The second coming of Christ

A review of the crucial twenty-fourth article of Seventh-day Adventist faith.

Ranko Stefanovic, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament studies, Department of Religion, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #24: "The second coming of Christ is the blessed hope of the church, the grand climax of the gospel. The Savior's coming will be literal, personal, visible, and worldwide. When He returns, the righteous dead will be resurrected, and together with the righteous living will be glorified and taken to heaven, but the unrighteous will die. The almost complete fulfillment of most lines of prophecy, together with the present condition of the world, indicates that Christ's coming is imminent. The time of that event has not been revealed, and we are therefore exhorted to be ready at all times."

The ultimate realization of God's plan for this earth climaxes with the second coming of Christ. The literal and personal coming of Christ is the point toward which world history moves. The Second Coming is God's ultimate solution to evil and injustice; it will also mark the beginning of God's eternal kingdom.

On what basis, however, can twenty-first-century Christians still hold to the relevance and certainty of "the blessed hope" (Titus 2:13) when the promise of His soon return was first made some two thousand years ago?

The certainty of the Second Coming

A promise is as certain as the person giving it. It is as certain as their integrity and their ability to do what they say.

The promise "I will come again" in the Bible is given by God, who, in the past, kept all His promises, the greatest of which was to assure humanity that Christ would come the first time. "When the fullness of time had come," He faithfully fulfilled His promise: The pre-existent Christ emptied Himself of His divine prerogatives and took human form. He then came down to earth as a helpless child to provide salvation for fallen human beings. After His death and resurrection, He went to heaven, leaving a clear, firm promise that He will come again, this time "not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him" (Heb. 9:28, NIV).

The certainty of the second coming of Christ is ultimately rooted in His first coming. Christians have the firm assurance that Christ's promise to return will come true as completely as the promise of His first coming was fulfilled.

The long-awaited wedding

In the New Testament, the long awaited union that is to take place between Christ and His people at the Second Coming is portrayed in terms of the ancient Hebrew wedding practice. This concept is best reflected in Jesus' promise to His disciples: "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 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. You know the way to the place where I am going" (John 14:2-4, NIV).

"I am going there to prepare a place for you" must be understood in the context of ancient Hebrew weddings, which were preceded by a betrothal that took place at the bride's father's house. After the groom had paid the dowry, the two were considered hus band and wife, though the groom then returned to his father's house to prepare the place where he and his bride would live. During that time, the bride stayed at her father's home preparing for the wedding. When both the place and the bride were ready, the bridegroom would return to take his bride to his father's house for the ceremony (cf. Matt. 25:1-10).

Two thousand years ago, Christ left His Father's house in heaven and came to earth to betroth His bride—the church—to Himself. At Calvary He paid the dowry for His bride. Then He returned to His Father's house to prepare a place for her (cf. John 14:1-4). In the meantime, His bride remains on earth.

While waiting, the church longs for His return and prepares herself for Him, keeping herself "in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless" (Eph. 5:27, NASB). When the dwelling place becomes ready and the bride has done her part in preparing herself, the wedding—the Second Coming—will take place (see Rev. 19:7, 8).

Manner of Christ's coming

The second coming of Christ will be literal, personal, and visible. The Bible assures us of the real coming of the actual person of Christ. Jesus stated clearly that His return will be visible to physical eyes and audible to physical ears (Matt. 24:30; Mark 13:26). He further compared it to the visibility of lightning (Matt. 24:27). When, after His resurrection, He ascended in a cloud, two angels assured the disciples that His return will be as literal as His departure: "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11, NIV). "Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him" (Rev, 1:7, NIV).

The Bible evidence excludes the notion that the coming of Christ will be a secret or invisible event to be experienced by some special group of the faithful.

The Second Coming will be an event impossible to simulate. First, Christ will return in the full glory of the Father accompanied by innumerable heavenly hosts (Matt. 16:27). His coming will bring the ultimate gathering of all God's people by two miraculous events: First, the dead in Christ will be resurrected and clothed in immortality (1 Thess. 4:16), and, then, the living saints will be transformed from mortality to immortality (1 Cor. 15:51,52).

Both the resurrected saints and the transformed living saints will be taken together up into the sky to meet Christ—like the Hebrew bride going out to meet her husband at the time of their wedding.

While the Second Coming will bring salvation to the faithful, it will bring devastating terror and destruction to those who have rejected God's salvation. They will be destroyed by the glory of Christ's coming (2 Thess. 2:8).

