar expressions today when we say, “it was a dark period for their country,” or “that’s the night that the lights went out in Georgia,” or “the sun is not going to shine for them.” Such figures of speech indicate that the existing order will give way to a new one and that the authorities that people have been relying upon will fail. This is what Jesus was warning would be true for the nation of Israel. People would no longer be able to look to Jerusalem, and the temple, and the priests to give them guidance, for that time of Israel’s existence was now coming to an end. The only salvation was to accept what Jesus was teaching about the kingdom of God because Israel was going to fall and be overrun by enemies. The prophets had warned of judgment on Israel before, but never with this sort of finality. But the finality was appropriate because “a new covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31-34) was being enacted which would have no physical reference points – only spiritual ones. Do you see – can you appreciate – just how practical this advice was for those Jews? Had the whole nation listened to Him they could have walked away from Jerusalem and started a new life trusting in the promises of God just as their forefather Abraham had done over 2,000 years before. While many of them did believe Jesus, many did not and instead stood by the high priest, the Council that condemned Him, the temple, and the old order. When the Romans crushed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., those unbelieving Jews were crushed with it. It was tragic. It is always tragic when we ignore God’s warnings to turn from our sins, but this was worst moment ever in the life of ancient Israel, and it marked the end of the nation as God’s primary vehicle for revealing Himself to the world.
To be more precise and accurate about this specific quote of Jesus, however, we should point out that it spoke about a shake-up of heavenly powers. That is, the heavenly Babylon ruled by Satan was going to fall with the Second Coming. The fall of earthly Israel would be prior to that. We will say more about these things as we go along. For now we are just making clear that the kind of warning Jesus was giving above was the same kind of warning that Israel and other nations had heard from the prophets before Him. What was different was the magnitude of the judgment (heaven would be judged as well as earth) and the transfer of the living covenant relationship from the physical descendants of Abraham to the spiritual descendants of Abraham (who could be either Jew or Gentile).
The prophets used poetic and picturesque language to convey their truths and warnings in memorable ways. Photocopiers and tape recorders were not around – you had to speak in ways that memories could more easily hold. It is not fair, therefore, to take the prophets’ words out of context and give them strange new meanings they never had. If we approached everyday life and conversation this way, we would never know that “purple mountain majesties” and “alabaster cities” were referring to the United States of America. Neither would we be able to get over our shock when the news reporter told us that there was a talking building on the east coast of the United States (“The White House said today that…”). If we were Joseph’s family, we might have asked him why he thought the sun, moon, and stars were going to alter their courses for him, figuring he’d gone wacko with too much physical science homework. But we would only be following in the stumbling footsteps of the disciples who, when Jesus said Lazarus was asleep, could only assume that he would therefore eventually wake up. Jesus then had to tell them plainly that Lazarus was dead (John 11:11-14).
We can see now that Jesus’ manner of speech, which confused so many, was not entirely original, for He lived His life as a prophet of Israel, drawing from the Scriptures written so many years before He came on the scene. Growing up like other Jewish boys, Jesus was a student of Moses and the prophets. And this also helps us understand why He seemed puzzled when His fellow Jews didn’t understand His spiritual meanings. He was only communicating in a way that should have been quite familiar to them all. After all, hadn’t His contemporaries grown up going to the same synagogues and listening to the same Scriptures being read?
What Exactly Was Daniel Getting At?
Let us return to the Daniel 7 passage. It is as significant as Psalm 110 in terms of understanding the kingdom of God. At His trial (Matthew 26:64), Jesus quotes both Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13. According to Jesus, upon the fulfillment of these two scriptures hung the inauguration of the kingdom of God. Psalm 110:1 was fulfilled when Jesus was raised from the dead and made to sit at the right hand of God. Daniel 7:13 was fulfilled when the Son of God came again in the glory of His Father.
We have already seen that the main point of Daniel’s vision was that the Messiah was receiving authority. Specifically, He was receiving the authority of God. We have also seen that a physical interpretation of Daniel’s vision is out of the question. One more proof of this is that when Daniel himself asked for an interpretation of it, he was given a spiritual one (Daniel 7:15-28). The four beasts which preceded the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man were four kingdoms. (Need we mention that a physical appearance of the Son of Man would require not only a physical appearance of the Ancient of Days but of these four physical beasts as well?)
