Martin Buber once objected to the Christian faith: "We still live in an unredeemed world!" When Christ exclaimed on His agonizing cross, ' 'It is finished!' ' He did not mean to suggest that Gods plan of salvation for man and the world was completed or \ ended, but that His earthly mission for which He was sent by the Father was fully accomplished (cf. John 4:34; 6:38; 17:4). Referring to the well-known prophecy regarding the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53, Christ had expressed the purpose of His mission in unmistakable terms: " Tor even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'" (Mark 10:45).* He understood His divine mission on earth wholly in the light of Isaiah 53 (see also Luke 22:37; Matt. 26:28). His foreordained mission was to present Himself to God as the substitutionary atoning sacrifice on behalf of Israel and the Gentiles. Christ knew, furthermore, that He would be greatly exalted after His humiliation (Isa. 52:13). His high calling was to be ordained as the new Melchizedek, a priest-king at the right hand of God (Ps. 110:1, 4; Acts 2:33-36). Prophecy had outlined the Messianic way—the way to the throne is through suffering (see also Psalm 22; Luke 24:25-27).
Then why has not mankind already been redeemed from sin and death, since Christ has been exalted as king of the world (Acts 2:33-36)? His present reign as a priest-king in God's heavenly sanctuary is distinct from His rule as a king-judge in the last judgment (Matt. 25:31-46). The purpose of His work of priestly intercession and reconciliation is not to end human history immediately by a day of reckoning, but rather to extend God's day of mercy in order to lead sinners to repentance and to a saving faith in Christ the Messiah (2 Peter 3:9). Christ had expressed this universal effectiveness of His cross and ascension by stating, " 'But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). The nature of Christ's present kingship, is beautifully presented to the Hebrew people in the apostolic appeal: "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Heb. 4:16). "Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them" (chap. 7:25).
Christ and the New Testament authors value individual redemption from sin and guilt by personal faith in their Saviour as having priority over collective redemption from sickness, persecution, and death. This is the supreme significance of Christ's first advent exemplified in lowliness and suffering unto death. However, Scripture knows of no either/or dilemma. The kingdom of God will be established by Christ in universal and cosmic glory. Paradise will be restored worldwide. The apostle Peter assures that "he must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets" (Acts 3:21; cf. 1 Cor. 15:25). This remarkable "must" regarding Jesus' heavenly ministry according to God's will is founded on Christ's own announcement, '"But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned'" (John 16:7-11).
Evidently, the nature of Christ's present priesthood is to conquer through God's Spirit all His enemies by opening their eyes to the work of Christ for them at the cross and by drawing their hearts to Christ's lordship and salvation. Paul summarized it pointedly, "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Cor. 15:25). For this purpose Jesus ascended to the Father's throne: to prepare a place in God's kingdom for all believers. But then His second advent to the world becomes the absolutely necessary finishing touch for His work of salvation. Jesus' promise is unassailable: " 'And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am'" (John 14:3).
Christ never suggested that His death or resurrection would usher in paradise or the immediate glorious redemption of this world. On the contrary, He emphatically warned His disciples of a time of trouble and savage persecution for themselves (John 16:2-4, 32, 33; Matt. 24:9-14). He even stated, "'Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword'" (Matt. 10:34; cf. Luke 12:51; Mark 13:12, 13). Strange words from the lips of One whose Messianic goal was to be the universal Prince of Peace!
"Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this" (Isa. 9:7).
Two conclusions can be derived from this consideration: (1) in God's plan of salvation the Messiah must ascend to heaven to draw all men to Himself and then return in glory to the world in order to bring universal peace and redemption; (2) the tension between Christ's first and second coming can be properly appreciated only from the perspective that redemption from the guilt and power of sin must precede redemption from the very presence of sin and death.
In the final analysis Christ's ultimate goal, for which He had to suffer so much, was to erect on earth the glorious kingdom of God: " 'Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth'" (Matt. 5:5). His first coming is the pledge and unshakable guarantee of His second coming.
Christ in you: the hope of glory
The apostles of Christ and the other New Testament writers considered the expectation of Christ's return in glorious splendor as the "blessed hope" of the church (Titus 2:13; Heb. 9:28). It was their conviction that all the apocalyptic prophecies of the Old Testament would be dramatically fulfilled then (2 Peter 3:13, referring to Isaiah 65:17). The apostolic church did not entertain this belief as an abstract teaching of orthodoxy, but rather preached the Advent hope as the major motivation for holy Christian living, for abiding in Christ, and for maintaining readiness for His second coming (1 John 2:28). "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (chap. 3:3). "So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him" (2 Peter 3:14). "Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).