Those apart from Christ will not be granted a second chance. By then the eternal destiny of every person will have been determined at the conclusion of the pre-Advent judgment that will mark the close of probation and an end to the opportunity for repentance.

The timing of the Second Coming

Jesus stressed that the exact time of His return is known only to God (Matt. 24:36). Before His ascension, the disciples asked about the time when His kingdom would come. Jesus made it very clear that they were not "to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority" (Acts 1:6, 7, NASB). They were rather given, as Jesus further explained, the task of faithfully doing the work they had been given to do (verse 8) until His arrival.

Christ's words to the disciples denote a timeless message for the church: While waiting, Christians should not be occupied with speculations about the time of Christ's return. Any time-setting for the Second Coming or drafting of detailed prophetic charts with dates and sequential final events that purport to calculate the time when Jesus will come, are clearly contrary to Cod's will. If God had wanted us to know the exact time of Christ's return, He would have revealed it in His Word.

On the other hand, although the exact time of the Second Coming is not revealed to us, there will be indications that it is near. These indications are referred to as "the signs of the times."1 Jesus described them in terms of insurrections, civil/political and economic strife, treason, prejudice, disease, disastrous events in the natural world, spiritual decline and increase of wickedness, apostasy, psychological distress, absence of love, persecution, and the preaching of the gospel (Matt. 24:4-14).

One might observe, however, that all these signs already took place during the lifetime of the disciples (in the first century) as well as in different periods of history. How then should Christians understand the meaning of these signs?

A closer look at Matthew 24 indicates that it was not Jesus' intention for these events to be understood as the signs of the end of the age, and thus to be taken as the basis for calculating the date of His return. The purpose of the signs is not to tell us when the end will come (cf. Matt. 24:6-8), but what would happen with increasing intensity as His people await His return.2

Jesus portrayed these events as constant reminders to every generation of Christians of Jesus' promised return. "Whenever one of them takes place, His people make the connection with the Second Coming. Second, each event identified as a sign by the community of believers keeps alive the element of expectation and hope. They know that the Lord has not forgotten them and that history is moving toward God's appointed goal."3

Three points become clear regarding the significance of the signs of the Second Coming. First, as we've established, the purpose of the signs of the times in Matthew 24:4-14 is not to pin point the time of the Second Coming.

Second, although these events— pointed to by Jesus as the signs of His coming—have taken place in different epochs in history, they will progressively intensify as the time of Christ's return approaches. The intensification of these events in the natural and social/political world, together with the deterioration of moral and religious conditions, will, before Christ's coming, reach a point unprecedented in this earth's history.

There is no doubt that the world today is experiencing events unprecedented in this earth's history. There are, for instance, natural calamities, such as earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes; there is atmospheric pollution as a potential destroyer of all human population; "wars and rumors of wars" referred to in terms of the weapons of massive or total destruction, joined by the most recent international terrorism; famines and epidemics (including the threats of AIDS and cancer) need no further comment. These and other events, together with moral and religious decay, make Christians today realize that they live closer to the day of Christ's return than any previous generation.

The third point regarding the significance of the signs of the Second Coming is that there will be specific signs/events to take place prior to the coming of Christ. In particular, Revelation 13-18, together with some other New Testament prophetic evidence, points to end-time religious and political movements.

Their obvious characteristic is the union of religious and secular/political powers characterized by religious oppression and intolerance. These events—together with decayed world conditions and the worldwide proclamation of the gospel—will be the clear indication of the imminence of Christ's coming.

We must remember, however, that prophecy is not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future. Prophecy tells us what will happen prior to the coming of Christ to move us to readiness. "I have told you now before it happens," Jesus said to His disciples "so that when the time comes, remember that I warned you" (John 14:29; 16:4, NIV).

Exactly when and how end-time events will take place, will be clear at the time they are being fulfilled. Their complete fulfillment will be the clear indication to God's people that Christ is "at the door" (Matt. 24:33, NIV). The fulfillment of end-time prophecies is not to be a subject of speculation and sensationalism, but rather for strengthening faith in the prophetic word.

Imminence of the Second Coming

The imminence of Christ's coming is, in the Bible, consistently expressed with "I am coming" (rather than "I will come"). The future present tense denotes the future event as a present reality. This form of expression stresses the certainty as well as the imminence of the Second Coming.4

When a respected person says, "I will come to visit you," such a saying expresses a promise eventually to become reality (and Jesus does use this mode of expression in John 14:3). However, when he says, "I am coming," one is moved to make more immediate preparations for his arrival.