The common theme of Daniel’s whole vision is kingdoms, their authority and duration. The culmination and climax of the vision was the Son of Man receiving the kingdom that would never end and would crush all other kingdoms. This would have to be the kingdom of God. Now we remember that Jesus told His disciples that He would come in “the glory of His Father with His holy angels.” As man is superior to the beasts, so God is superior to man. Jesus, having eschewed an earthly kingdom now accepts the heavenly one. This means He receives heavenly glory, the same glory that God has. If humanity is largely blind to the glory of God – and it is – would it not also be blind when the Son came in that glory?
And so we see that Daniel’s vision shows Messiah “coming” into great authority and glory – the authority and glory of God. This is what is meant by saying Jesus came the first time as man and the second time as God. The “coming” was not to a mountain in Jerusalem or Samaria (John 4:21-24), but to every human heart in spirit and in truth. At the resurrection, Jesus took the throne of Israel (Psalm 110:1); at the Second Coming, He took the throne of the universe (Daniel 7:13). Jesus prophesied these twin achievements at His trial in Matthew 26:64.
Chapter 7 – How the Apostles Explained the Prophets
New Heavens and New Earth
The heavens and the earth became new when Jesus took the throne of the universe. Isaiah had prophesied it (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22) and John the apostle confirmed it (Revelation 21:1). It is a spiritual – not a physical – newness that is spoken of and this is obvious for several reasons.
First, many Christians will refer to a person who has trusted Jesus Christ as a “new creature” alluding to the following passage of Scripture:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 2 Corinthians 5:17
Evangelical Christians will be quick to tell you that such newness has to do with spiritual things for the “new creature” will have the same shoe size, same eye color, and will still have to eat and sleep. These Christians will not, however, allow the significance of the newness to be devalued for those reasons. They will insist (for the context of 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 demands it) that such spiritual newness is eternal and far more important than any physical change could ever be (for physical things are only temporal). If such reasoning is acceptable for the salvation of an individual why not for the salvation of the universe?
Second, while describing the new heavens and new earth John quotes God as saying, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Note that He doesn’t say that He is making all new things, but that He is making all things new.
Let’s say your name is Sally Smith and God promises to make a new Sally Smith. Is your hope that He makes you new (that is, renews you by cleansing what is wrong with you and preserving what is right in you) or that He makes another Sally Smith, obliterating you in the process? Of course, you want to be new and improved – not have some other human being take your place. If God was going to make all new things instead of make all things new then He would have obliterated Adam and Eve after they sinned and started over. But even just two human souls are so precious in God’s sight that, rather than start over, He would set in motion a plan for redeeming and renewing what had already been created. This is the way God makes all things new. We don’t need a new physical heavens and earth. There is nothing wrong with the ones we have. They are beautiful, enthralling, awesome. What has been wrong with creation from the beginning has not been the sunrises, or the mountains, or the oceans, but rather the sin in mankind, God’s co-rulers of the earth.
Third, if we read John’s description of the new heavens and earth in context it is more than obvious that he is speaking spiritually. For one thing, John says “and there is no longer any sea” (Revelation 21:1) but just a few lines before (Revelation 20:13) he has described the sea as the place where the dead were kept. Physically speaking, the predominant place of burial is the land, not the sea. But, again, John is using sea in the spiritual sense, not the physical sense. In the spiritual dimension of heaven, earth, and sea, the sea corresponds to Sheol (or Hades, if you prefer the Greek term) which was the place which, according to the Old Testament, housed all the dead. Thus, with the Second Coming being the time that Satan and his angels are cast out of heaven and the dead being raised to heaven (Matthew 22:30) – that is, the “sea” was dried up – you can see that we do indeed have a new heavens and earth if you are thinking spiritually.
Rather than using the expression “new heaven and earth” sometimes the Scripture uses the expression “heaven and earth will pass away” (e.g. Matthew 5:18 and 24:35). The meaning and result, however, are the same. That is, the idea was that the existing heavens and earth would pass away and new ones would come. Just as with the 2 Corinthians 5:17 passage, the spiritual dimension was completely reconstructed while what is seen outward in the flesh appears unchanged. Those who set their minds on the flesh, however, keep wanting to see a new physical heaven and earth – yet, other than an absence of the sea, how would they recognize it?
