Comfort one another with these words," wrote the apostle Paul in what is perhaps the first of the New Testament writings (1 Thess. 4:18*).
Why comfort? What words?
The church at Thessalonica faced some serious theological and emotional problems. When the gospel reached them through the work of Paul, they "received the word... with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:6). Their faith was known everywhere (1 Thess. 1:8), even as they "turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven" (1 Thess. 1:9, 10).
But time has a way of testing the best of saints, and the believers at Thessalonica were no exception. Theo logical affirmation and emotional reality seemed to have come to odds with one another, rocking the faith of the believers of that infant church. Once they had been convinced of the certainty of Jesus' coming again, but now they were plagued with the reality of what was happening around them. Saints waiting for the "Son from heaven" were dying one by one with out seeing the fulfillment of that ultimate hope, and the emotions of the believers were torn. Death has a way of raising the most disquieting questions, and for the Thessalonian congregation the question had become pressing, What about the second coming of Jesus? Is it in fact real?
The apostle faces the issues head on. First, he takes up the emotional dilemma. In the trauma of death Christians must not "grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13), he says. A Plato may see in death a release from the pain and corruption of life and a doorway to a new life.1 A Seneca may issue a call to self-discipline in the face of death, in as much as "the decisive hour [of death] is the body's last, but not the soul's."2 A Hindu may see in the endless possibility of reincarnation a comfort to the grieving.3 But not Paul. To him, grief must be placed within the perspective of Christian hope and that hope is anchored in the certainty that the "dead in Christ will rise first" (1 Thess. 4:16). There indeed lies the Christian comfort.
But when will the dead in Christ rise? Paul's answer is clear: "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel'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 we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:16,17, emphasis mine).
To meet the Lord in the air. That is our appointment. The second coming of Jesus is God's climactic appointment with the saints of all ages the dead and the living. From Eden, saints of all ages have looked forward to this appointment. The Greek for "meet," apanteesin, is packed with power and significance; it connotes the return of a conquering hero. The Hero of all ages, the King of kings, the Sovereign of the universe is returning, and His subjects will meet Him in the air. Jesus is not the Ruler of any one kingdom or one part of the earth. He is the Sovereign of the cos mos, the Lord of heaven and earth, arriving to take His own that His own maybe with Him forever beyond the reach of sin, beyond the pain of death, beyond the presence of sin.
That appointment in the air is the "blessed hope." History is marching to ward that cosmic event "the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13). When that appointment becomes a reality, the words of our Lord proclaimed hours be fore the Cross will be fulfilled:" 'Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you? I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am there you may be also'" (John 14:1 -3, emphasis mine).
When it comes to the certainty of this appointment, the Scriptures leave us with no doubt. From the moment Adam and Eve crossed the forbidden frontiers, from generation to generation since then, God's people have looked to the skies for the descending of the Savior and for the ultimate fulfillment of their hope.This expectation is not "a mere hypothesis, a postulate, or the projection of human guesswork. It is and remains a response based on the Word and the sure promises of God. 'According to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells' (2 Peter 3:13)."4 To a study of this promise we turn its grounding in the biblical witness, its relationship to the kingdom, and its implications for the Christian life.
The Second Coming and the biblical witness
Enoch, eighth from Adam, spoke of that appointment and saw the Second Coming as a carrying out of God's judgment and a vindication of His character (Jude 14-15). Job saw in it the ultimate redemption:" 'I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth'" (Job 19:25). Isaiah predicted a day of victory for God's people when "He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth" (Isa. 25:8). On that day, the redeemed will shout for joy:" 'Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation' " (Isa.25:9).
Micah saw the establishment of God's holy mountain forever (Micah 4:1 - 5). Zechariah viewed the Second Coming from the perspective of God's sovereignty (Zech. 14:9). Joel spoke of a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit enabling a universal witness by the young and old in preparation for the coming of the Lord (Joel 2:28-31). Zephaniah focused on the coming of the Day of the Lord which will bring about judgment upon evil and the final redemption and restoration of God's remnant to dwell in safety (Zeph. 2; 3:9-20). Daniel saw in Nebuchadnezzar's multimetal image the march of this world's history toward its culmination in the second coming of Christ the rock that crushes all human systems, opening up the way to the establishment of God's eternal kingdom (Dan. 2:34,35,44,45). Almost all the Old Testament books speak of this final culmination of history in the establishment of the eschatological kingdom of God and the cosmic triumph of righteousness in the great controversy between God and Satan.
To the disciples, the return of Jesus was no cunningly devised fable (2 Peter 1:16). It was based on irrefutable evidence. The disciples were eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus. They saw Him on the Mount of Transfiguration. They saw Him walk the Sea of Galilee. They saw Him raise Lazarus. They saw Him feed the five thousand. They saw Him command the powers of nature. Just as these events were real, so was His promise, " T will come again' " (John 14:3), and His ability to keep that promise.
