Jesus’ Second Coming
‘Will Jesus return soon?’, I am asked. ‘Is this the end time?’ ‘I do not think so’ is my answer to the first question. ‘No’ is my answer to the second question. I do not think that this generation is more important or more wicked than any other. Why would Jesus want to come back here? To be crucified again? I cannot see Jesus appearing in clouds above Jerusalem. Nor can I see him sitting in the United Nations building in New York governing the human community. I cannot hear Jesus saying ‘See, I told you so’ to Xi Jinping of China, Ali Khamenei of Iran, Emanuel Macron of France and Richard Dawkins in England. Nor can I see Jesus taking up into ‘the rapture’ only members of the Christian Brethren on earth. These responses separate me from some Christian evangelicals who do think that Jesus will return visibly and in judgement and maybe soon.
Many have prophesied the return of Jesus and been found to have been false in their beliefs. In 500 AD, three theologians Hippolytus, Sextus and Irenaeus did so. Pope Sylvester II thought that 1 January 1000 AD was the moment. The Florentine artist Sandro Boticelli suggested 1504. The Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg said that it happened in 1757 in his personal experience of the Holy Spirit, quoting Luke 17 : 20, 21. ‘Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst’. The American Baptist preacher William Miller prophesied Jesus’ return for 1844 and this non-event was then labelled ‘The Great Disappointment’. The proto-Pentecostalist former Church of Scotland Minister Edward Irving (deposed in 1832) founded the Catholic Apostolic Church in London and prophesied that Jesus would return before the last of the 12 founding apostles of his Church would die. 1901 came and went. Jehovah’s Witnesses prophesied Armageddon for 1914. The astrologer Jeane Dixon, the theosophist Alice Riley and the mathematician Frank Tipler prophesied Jesus’ return in 2020, 2025 and 2057 respectively.
There are many references to Jesus’ Second Coming in the New Testament. Some of the most arresting are as follows:
‘For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’. (Matthew 16 : 27 - 28) This is very problematic. As far as we can tell, this has not happened in any sense of a public spectacle. But Jesus Christ has privately visited individuals over the last nearly 2000 years. These have been spiritual and inward in character. The entire human relationship with God has been invisible to science and to history. The effects of the relationship have been visible however. Most Christians would attest to being favoured or not according to their faithfulness and obedience to Jesus Christ. This is a fact of Christian life. ‘Our restless spirits yearn for Thee, Where’er our changeful lot is cast; Glad when Thy gracious smile we see, Blest, when our faith can hold Thee fast’. (Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts, Bernard of Clairvaux d. 1160) There is though an intention of finality in the Jesus’ words, an implicit sense of concluding judgement. Humans have a sense of insecurity about the possibility and nature of life after death. So the great religions of the world offer answers. Jesus’ prophecy clearly suggests that he will return before his present generation have died. The only possible interpretation of this is Jesus’ resurrection and it truly happened. Thereafter Jesus has come again many times to those who have sought to be in relationship to him.
‘Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other’. (Matthew 24 : 30- 31) This is even more problematic for us living as we do in the 21st century. It does suggest an external verifiable event to be witnessed by ‘all the peoples of the earth’. Charles Wesley’s awe-inspiring hymn affirms ‘Ev'ry eye shall now behold him, robed in dreadful majesty; those who set at naught and sold him, pierced, and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see’. (Lo! he comes with clouds descending, 1758) Liturgically this hymn is sung during Advent and Lent. Very few expect it to actually happen like this. There is a sense of justification and even of revenge in this language. ‘Ah telt ye’, ‘Lord we didnae ken. Ah weel, ye ken noo’.