Peter warned against such an obsession with a new physical heavens and earth for he said just before his own death that
…mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation. 2 Peter 3:3-4
With these words, Peter was warning about the false teachers who would arise just before the coming of the Lord. Peter describes them as being sensual in nature. True to form then, these false teachers will point to the lack of physical change in the universe as proof positive that the day of the Lord has not come. From here, Peter goes on to invoke the memory of Noah who also labored long, preaching righteousness to people who never believed the judgment would really come…until it was too late. These false teachers, about whom Peter was warning, would be too sensual, too fleshly minded, to appreciate the spiritual orientation of the Scriptures.
Jesus was constantly fulfilling the types and shadows of the Old Testament. Moses led the people of God from slavery. Joshua led them into the promised land. Joseph fed his own jealous brothers in time of famine. Jesus fulfilled all these patterns, but He did so spiritually. This was in direct contradiction to what many people expected. And for Him to come in a different way than these false teachers were expecting was thus true to His form. For all the physical deliverances accomplished in the Old Testament foreshadowed spiritual things that Jesus accomplished in the New Testament. In His spiritual accomplishments, Jesus never merely duplicated an Old Testament episode as so many expected Him to do. That is, He did not lead a charge against the Romans driving them out of the land as Joshua might have done, nor did He lead His followers out of Israel to a new physical territory as Moses might have done, nor did He subdue the nations as David might have done. To be consistent with all these fulfillments, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Noah scenario could not be a mere duplication with fire in the place of water – it had to be a spiritual accomplishment of much greater proportions.
Peter concluded his second letter exhorting his readers to look for the new heavens and the new earth, but obviously not in the way that the false teachers were. Being dead to spiritual things they could have no appreciation for anything other than a new physical environment. These false teachers did not “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6) and so were not looking for a “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Let me remind you and make clear that just because a fulfillment is spiritual rather than physical doesn’t mean it is without ultimate physical effect. A person who sets his mind on the spirit and lives for spiritual things will effect change in the physical dimension. That Jesus fought spiritual battles instead of physical ones does not mean that He was less a hero than Moses, Joshua, or David. On the contrary, Jesus’ victories were greater…and therefore His glory is greater. He who overcomes sin (which is conceived in unseen places) has overcome the source of anything and everything that is wrong with the physical world.
As you have seen in throughout this book, most of what is wrongly taught about the Second Coming is based on verses taken out of context. Let us return, therefore, to Matthew 24-25 and read in context the line “Heaven and earth will pass away.” Out of context it seems to speak of a new physical heaven and earth. But let’s now read it in its immediate context:
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Matthew 24:34-36
Isn’t is obvious by now that Jesus was promising something spiritual? And aren’t His words infinitely more durable than anything you can access by your physical senses?
The Nature of God’s Transitions
When God changes the night into day He goes about it very gradually. There is a world of difference between the way things look at midnight and the way things look at noon. But it was a gradual process at work for twelve hours that got things to that point. And the moment just after sunrise was not that much brighter than the moment just be before it. God performs the transition from night to day very gradually.
We see this same gradualness of transition when the seasons change. The difference between winter and summer is very great, but spring is the gradual transition. And even spring itself, though its beginning can technically be pinned down to a given day, begins very gradually. It seems God has everything in a perpetual state of motion (aren’t the particles of an atom always moving?). The transition from high tide to low tide works the same way. The ultimate difference between high and low tides is very dramatic, but there is not much different at all between the last wave before high tide and the first wave after.
Everyone knows that grass grows, but no one stops to watch it because there’s no movement in the moment to be noticed. Same with drying paint. Seeds become plants, but only time-lapse photography makes the process interesting enough for our continued attention. The earth spins and revolves, but those movements are so imperceptible to us that it creates the optical illusion that we’re walking around on a level surface.
Even the experience of human life itself shows how God works His transitions in gradualness. There is a world of difference between an adult and a child, but how easy is it to identify the exact moment when a person ceased being a child and began being an adult?
Note that we are not saying that there is not a specific identifiable moment of transition. There certainly can be. There is a precise moment when the sun breaks the horizon, when the tide begins to recede, when the vernal equinox can be said to have occurred. It’s just that, from a human perspective, such precise moments occur within a great gradualness. And it’s easier for us to perceive the gradualness than to perceive the exact moment.
