A SCRAGGLY-BEARDED man in a flowing, used-to-be-white robe marches solemnly along the sidewalks of New York. Like a protester in a demonstration, he carries on his shoulders a sign that reads, "Jesus is coming again!"
On the commons of a California campus a haggle of "Jesus freaks" holds an outdoor rally. Trying not to mind the hoots of derision that punctuate their discussions, they pass out leaflets on the Second Coming to anyone who approaches.
"Yes, the Church teaches the Parousia, or the Second Coming if you will," intones a Catholic theologian. "But the subject is open to various interpretations. We'll have to wait for more definitive light on the subject."
A Protestant minister is not so evasive. "Of course Jesus is coming! In fact, He has already come. You see, the Bible statements must be understood in a spiritual sense. Jesus comes every time a dear sinner believes on Him. He comes into the converted heart and sets up His kingdom there."
A popular topic, the Second Coming. Rock musicians put it to a heavy beat. Cocktail celebrants make jokes about it. Bible students get out their atlases of the Middle East and try to plot political and military moves of nations that presumably will usher in the earthly reign of Christ.
Yet some, even among Christians, are not enamored by the subject. "God has too much to do to be bothered with this little planet," they say. "It is only a speck in an infinite universe. Why should He pay it special attention?"
If there is any promise that is laid down firmly and surely in the New Testament, it is that of Jesus' return. He often dwelt on the subject Himself, mentioning it from the early days of His ministry. In the Lord's Prayer He taught His followers to look forward to that time when He would come in kingdommaking power. Obviously, He was not talking about His first advent, but of another day, the time when, as Enoch had prophesied, He would come with "his holy myriads" (Jude 14), the time spoken of in the Psalms: "Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest" (Ps. 50:3).
Those who say that Jesus died in delusion over a kingdom that never materialized, as well as those who would limit Christ's kingdom to an unstructured body of believers in this present world, have not caught the dual significance of His teaching on the matter. Christ did teach a present kingdom: When He ordained the twelve. He sent them out to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven "is at hand." When the Pharisees tried to make light of Jesus' casting out devils, Jesus responded, "If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matt. 12:28).
The Kingdom of Relationship
The kingdom Jesus was referring to in the verse just cited was a matter of the heart. It was a kingdom of relation ship, not of territory. He could have formed the latter—He had to fight off those who would make Him king after He fed the five thousand. But as He told Pilate, "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight" (John 18:36).
Yet just a few hours earlier Jesus had told Caiaphas, "Hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 26:64). So there was to be another phase to the kingdom, when Jesus would reign in power and glory over the affairs of men, not just in the hearts of a comparatively few faithful ones. This is the dual nature of the kingdom—before Jesus can reign in fact He must reign in faith. Before He reigns in glory He reigns in grace. Not forcing the allegiance of any person, He establishes the basis for His rule in human hearts before He takes the scepter of power.
It was to the glory phase of the kingdom that Jesus referred in the Olivet discourse: "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.... Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'" (Matt. 25:31-34).
In this same discourse Jesus gave a dramatic description of the nature of His coming. "As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man" (chap. 24:27). "Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of ,heaven to the other" (verses 30, 31).
Of the billions on earth, only a comparative few will be saved in that calamitous and climactic day. John the revelator describes it this way: "Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong, and every one, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, Tall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?' " (Rev. 6:15-17).
Notice the features of Jesus' return as He described them: (1) The tribes of earth will mourn, indicating they recognize an element of judgment in His appearing (Jesus dwells on this aspect in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew); (2) Jesus comes in great glory; (3) angels accompany Him the "holy myriads" Enoch spoke of; (4) the angels are commanded with a great trumpet sound by God; (5) the elect of God are gathered from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. This indicates the resurrection of the righteous dead, for all God's elect since Adam have died in hope of that day (see Job 19:25, 26).
The Bible is like a system of lenses and mirrors. One writer will reflect additional light onto what another has written, and focus attention on certain aspects of it, making more clear what the other has said. Not every feature is present in every account, but sufficient for us to know they are speaking of the same event. The crucifixion of Christ, for example, is not described precisely the same way in the four Gospels. Only Matthew tells of Judas' throwing down his money, and of Pilate's sending guards to Jesus' tomb. Only Luke relates the story of the repentant thief, and neither Luke nor Matthew describes Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene. Different features were of interest to different writers, and they wrote to emphasize different aspects.