The gathering of the elect is something middle of the road churches do not want to think about. Paul wrote ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will’. (Ephesians 1 : 4 - 5) Presently the Church of Scotland is likely to abandon the Westminster Confession of Faith as its subordinate standard precisely because of Chapter III S3. ‘ By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death’. This language roots our perplexity that not everyone is called to be a Christian in the mind of God. In today’s global village when we know about other peoples' faith ideas this is troubling. Some liberal Christians claim that there are many ways to heaven. But there is a contrast between that idea and the early Christian exclusive teaching that ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved’. (Acts 4 : 12) The Theological Forum Report Appendix to the Church of Scotland 2021 General Assembly on the Westminster Confession of Faith argues that ‘this denies hope of salvation to vast numbers of human beings, not least those who follow other faiths’. (8.2) It would be a better exercise to demonstrate comparatively why it is reasonable to claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. But the Church of Scotland has no stomach for such a witness. The elect though are to be gathered from the one end of the heavens to the other. They are already there, waiting to be brought near to Jesus Christ. ‘Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen’ says Revelation 1 : 7.
‘That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (Matthew 24 : 40 – 41) This is sometimes described as ‘The Rapture’. It is not found in historic Christianity, but is a relatively recent doctrine of American Evangelical Protestantism. In this sense it means the end time event when all Christian believers who are alive, along with resurrected believers, will rise ‘in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air’. Believers in Jesus Christ will be snatched away from earth into the air. Devout evangelical believers do not actually include all who are Christians by name in ‘The Rapture’. The language itself is not inclusive. I have asked questions about this. Does it mean that if two people are in a car, the driver and the passenger, that the driver may be taken up (snatched away) and the passenger left to crash in the car? It is difficult for me to rationalise this teaching of Jesus. On the other hand, the accounts of the conversion of Saul clearly show that Jesus addressed Saul and not his companions. He was saved. We do not know what happened to the others. It is manifestly true that in families throughout the world there are Christians and non-Christians. Some are taken, some are left. Some are called to serve Jesus Christ some are not. This is the pattern of Christianity in the world.
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’. (Matthew 25 : 31 – 32) Contrast these words and their context which is the practical caring for ‘the least of these’ with the teaching of Paul in Romans chapter 5, verses 1 and 2. ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand’. At the Reformation Lutheran and Reformed understanding maintained that good works are seen to be evidence of faith, but the good works themselves do not determine salvation. This was a reaction against Roman Catholic practices of penances, pilgrimages and indulgences. Jesus’ teaching then should be applied to Christians first. He is in effect saying ‘Don’t neglect the Second Commandment’. Lifestyle matters. ‘Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End’. (Revelation 22 : 12)
‘But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’. (Matthew 26 : 64) Jesus liked to refer to himself as the ‘Son of Man’. It had an apocalyptic meaning and is almost a direct quotation from Daniel 7 : 13. ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven’. ‘From now on’ suggests permanence. That is how Jesus will be seen. It can be fairly argued that this has in fact happened. This is how the Risen Jesus is experienced and known by Christians. The cloud is synonymous with the presence of God throughout the Bible. ‘By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way’. (Exodus 13 : 2) ‘Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”’. (Mark 9 : 21) ‘After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight’. (Acts 1 : 9). If you live in the middle east you are very grateful for any clouds that pass by. They give shelter from the unremitting heat of the day. They are harbingers of rain which is essential for life. They denote the mystery of God’s existence and presence. In this Jesus’ saying then they represent divinity in its fullness, Jesus as the fulfilled Son of God.
‘If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels’. (Mark 8 : 38) This is the heart of Jesus’ counter-cultural, counter world teaching. The context is his politically incorrect, anti-woke affirmations ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?’ (Mark 8 : 34 - 37) Imagine what it was like for Jesus to be treated as he was, a stranger and botherer in his time. We live in worse than a straightforward ‘adulterous and sinful’ generation. We could add the terms, licentious in terms of society, wicked in terms of behaviour and depraved in the context of the terrible crimes that are committed, and then add the worst of the world-wide web and dark web. And we are ashamed of Jesus and his Gospel. We apologise for Him. We do not sufficiently proclaim his salvation from the electronic rooftops. Thus Jesus in his glory will pass us by. He will not acknowledge us. Is that what is happening in the Church of Scotland? Is that why there are hardly any people being called to its ministry? Its mealy-mouthed uncertain embarrassed witness begets the judgement of Jesus. Whole time commitment is required of the followers of Jesus. We cannot just passively accept the blessings of his Covenant and not put in the training and the hard yards of true Christian vocation.