The Second Coming of Jesus Christ was a work of God that occurred in an instant of time (“like a flash of lightning,” “in the twinkling of an eye”) but that was set within a great gradualness. Hebrews 12 quotes the prophet Haggai who promised that God would “shake the heavens.” In the instant of Jesus’ coming, the invisible thrones of the spiritual dimension were abolished. In the resurrection, Jesus had been set above these “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” but in the return, Jesus demolished them – which created the new heavens.
The new heavens are the explanation for why polytheism was the dominant worldview before the Second Coming and monotheism has been the dominant view since – and always will be. History tells us that polytheism, animal sacrifice, idol worship, each nation having its own deity, and related practices fell into disuse from the time of the 1st Century. It was not just among Christians that these things changed; it was among all peoples. It happened gradually, yes – over perhaps hundreds of years. But there was a precise moment when the spiritual fabric of the universe was changed, when the words of the prophet Isaiah were fulfilled, “And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:11). In the same passage, Isaiah went on to say that it would be a time when men cast away the idols they had made. If the goal of ancient Israel was to establish monotheism in the world, and that was a mission assigned to Abraham and his descendants, it can be rightly said that they achieved it. For when Israel’s Messiah took the throne of the universe, all competing spiritual powers in the heavens were vanquished. The problem of creation was dealt with at the root.
The consequences of the Second Coming are still being worked out today. For though the Second Coming was spiritual, that does not mean that it was not to have physical consequences. Those consequences would be great and will continue for all eternity. For in the Second Coming, God was not overthrowing earthly kingdoms but spiritual ones. Do we think that the men and women of antiquity were so much dumber than us because they believed they lived under a heavens populated by multiple spiritual powers while we know better? Not at all. Our perception of spiritual reality is different from theirs because the reality itself is different. We are still searching and seeking to understand that reality. But praise be to God that we are not afflicted with the heavenly beasts our fathers in the faith had to fight. There is but one God dominating the heavens and those beasts have been thrown down to earth for us to fight where we are on equal footing. Yet, through God, they shall be crushed under our feet (Romans 16:20) just as is always the case for those who fear and trust Him.
Relating to Things Spiritual and Physical
God is the God of both spiritual and physical things. He has been trying to teach us from the beginning, however, that spiritual things are more important than physical ones – even when we can’t understand why. Adam and Eve were told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they die. It was obvious that they did not understand the reason for such a command. When Eve saw the tree that “it was good for food, was a delight to the eyes, and was desirable to make one wise” then her decision was made. The physical sight of the tree proved too inviting. But she should have trusted the God she could not see…for He was right.
God understands our plight. He knows that we live in a physical world and that though our spirits are willing, our flesh can be weak. If we are to receive His compassion, though, we must make some move toward seeing things His way. The Jews in John 8 could not accept what Jesus was saying about their being slaves to sin because the only kind of slavery they could recognize was when one human being enslaved another. They were hardened against seeing anything in a truly spiritual way and ended up doing the bidding of their own spiritual master, Satan.
God was gracious to perform signs and wonders through Jesus Christ so that people could see something physical and believe. Many did (John 4:48) and many still do today as they read the Bible or hear its truths proclaimed by one means or another. Some people, however, will not believe even with an abundance of physical signs, for John later says,
But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him. John 12:37
And we remember that Jesus in all His life revealed the Father. For just as many people could see the miracles of healing and life and still not believe, throughout history many people have seen the workings of God’s power and yet not trusted Him. In all things, there is a point beyond which it will do no more good to show another physical sign.
We must be willing to accept instruction from Jesus as Peter was. On the Mount of Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah appeared in glory with Jesus, Peter was all set to build three tabernacles, one for each of them. Peter’s entire orientation to the experience was physical. But he was able to learn from Jesus that if it was a physical house that was lacking, God could build a better one for Himself than any of us could. The vision was for the purpose of communicating spiritual truth to the disciples’ hearts. Peter did eventually understand and wrote of this spiritual house of which Jesus was the cornerstone in his first letter (1 Peter 2).
The whole movement of the New Testament was a weaning of the people of God from a physical orientation to a spiritual one. With the resurrection, a spiritual emphasis was firmly established. Messiah was to reign from heaven, not earth; that is, from where He could not be physically seen. Some of the early converts wanted to go back to physical things, like circumcision. Paul had to ask them, “Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected in the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)
We could similarly ask, having begun with faith in a resurrection we could not see, are we going to be perfected by a return that we can see? If Jesus had showed up physically in the 1st Century A.D. we could easily imagine some of the idol worshipers boasting, “See, we told you so; God is best worshiped in the flesh with a physical image!”