No one has formulated the dynamic correlation of the Second Coming in glory and the spiritual presence of Christ in such a concise, intriguing way as Paul. He wrote to the church: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).
The apostle apparently detects an unbreakable connection between Christ living in the hearts of the believers and His bestowal of future glory on them, between their sanctification and their glorification. He seems to make "Christ in you"—the indwelling Christ of Romans 8:10 and Ephesians 3:17—the believer's deepest sense of assurance of his final salvation. Paul points out the same connection in a different way: "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you" (Rom. 8:11). "Christ in you"—this is not only the necessary fruit of God's justification by His grace (Gal. 2:20; 4:19) but also the indubitable certainty of the Christian's coming glorification (2 Tim. 4:7-9). Paul taught that the second advent of Christ and the believers' resurrection from the dead (or their translation into glory)-would take place virtually at the same time: "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 with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever" (1 Thess. 4:16, 17).
This-hope was to the apostle such an overwhelming reality that it inspired him to bear any burden or suffering, no matter how severe, for the sake of Christ. His bold testimony has stood as a beacon light for countless martyrs to come. "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18).
Purposes of the Second Coming
The unambiguous assurances of the New Testament that Christ will return in divine glory to our world have far-reaching implications for the Christian's total future expectations. Three main purposes of His second coming stand out: (1) to bring about the resurrection of the dead; (2) to judge the living and. the dead; (3) to take the faithful ones to His Father's house.
It is not enough to believe in the resurrection of the dead. The Christian believes that the promised resurrection (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2) will become a reality by the power of the voice of Christ (1 Thess. 4:16). Christ informed the grieving Martha, who believed in a resurrection " 'at the last day'" (John 11:24): " 'I am the resurrection and the life'" (verse 25). True, Christ brings spiritual resurrection or rebirth now in all who believe in Him (chap. 5:25), but He will not bring about their physical resurrection by His voice until the future: " 'Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned'" (verses 28, 29).
Christ alone holds the keys of death and the grave, because He is the resurrected one in whom is life original, unborrowed, underived (Rev. 1:18; John 14:6). The fact that God characterized Himself as "' "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob'"" (Ex. 3:16) does not suggest that these patriarchs possessed immortal souls, but implies the promise that they will be resurrected from the dead in order to live eternally. Christ said, " They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection'" (Luke 20:36, cf. verses 37, 38).
The Second Advent is also the day of judgment for the world. Both the living righteous and the living wicked will then receive their respective rewards. No soul is judged or rewarded at the moment of death, for the Second Advent does not occur for each individual at death. God '' 'has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead'" (Acts 17:31, R.S.V.; cf. chap. 10:42).t Christ Himself repeatedly announced that He, as the apocalyptic Son of man of Daniel 7:13, 14, was the appointed judge of Israel and the Gentiles in the last judgment (Matt. 7:21-23; 16:27; 25:31-46; 26:63, 64; John 5:22). No one can escape this final confrontation with Christ, because "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" (2 Cor. 5:10), "who will judge the living and the dead" (2 Tim. 4:1). This judgment will reveal who is a true follower of Christ. Man's deeds will be regarded as the evidence of what each person really is in relation to Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). Even man's secret thoughts will be judged "on that day" (Rom. 2:16, R.S.V.). God will hold each one responsible for his or her basic character (chap. 14:12; Gal. 6:7, 8).
Christ's second coming, therefore, means the great divide, or final separation, of God's true children from the wicked, the hypocrites, and the self-complacent ones. Jesus said that when He comes with great power and glory, " 'he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens'" (Mark 13:27; cf. Matt. 25:31-46). This separation will affect even family and marriage bonds (Luke 17:32-36). While the true believers are ushered into Christ's presence, the impenitent ones, those who have persistently resisted and rejected the incessant drawings of God's love, will receive the outcome of their own choices (Rom. 2:5-8). Paul spells it out more fully: "This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power" (2 Thess. 1:7-10).
And finally, Jesus will come again to take His people to His Father's house (John 14:3). Christ called the end of the world a "harvest" time (Matt. 13:39; cf. Rev. 14:14-20). Paul assures us that at Christ's coming the believers will all be united and "caught up ... in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17, R.S.V.;cf. verse 15).
It takes the angels of God to bring all the saints who ever lived together into Christ's glorious presence (Matt. 24:31). Only then will Christ's high priestly ministry be fulfilled: " 'Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory'" (John 17:24).
* Unless otherwise indicated, Bible texts in this
article are from The Holy Bible: New International
Version. Copyright © 1978 by the New York
International Bible Society. Used by permission of
Zondervan Bible Publishers.
+ Scripture quotations marked R.S.V. are from
the Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.