‘And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’. (Mark 9 : 1) In Acts 1 : 8 the risen Jesus is recorded as having said to his disciples ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’. There is a direct connection between these two Biblical statements and the latter is a fulfilment of the former. It happened at Pentecost. We would not be here today as Christians if it had not. The disciples were supernaturally, divinely empowered as no other human beings have ever been. From time to time throughout Christian history, this power has been given to Christians for the purpose of witness and evangelism and for works of charity and mercy. Where churches diminish it is because they are lacking this transcending power from the risen Lord. It is our spiritual laziness that is at fault. We do not pray enough, care enough, believe enough or expect enough. We are content with what we know and can manage, even if it is obvious continuing decline.
‘For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. (1 Corinthians 11 : 26) These words are said at every communion service. I myself alter them thus. ‘‘For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until we see him face to face’. That is because I do not expect Jesus to come physically and visibly into our world and human community again in my lifetime. It is very much more likely that I and others celebrating communion in this generation will die and go to meet Jesus in heaven.
‘Come, Lord’ – ‘Maranatha’. 1 Corinthians 16 : 22 reads ‘If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be accursed! Come, Lord’ (Maranatha). The worship song ‘Maranatha’ includes these words. ‘Like a sea without a shore love divine is boundless. Time is now and evermore and His love surrounds us. Maranatha! Maranatha! Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus, come! So that we could all be free He appeared among us, blest are those who have not seen, yet believe His promise. Maranatha! Maranatha! Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus, come!’ Paul’s use has a severe edge. There were malingerers and apostates in the early church. There was some chaos in the Corinthian congregation including incest and law disputes in the secular courts. Paul was mostly an inclusive Christian evangelist but here he is not. He longs for his own deliverance from the struggle against hostility and opposition, mockery and persecution that was his lot in Christian life.
‘When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory’. (Colossians 3 : 4) Colossians 3 : 1 – 3 reads ‘Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God’. Our resurrection Christian life is not visible to others. Unless we are cheerful, helpful, pro-actively caring and concerned for others, unless there are fruits and harvests of our Christian faith, unless we speak the name of Jesus, we live unrecognised as Jesus Himself did while on earth. The former American President Jimmy Carter testified that he was challenged by someone asking ‘Is there enough evidence in your life to convict you of being a Christian?’ If you were charged with being a Christian, would a jury convict you or decide ‘Not Proven’ or ‘Not guilty’. Paul foresaw the hiddenness passing and acceptance and acknowledgement of Christian devotion being seen. And that is how it must have been and remains for so many Christians in the world who labour all their days and years, unseen heroes, passed by by news and media and by fame and fortune. It will not always be so.
‘May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones’. (1 Thessalonians 3 : 13) Why do we assume that if there is a God – Creator, that he is good? It need not have been so. Countless science fiction books and films postulate evil rulers and emperors in other worlds and beyond. Persian Zoroastrian religion has a form of dualistic monotheism with two opposite and contrary aspects suggesting two equal agents of good and evil. Judaism is equivocal. ‘Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’ (Job 2 : 10) The German writer Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856) wrote ‘God will forgive me; that's his business’. A touch of arrogance there but with a smidgen of truth. It is a source of unlimited blessing and peace for the human soul to know that God is good. To accept that after everything that happens on earth there is a higher order of benevolent providence. Not every Christian thinks that way. There is much blood and guts in the Old Testament. Jesus died a cruel death. Appalling things have been perpetrated by humans such as The Holocaust. Christianity itself is besmirched by military and political associations at odds with the New Testament. So Paul is praying that Christians will be strengthened in goodness and enabled to withstand the evils of pagan society at the time. Not succumb. Be ‘blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father’. Not easy in any generation. The connection between spiritual perfection and God’s existence is central. It is better in heaven than on earth. The ‘holy ones’ are described in Revelation 7 : 9 - 10. ‘I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb”’. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit and it is a life long endeavour. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus words are ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. (Matthew 5 : 48) This is seemingly impossible for us living on earth. But it is the Lord’s work in us rather than our our striving. ‘May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it’. (1 Thessalonians 5 : 23 – 24) I think though that rather than them all coming to us, we, in Christ, will go to them.