Does God have to appear in the flesh before we will obey Him? If we intend to be more reverent and devoted when He appears in the flesh than we are right now, what does this say about us? What does it say about our faith?
As we have said, God is mindful of our plight. He knows we live in a physical as well as a spiritual world. For this reason, Jesus gave His disciples earthly physical signs that would precede His coming. But if all the earthly signs were fulfilled, and it has been confirmed by the apostles in the New Testament that they were, then do we not have all the more reason to believe Him about the heavenly things? For He said to Nicodemus,
“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” John 3:12
We cannot appreciate all the glory associated with Jesus’ Second Coming if we do not first acknowledge how right he was about earthly predictions He made. But He has gently led us this way, giving us a ladder to heaven, as it were. If we trust and follow the signs he has left in the physical realm (remember God’s creative miracles, Jesus’ redemptive miracles) then we can find our way to and through the spiritual realm.
In Matthew 24-25 Jesus referred to a great gathering of the saints. If this is to be physical then God will have to violate the physical laws of heaven and earth that He Himself created, for no physical sight can appear worldwide at the same time; at most, it could be view by one hemisphere, and probably only half of that. Since God is God and can do anything He wants, it is possible that he could alter or abolish all His physical laws and accomplish even this, but do you now think this is His intent? Is it not more consistent with His nature, His workings, and His plans that the gathering is to be spiritual; that is, to Him.
The physical gathering at the Tower of Babel was not at all to His liking. It represented a spiritual scattering from Him, for He had commanded people to “fill the earth” and not stay holed up together. Those who obey God are gathered to Him now. They are the flock of which He is the shepherd. They are not gathered physically, for they are spread through the world. They are gathered spiritually and are close to Him. For the most part, they do not even see each other. This is the gathering that He seeks.
Jesus has oriented us to expect a spiritual coming. His references to Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter as being “asleep” before He raised them from the dead, to the Pharisees’ hypocrisy as leaven in the bread, and many other such things point us to a new way of thinking – God’s way (see Isaiah 55:8). It is the way of viewing spiritual things as more consequential than physical ones. God Himself is spirit and we are primarily spirit (for the body perishes). What more reason do we need for esteeming spiritual things more highly than physical ones? If a spiritual Second Coming seems a puny let down from the great display we were expecting in the traditional Second Coming doctrine then it only means we are still needing a lot of weaning from our physical orientation. The spiritual Second Coming of Jesus Christ was not less dramatic, less cataclysmic, less staggering than the one we have traditionally imagined. It was more of all these things. And as we grow spiritually, we will be able to better appreciate the spiritual fireworks that attended it.
If the Second Coming was to have been a worldwide physical cataclysm then, as we discussed earlier in the discussion of timing, Paul’s explanation to the Thessalonians as to how they could know it had not yet occurred doesn’t make sense (2 Thessalonians 2). You don’t explain to people that the earthquake of all earthquakes (that would physically disrupt all space and time) has not happened yet – they would know as well as Paul would whether a worldwide physical cataclysm had or hadn’t happened yet. If, however, the Second Coming was to be a worldwide spiritual cataclysm then such an explanation from Paul was altogether appropriate. Similarly, recall the passage from 2 Timothy 2 we discussed where Paul talks about some who were prematurely saying that it had already occurred. This, he rightly said, “upset the faith of some.” Again you see that it is faith, not sight, that is at stake. If the Second Coming was a physical event that interrupted everyone’s life then there could be no upset of faith – or even need of faith, for that matter. Faith is for what you cannot see.
It was wrong to announce prematurely that the Lord had come. Those who did so were rightly condemned. But it would also be wrong to deny the coming once it had occurred. People send belated birthday cards in the belief that they are better than no birthday acknowledgment at all. In a similar vein, it is better to just admit we missed the passing of the date of the Lord’s Second Coming. And so we can say to Jesus, however belatedly, “Welcome home!” Our answer can be “yes,” however belatedly, to His question:
“…when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:8
Has He found faith in you?
