James W. Scott
One of the highlights of the Christmas season is the performance of Handel's majestic oratorio Messiah. It traces Christ's life and ministry, from his humble birth to his return in glory, using texts of Scripture. And as the year 2000 approaches, many Christians are wondering whether his return is near.
As our attention is drawn to the birth of Jesus, we may wish that we could have been there to see him in person. We know that he has gone away to heaven, and that he will return someday. But while we wait, we "desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man" (Luke 17:22). ("Son of Man" is a term that Jesus used to refer to himself.)
As we wait, we may wonder why he has not returned after so many centuries. Aren't there Bible passages in which Jesus promised to return quickly, during the apostolic generation? Let's see what the Bible does say about the coming of Christ.
The terms first coming and second coming do not occur anywhere in the Bible. However, the verb come and the noun coming are often used to refer to Christ's entrance upon the human stage some two thousand years ago and also to his future return to this earth.
The Bible speaks of Christ coming into the world (John 3:19; 6:14; 9:39; 11:27; 12:46; 16:28; 18:37; 1 Tim. 1:15), coming from God (John 3:2; 7:28; 8:14, 42; 13:3; 16:27, 28, 30; 17:8), coming from heaven (John 3:31), coming as the Son of God (1 John 5:20; cf. Phil. 2:6), yet coming in human flesh (1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 7; Phil. 2:7-8; cf. Gal. 3:19; Matt. 2:6). We also read of Christ "coming" in the sense of appearing on the public scene (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16; John 1:15, 27, 30; Acts 13:25; 19:4; cf. Matt. 11:3; Luke 7:19-20).
He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17), to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), to send fire on the earth (Luke 12:49), to bring division (Matt. 10:34-35), to call sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32; cf. Eph. 2:17), to seek and to save that which was lost (Matt. 18:11; Luke 19:10), to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15; cf. Luke 9:56), and to save the world (John 12:47).
Christ ascended to heaven, but will come back (John 14:3; 1 Thess. 2:19; 4:16; 5:23; 1 Cor. 11:26; cf. Luke 12:37-38), again sent by God (Acts 3:20-21). This time he will come visibly in a "cloud" (Acts 1:9-11), with his angels (2 Thess. 1:7; Matt. 16:27; 25:31; Mark 8:38), and with a shout, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:52). He will appear "a second time" (Heb. 9:28), this time gloriously (Titus 2:13; Matt. 16:27; 25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26).
Jesus will come with the deceased saints (1 Thess. 3:13; 4:14) for the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:15-16; 1 Cor. 15:22-23, 51-55), and gather with them the living saints (1 Thess. 4:15, 17; 2 Thess. 2:1; Luke 21:36; cf. 1 John 2:28). They will be rewarded at his coming (Matt. 24:45-47; 25:14-30; cf. 2 Tim. 4:8) and made immortal (1 Thess. 4:17; 5:10; 1 Cor. 15:22-23, 51-55), for his glory (2 Thess. 1:10).
He will also come for judgment (Matt. 16:27; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; 1 Cor. 4:5), gathering all men for judgment (Matt. 25:31-46; 13:37-43), putting all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:23-25), in flaming fire, taking vengeance on his enemies (2 Thess. 1:8; 2:8), meting out everlasting punishment (2 Thess. 1:9-10; Matt. 13:42; 24:48-51; 25:30), and even destroying death itself (1 Cor. 15:26, 54-55).
No one knows the day or the hour in which Christ will come (Matt. 24:36, 42; 25:13; Mark 13:32-33, 35). But when he does, he will come unexpectedly and suddenly (Matt. 24:37-41, 43-44; 25:1-13; Mark 13:34-37; Luke 21:34-36; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 16:15).
To this simple picture of Christ's two comings, other passages add complications. They seem to suggest that Jesus would be returning before the end of the apostolic agenot (as is now apparent) at least two thousand years later.
Jesus declared that the Son of Man would not be like an unjust judge, who is in no hurry to correct injustice. Rather, he would come and avenge his suffering people "speedily," though after they had endured for a while (Luke 18:7-8). In James 5:8 we read, "The coming of the Lord is at hand." The writer to the Hebrews told them to endure "a little while" until the Lord came (Heb. 10:36-37).