Thus the apostle Paul gives us a clearer picture than did Jesus of what happens to the saints on earth at the time of Jesus' appearing. Paul says: "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the arch angel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:14-17).
Paul's main emphasis here is that the righteous dead will not be forgotten. Even as God brought Jesus from the dead, so will He raise the righteous. He will bring them "with them," that is, from the grave (Rom. 6:4, 5). This passage compares with Matthew 24 in several important aspects: (1) the descent of Christ from heaven; (2) the cry of command; (3) angels; (4) the trumpet call of God; (5) the resurrection. Note also that both were in reference to Christians—Paul was writing to the church, and Jesus was speaking to the nucleus of the Christian church. Paul's added feature, not included in Christ's Olivet discourse, is the translation of the righteous living and the catching up of both the living and the resurrected dead to meet the Lord in the air.
With so many points that match—and no statement to the contrary—we can be assured that Paul was speaking of the same event as Christ.
In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul takes up the subject of the resurrrection again, but from a still different angle. "Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:51). The common feature here is the trumpet sound that raises the dead. The new feature is the fact that the bodies of both living and dead will be changed—not that they will be no longer recognizable, for Jesus was recognized after His resurrection. But the new bodies will be imperishable. This, Paul says, is the mystery, or something new he had to tell the Corinthians.
The Last Trumpet
We notice, too, that this is at the "last" trumpet. There will be one last sounding of the trumpet, at which time Christ comes, the dead saints are raised, both they and the living saints are immortalized, and the conformed rebellious or wicked will be destroyed. There will be no subsequent coming of Christ for another group of people accompanied by another sounding of the trumpet.
And who will be included among these who are thus so dramatically delivered from the power of sin and death? There is only one classification that can be given them—they are the redeemed ones. They will include men and women, boys and girls. There will be people of all races and nationalities. They cannot be categorized by denomination or cultural origin. There is only one Second Coming, and all of God's children will meet their Lord at that time.
Our God is no respecter of persons. All are equal before Him. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).
Paul goes on to say, "If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's off spring, heirs according to promise" (verse 29). This teaches us something about Christ's relationship to the Jews and what their part will be in the Second Coming.
God promised Abraham and his posterity the earth for their inheritance. But while God's word is sure, it is predicated on man's cooperation. God will not save a man or a nation in spite of themselves. He says, "If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom [and the context shows God is including Israel], that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will repent of the good which I had in tended to do to it" (Jer. 18:7-10).
Accordingly, when national Israel rejected Christ and the nature of the kingdom He offered, then as a nation they were no longer candidates for the promise. Jesus told the nation's rulers, "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it" (Matt. 21: 43). A few days after that statement Jesus said plainly, "Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate" (chap. 23:38), and the Jewish leaders themselves con firmed, albeit unknowingly, their new position: "We have no king but Caesar."
Then what of the promise to Abraham? Who was this new nation to whom the kingdom would be given? In his first Epistle to the Christian church Peter declared, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (1 Peter 2:9). When we compare that with the promise made to ethnical Israel at Sinai (Ex. 19:6, 7), it is obvious that God considers the Christian church as the inheritors of the promise to Abraham.
As far as God is concerned, then, "spiritual Israel" (meaning those who are Israel in spirit as compared to those who are Israel in flesh—see Rom. 2:28, 29) are really literal Israel. There is no other Israel in His sight. Classifications according to the flesh mean nothing to Him.
Here, then, is the Christian hope—"the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." This hope has sustained the church where nothing else could. It put a spring in the steps of Paul; it put a gleam in the eye of John, an exile on Patmos; it put fortitude in the Christian martyrs in the arenas of Rome; it put daring in the Waldenses and Albigenses; it put spirit in the pen of Luther. Today it gives us purpose and a goal, a reason for living. The King is coming!
All quoted texts are taken from the Revised Standard Version.