Conclusion About the Nature of the Second Coming
We started our discussion of the Second Coming by remembering that some Jews (certainly not all) missed the coming of the Messiah for whom they were looking. And they continue to miss it only when they refuse to believe it could be missed. For it is common knowledge that there are Jews who even today open their minds to the possibility that Jesus was and is their Messiah. Then when they examine the evidence, they embrace Him. It is as if a veil has been lifted from their eyes (2 Corinthians 3:16). Seeing such a phenomenon in our Jewish brothers are Christian brothers not adequately forewarned of the dangers of closing one’s mind about a coming of Messiah (be it His first or second)?
This is especially so now that we have seen that the description of the Second Coming is spiritual and not physical. For if the first coming which was partly physical (Jesus came in an earthly body) was “missable,” how much more the second coming, being entirely spiritual, would be “missable.” The first coming had certain physical aspects to it that could be verified (e.g. Messiah had to be a descendant of David) whereas the second did not. But we who live almost twenty centuries later have a benefit those in the first century did not. That is, we can see how monotheism has displaced polytheism as the dominant worldview among humanity. Even the God that atheists don’t believe in and agnostics aren’t sure about is one God – not many gods. That is, atheists today insist that there’s insufficient proof of God’s – not the gods’ – existence.
In case there is any Christian who has read this far and still doggedly maintains that Jesus Christ must appear again in the flesh for the promises of the Second Coming to be fulfilled, please consider Elijah. In Matthew 17, Jesus says that the prophecy of Elijah’s returning to precede Messiah was fulfilled in John the Baptist preceding Him. If you insist on the Second Coming being physical then you must reject Jesus as even being the Messiah in the first place. For He produced no physical Elijah as His forerunner. In other words, you would have to disown the One you have called Savior because he spiritualized the prophecy about Elijah and the Messiah.
I have good news for you! It is not necessary to reject or disown this Holy One. He has kept His promises. He was Israel’s Messiah and He is just as surely God. The faithfulness of God is revealed once again, this time in the glorious keeping of His promises regarding coming again. Let us therefore happily acknowledge His presence in the earth as well as heaven. Let us not wait until some future date to show constant reverence toward Him. Let us live every moment for His pleasure. We were created to know Him and to make Him known. Another way of phrasing this is to be aware of His presence and to make others aware of it. Let us break free from this stifling existence of acknowledging only what we can see with our physical eyes. Let us break free from the smothering dominance of flesh and breathe in the life of His Spirit.
Afterword – The Traditions of Men or the Truth of God?
In this book, I have shown you how the Bible teaches that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ should be considered by us in the 21st Century not future and physical, but rather past and spiritual. In other words, Jesus Christ has already come again – sometime late in the 1st Century A.D. not too many years after the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple in 70 A.D. I did this by showing you what the Scriptures themselves say about the Second Coming, and how history confirms it.
We spent the bulk of our time first analyzing what Jesus and His apostles said about the timing of the Second Coming. In doing so, we brought to light the fact that is so often ignored in today’s Bible teaching on this subject – that all believers in the New Testament expected the Lord’s return in their generation and gave no indication that they thought it could possibly come in any other generation. This actually explains why this fact is ignored, for if you say the New Testament disciples were wrong about this but right about everything else you look a little silly to the world you are trying to convince. Second, we analyzed what Jesus and His apostles said about the nature of the Second Coming. We saw that they were describing not a physical event, but a spiritual one. We are to see Jesus coming in His kingdom the same way we saw Him at the right hand of the throne of God – that is, by faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Trusting Jesus, His apostles, and the prophets before them about the timing and nature of the Second Coming demands a belief in a Second Coming that was accomplished in their timeframe and in their way. What was imminent future for them is, for us in the 21st Century, distant past. Fait accompli. Mission accomplished.
All this is completely fitting with what Paul said in his second letter to the believers at Corinth:
…even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. 2 Corinthians 5:16
This is the church that Paul called “still fleshly” in his first letter. Yes, God did come in the flesh…but we are to know Him in the spirit now.
I do not deny that the teaching of a “future, physical” Second Coming is more traditional than what I have shown you in this book. I simply ask which is more important to you: the truth of God or the traditions of men?
About the Author
Contrary to many opinions, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is not something future and physical - rather it is something past and spiritual. Extensive explanation of the relevant Bible passages will demonstrate that the Second Coming of Christ occurred just when He and His apostles said it would - in the 1st Century A.D. Jesus Christ is God, and the Second Coming is an outworking of that reality.