Jesus prophesied many events while on earth. He said He would be betrayed by one of His disciples (Matt. 26:21) and denied by another (verse 34). He predicted a scattering of His followers (John 16:32). He expected to be raised from death on the third day (2:19-22). He predicted the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the powerful witness of the early church (16:7-15). He revealed Heaven's plan for the building of the ekkelesia (Matt. 16:18). He prophesied the destruction of the temple and the desolation of Jerusalem (Mark 13:2; Luke 19:41-44). He also said that He would come again.
To the disciples, only one of these prophecies remained unfulfilled the return of Jesus. Everything else happened as He had predicted. They were eyewitnesses not only of the life of Jesus but also of the fulfillment of His prophecies. What's more, even as the disciples stood with disappointment at the sight of their resurrected Lord ascend up into heaven, having accomplished the redemptive mission of the Father on the Cross, they received God's direct assurance through angels who said: " 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven'" (Acts 1:11).
This same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem when Caesar ruled the Roman Empire (Luke 2:1). This same Jesus who said He had come to do His Father's business (verse 49). This same Jesus who came into Galilee, preaching the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14). This same Jesus who during the governorship of Pilate was crucified outside of Jerusalem and rose again the third day. This same Jesus whose mission represents God's invasion of history in time and space (Gal, 4:4) in order to atone for sin and open a way for sinners to be redeemed back to God. This same Jesus who is real, personal, and no myth. This Jesus who once walked this earth will return again in the same way as He went up visibly, audibly, personally, verifiably, and purposefully.
Is it any wonder, then, that the disciples had no doubt at all that Jesus would return? Is it any wonder at all that the last promise of the risen Jesus is, " 'Surely, I am coming soon' " (Rev. 22:20)? Is it any simple matter that the Bible offers to every Christian the climactic prayer, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (verse 20)?
Thus from its very inception, the Christian church looked to the second coming of Christ as the event that would complete Christian redemption (Heb. 9:27,28), test Christian patience (James 5:7,8), ensure judgment (2 Tim. 4:1), encourage Christlikeness in the believer (1 John 2:28; 3:2), usher in resurrection and translation (1 Thess. 4:16, 17), guarantee a reunion with the saints of all time (see 1 Cor. 15:51-58), con firm the reward of the community of faith (1 Thess. 4:16, 17), lead to a cos mic conflagration and a forging out from the wreckage of time an eternity of triumphant joy (2 Peter 3:10-13; cf. Isa. 65:17,18), inaugurate the millennial reign in heaven (Rev. 20:1-6), and usher in the kingdom of God (11:15; 12:10).
This joyous event underlying Christian hope, faith, and destiny is not a "pie in the sky by and by" as Karl Marx once ridiculed Christian claims for the future. Nor is the Second Coming an optimistic view of history that affirms the spiritual presence of Christ in the church and ensures a gradual realization of the kingdom of God, as liberal theology would assert. The biblical witness denies any suggestion rejecting the visible return of Christ or any argument equating the Second Coming to a gradual betterment of society. The biblical teaching on eschatology requiring a personal return of Christ is not a myth requiring demythologizing, or the need of adopting an attitude which says let's "take the Bible seriously, but not literally." 5 No, in the face of overwhelming scriptural evidence for a literal, physical, and verifiable return of Christ, how could we take the Bible seriously with out taking its greatest anticipation literally? As Denney so clearly argues: We cannot "call in question what stands so plainly in the pages of the New Testament what filled so exclusively the minds of the first Christians the idea of a Personal Return of Christ at the end of the world ... if we are to retain any relation to the New Testament at all, we must assert the personal return of Christ as Judge of all."6
But what did Jesus Himself teach regarding His second coming?
The crucial link between the first and second coming
Christ's promise " 'I will come again'" (John 14:3) resolutely affirms a second coming as distinct from a first coming. Hebrews underscores this distinction clearly: "Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb. 9:28). He who will come the second time is the One who has already come. The mission of the first coming was accomplished at the Cross, whereby His death Jesus bore the sins of the world and where God has reconciled the world unto Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). The mission of the Second Coming is not to atone for sin, but to gather into His eternal kingdom those who "are eagerly waiting for him."
The Olivet discourse of our Lord (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) specifically speaks of the Second Coming in terms of a universal gathering of His disciples " 'from the ends of the earth' " (Mark 13:27) into the kingdom of God. It is the harvest time (Mark 4:29; Rev. 14:15). His coming will be preceded by various signs including the worldwide proclamation of the gospel (Matt. 24:14). Just prior to His coming will be a great tribulation (Matt. 24:15, 16) and conditions of spiritual apathy and deterioration (Matt. 25:37- 39; Luke 17:28-30). These and other signs are given not to work out a chronological time line as to when Jesus will come, but to keep God's people in a state of preparedness. The time of His coming is known only by the Father, not by anyone else not even the Son (Mark 13:32, 33, 35). Watchfulness and readiness are the Christian's perpetual response to the promise of the Parousia.