But how may we understand the question of the imminence of Christ's coming when almost two thousand years have elapsed since the promise was given?

It must be, first of all, understood from God's perspective: With Him a thousand years is like one day (2 Peter 3:8). The goal that He has set to return defines its imminence.

Here the aforementioned metaphor of the wedding is again illustrative: With Christ's first coming—when He "betrothed" His bride, the church, and "paid the dowry" on the cross—this earth entered into the period of prepa ration for His return. This is why from His perspective His coming is "soon." (Rev. 22:12).

Furthermore, the imminence of His return has a special application with regard to His people. With His first coming and His death on the cross, the earth has entered into the last period of its history. For two thousand years the signs have kept fresh in the mind of His people the certainty of His return. The time and opportunity to be ready for His coming is always now, rather than in the future.

Christians are urged to realize the imminence of Christ's return in their own time. The Second Coming was "soon" for Jesus' disciples and the early church; and since then it has been potentially near for every generation.

Further, in His parable of the ten waiting bridesmaids in Matthew 25, Jesus strongly implied that there would be a period of waiting, a time during which the bridegroom would "tarry" or be long in coming (verse 5). He could see that this period of tarrying would seem so long for those who were waiting that many would find it difficult to be fully ready when He actually appeared.

Readiness for Christ's coming

After describing the events that would happen as His people wait for His return (Matt. 24:1-35) and stating that nobody knows the exact time of it (verse 36), Jesus exhorted His disciples to live a life of constant expectancy and readiness (Matt. 24:36-25:13).

Just as before the Flood and at the time of Lot, when people were pursuing their daily life routines, so it will be prior to the coming of Christ (Matt. 24:37- 41). Everything will look as usual. Three times Jesus gives the warning to be on guard and to be ready, "because you do not know on what day the Lord will come" (Matt. 24:42, 44, 1 3; Mark 13:33). The New Testament is replete with texts emphasizing the suddenness of Christ's coming (cf. 1 Thess. 5:1 -3; 2 Peter 3:10; Rev. 16:15).

Christians waiting for Christ face two dangers. The first is to focus strictly on the future and lose the reality of the present life; the second is to live a life of apathy or indifference regarding the Second Coming. These are illustrated by Jesus in the parables of the two servants and again in the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 24:45-25:13).

In the first, the wise servant lives with the assumption that the master might come at any time, while the evil servant lives under the assumption that the master will come sometime in the distant future. In the second parable, the wise bridesmaids made provision for the possibility of a long waiting period, while the foolish virgins simply assumed that the coming would be as timely as their calculations and expectations indicated and, therefore, did not ready themselves for any sort of "delay."

A Christian's life stretches between two realities. The first one is that Jesus is coming soon; the second is that we are still here. It is important to find the balance between living with our daily routine and living with the expectation that Christ could come any day. The blessed hope will prompt in us an earnest longing for the wedding day to come sooner, and to get ready to meet Christ.

In concluding His eschatological talk on the Mount of Olives, Jesus explained that our longing for His return will prompt us to live a life of active—not passive—waiting by faithfully fulfilling our present responsibilities in the world in preparation for His return (Matt. 25:14-36). Ellen White stresses, "Belief in the near coming of the Son of man in the clouds of heaven will not cause the true Christian to become neglectful and careless of the ordinary business of life. The waiting ones who look for the soon appearing of Christ will not be idle, but diligent in business.... Those who flatter themselves that careless inattention to the things of this life is an evidence of their spirituality and of their separation from the world are under a great deception. Their veracity, faithfulness, and integrity are tested and proved in temporal things. If they are faithful in that which is least, they will be faithful in much."5

The wedding day is approaching, and as in the case of any wedding, preparations must be made. While heaven is in the process of preparation, the church is preparing herself for that long anticipated day when Christ will come "to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed" (2 Thess. 1:10, NASB). Then united together, Christ and His bride will make their way to the place prepared in heaven. Until then, the church is the place where Christians should be and patiently wait.

1 Richard Rice, Reign of God (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1997), 359.

2 John Brunt, Good News for Troubled Times (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1993), 65.

3 Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide (May 11-17, 2002), 62.

4 See Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation offesus Christ (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2002), 67.

5 Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1885), 4:309.

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Ranko Stefanovic, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament studies, Department of Religion, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

December 2004

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