‘For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever’. (1 Thessalonians 4 : 16 - 17) This is more specific description. Early Christians wondered what had happened to departed Christians before Jesus had re-appeared. This is Paul’s version of the Jewish Last Day of Resurrection. What Paul writes here is similar to 1 Corinthians 15 : 51 – 52. ‘Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed’. Here it is a progression and an instantaneous transformation that is described. The ‘last trumpet’ suggests the final appearance of Jesus.
‘Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God’. (2 Thessalonians 2 : 1 -2). Jesus warned his disciples thus ‘So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniel...let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains’. (Matthew 24 : 15) Daniel 9 : 27 reads ‘And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation’. The Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes IV desecrated the Jerusalem Temple in 168 BC. The Roman General Pompey entered the ‘Holy of Holies’ in 63 BC. Caesar August (63 BC – 14 AD) decreed that he was divine and should be worshipped. Christians who would not do so were called atheists and were persecuted and martyred. In 70 AD Jerusalem and the Temple were laid waste by the Roman Emperor Titus. He paraded its artefacts on his return to Rome in 71 AD. The Titus Triumphal Arch built later by Domitian for him and which still stands portrays the ‘Menorah’, the seven branch candlestick, the logo of Jews and Judaism to this day. During the communist era in Russia Stalin closed and destroyed Christian churches and murdered Orthodox priests and other clergy. Today Xi Jinping has set up photographic images of himself in churches throughout China. He is fulfilling this description of the man of lawlessness before our eyes.
‘In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords’, (1 Timothy 6 : 13 - 15) The command was set out in the previous sentences. ‘But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses’. (1 Timothy 6 : 11 – 12) Here Paul expresses himself with less confidence about any immediate or near Second Coming. He writes that God will bring this about in his own time. It is hard to reconcile this with what we find in Hebrews 10 : 37. ‘For, In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay’. These words were meant to be an encouragement to perseverance in faith and to discourage apostasy amid opposition and persecution. But they did not come true in their literal sense.
In all the fervour of the early Christians for the return of Jesus, it is well to note the words of Jesus Himself. ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’. (Matthew 24 : 36) It is helpful that these words of Jesus deny anyone the right to name the day, name the date. Jesus’ teaching was often about being prayerful and ready nevertheless. ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour’. (Matthew 25 : 13) The false prophets of the ages have their moment of fame. Evangelists seeking converts have sometimes whipped up fear and anticipation of the Second Coming in order to get people over the line of decision and into Christian Faith. The reminder of dying and death and eternal direction is also a tactic used for this purpose. It is a very different means of communication to say to people ‘Jesus probably will not come again in our lifetime. Would you like to become a Christian just the same?’ Is there not a sense of freedom, spontaneity and joyfulness in such an appeal? To say, ‘It is possible and even likely that our world will continue for generations, centuries and millennia. Would you like to live your life in the knowledge and love of the Risen Jesus Christ?’ Maybe that lacks the sense of urgency and finality needed to impel conversion to Jesus Christ. Evangelists tend to say that it is not wise to put off the day of salvation. It is fair to ask 'Where do you want to spend eternity?' It is certain from Jesus' resurrection that death is not the end for you.' Who do you want to spend eternity with? Life with Jesus Christ is better than life without Him. We need to say so and demonstrate that it is so. Carrot and stick have always been part of Christianity. They are part of the Gospels’ record of Jesus Himself.
All of these words, prophecies and predictions of Jesus have come true. They are to be found in the personal discovery of the reality of the Kingdom of God. Opening up to this comes through earnest seeking of God. Visions and revelations are given to some Christians who continue their spiritual search over a long period of time. This is the dimension of Jesus’ resurrection, of the unseen Sovereignty of God, of the ongoing interaction of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the People of God. It is not therefore correct to say that ‘This has not happened. Jesus was mistaken or wrong’. There may indeed yet be a final assize, an end to the world as we know it. There may be a conclusive judgement. This though, is already taking place all the time. If we do not live our lives within the perspective of the resurrection of Jesus we do not see his coming among us. But continuously we can ‘see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ if we take the trouble to look.