The fact of His coming is certain--literal, glorious, sudden, and universally visible (Matt. 24:27-31; Acts 1:11; Rev. 1:7). The time of His coming is not known and is hidden in the mind of God (Matt. 24:36,42). The hiddenness of the time does not nullify the oughtness of His coming; nor should it encourage time setting on one pretext or the other. It only challenges the Christian to be a watchful citizen of the kingdom of grace now, and a hopeful citizen of the kingdom of glory to come.
An understanding of the kingdom of God makes this distinction and the closeness between the first and the second comings of Jesus even more clear. Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) and announced that the " 'kingdom of God is in the midst of you' " (Luke 17:21). He also taught His disciples to pray, " 'Thy kingdom come' " (Matt. 6:10). Throughout the Gospels, we note Jesus' teaching that the kingdom of God is already here (Luke 7:21; cf. Matt. 12:28; 11:12, 13; 4:23; 9:35; 13:11) and not yet here (Matt6:10; 8:11; 19:28; 24; Mark 13, Luke 24) a present reality and a future prospect, an experience as well as a hope. Some have found these sayings regarding the nature of God's kingdom confusing, but "Jesus' message is that in his own per son and mission God has invaded human history and has triumphed over evil, even though the final deliverance will occur only at the end of the age." 7
The "already" settles the finality of the kingdom. Christ has ushered it into history: "The kingdom of God's grace is now being established, as day by day hearts that have been full of sin and rebellion yield to the sovereignty of His love."8 The "not yet" assures the physical end of evil and the establishment of the new earth: "The full establishment of the kingdom of His glory will not take place until the second coming of Christ to this world."9 The one assures the other; and both balance one an other.
Peter was sure of the eschatological, "eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:11) because he was sure of the saving work of Christ. "By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time"(l Peter 1:3-5).
To illustrate the linkage between the first and second comings of Christ, consider a World War II analogy. In March 1945, the allied landings in Normandy effectually sealed the fate of that war. The victory on the beaches on "D-Day" sent signals around the world that the allied forces would be victorious. But not until several months later would V-Day come, bringing about the end of the war. D-Day may be compared to Calvary and V-Day to the Second Coming.10 The analogy is not perfect but illustrates the point. The Cross assures the decisiveness of the victory over the evil one. It was through the Cross and the Resurrection that the decisive battle was won. "This then means that the hope for the future can now be sup ported by faith in the past, faith in the already concluded decisive battle. That which has already happened offers the solid guarantee for that which will take place. The hope of the final victory is so much the more vivid because of the unshakably firm conviction that the battle that decides the victory has already taken place.'"11 The war may go on, the groaning for deliverance (Rom. 8:21) may still be heard, and hope must yet await its fulfillment "in the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13), but there can be no doubt that the end of the war, the ultimate deliverance, and the joyous fulfillment of hope have been assured in the decisive victory of the Cross.
It is our privilege to possess a confident anticipation of our appointment with God when Jesus comes of us achieving the final completion of the journey to the kingdom that began when we accepted the good news of the Cross. It is the Man of the Cross who is returning as the Lord of glory. The same Jesus who defeated sin and Satan on Calvary is soon to descend in the clouds of heaven to crush sin, death, and Satan from the face of the universe.
In the light of our appointment it is crucial to follow the call of Paul to "throw off the deeds of darkness and put on our armor as soldiers of the light. Let us be have with decency as befits the day" (Rom. 13:12,13, NEB). We may live in the midst of darkness, but through the eyes of faith we must ever be able to keep the approaching dawn in view and live so that we will not be taken by surprise.
The Second Coming must keep us awake and sober (1 Thess. 5:6), and must force us to self-examination, that we may discover "what sort of persons [we] ought... to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God" (2 Peter 3:11,12).
That is what matters in the end. Even as we hope and wait, we live responsibly and lovingly, readily reflecting the character and mission of the coming Lord.
The appointment in the air is not far away.
*All Scripture passages in this article, except as otherwise noted, are from the Revised Standard Version.
1. Jacques Choron, Death and Western Thought (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 47- 52.
2. Ibid., 70.
3. The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita (New York: The New American Library, 1964), 36-38.
4. G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), 10.
5. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Scribner, 1943), 2:50.
6. James Denney, Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976; reprinted from 1895 edition by Hodder and Stoughton, London), 239.
7. George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1974), 67-68.
8.. Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), 108.
10. See Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time, rev. ed. (London: SCM Press, 1962), 84.
11. Ibid., 86, 87.