In his famous Olivet prophecy, Jesus foretold the utter destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in A.D. 70), and then added that "in those days" (Mark 13:24)indeed, "immediately after" that terrible time (Matt. 24:29)the powers of the heavens would be shaken, the Son of Man would come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, and his angels would gather all the elect together (Matt. 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27; Luke 21:25-27). "When these things begin to happen," he said, "look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near" (Luke 21:28).
"When you see these things happening," Jesus continued, "know that the kingdom of God is near" (Luke 21:31). He added: "This generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled" (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). By "this generation" Jesus meant the people then living (as in Matt. 12:41, 42; 23:36; Mark 8:12; Luke 7:31; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 17:25).
On another occasion, Jesus assured his disciples that "there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom" (Matt. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27). And when that generation had nearly died out, Jesus thrice declared from heaven, "I am coming quickly" (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20).
But did he come quickly, before that generation died out? How do we account for the fact that many centuries have passed, and Jesus still has not returned? Unbelievers simply shrug their shoulders and say that Jesus and the early church were wrong. What should we say?
A number of strained and artificial explanations have been put forward to deal with these troublesome passages, but the correct one, I believe, emerges when we take a close look at these words of Jesus, spoken to the Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish tribunal, in Jerusalem) on the eve of his crucifixion: "Hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 26:64). It has commonly been thought that this "sitting" began after he ascended to heaven, but that the "coming on the clouds of heaven" is yet to comeat the Second Coming.
According to the leading evangelical Bible translations, this "sitting" and "coming" would occur sometime in the future: "hereafter" (NKJV, NASB) or "in the future" (NIV). But these are mistranslations. The Greek expression is ap' arti, which combines words meaning "from" and "now"; together they mean "from now on." The phrase refers, not to some unspecified time in the future, but to the near future and beyond. For example, it occurs a few verses earlier: "I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day..." (Matt. 26:29). Similarly we read: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on" (Rev. 14:13).
So we see that Jesus' remarkable assertion was that from that time onward he would be sitting at the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of heaven! But did that happen? The translators of the New Revised Standard Version didn't think so (any more than our evangelical translators), but, not having a high view of Scripture, they had no problem with Jesus uttering mistaken prophecies: "From now on you will see..." The American Standard Version of 1901, a rigidly literal translation, also does not fudge: "Henceforth ye shall see..."
Now if anyone quibbles that Jesus was not immediately thereafter sitting in heaven, the answer is that the expression ap' arti often refers to the near future and onward, not necessarily the immediate future. For example, when Jesus said, "From now on you shall not see Me..." (Matt. 23:39 NASB), he did not immediately disappear from sight!
When Jesus was again brought before the Sanhedrin (the next morning), he repeated his statement: "But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God" (Luke 22:69 NASB). The NIV (like the NRSV, but not the NKJV) now also translates correctly: "But from now on..."apparently because no mention is made of coming on the clouds of heaven!
In Luke 22:69, an equivalent expression is used: ap' tou nun, "from the present time forward." This phrase is well attested in the New Testament, and its meaning is perfectly clear: see Luke 1:48; 5:10; 12:52; Acts 18:6; 2 Cor. 5:16. Its use in Luke 22:69 confirms our interpretation of the equivalent phrase in Matthew 26:64.
Look again at Matthew 26:64. In the sentence structure, the words "sitting" and "coming" are parallel with each other. These actions are most naturally understood as occurring concurrently. From that time on, Jesus said, he would be both sitting at God's right hand and coming on the clouds of heavenand the members of the Sanhedrin (mostly older men), who were presuming to judge him, would see it! So even if there were no time reference at all (as in Mark 14:62), we would have to conclude that Jesus would soon be coming on the clouds of heaven.
The phrase "from now on" in Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:69 tells us not only that these things would begin very soon, but also that they would continue indefinitely. Both Christ's "sitting" and his "coming" would be ongoing activities; neither would be a brief event.
The meaning of "sitting at the right hand of the Power" is clear enough. It is a picture, based on Psalm 110:1, of Christ enthroned in heaven, second in authority to the Father. Jesus began this "sitting" after his resurrection and exaltation (Acts 2:32-35; Eph. 1:20-21; Phil. 2:8-11; Heb. 1:3-4; 1 Pet. 3:21-22).
Of course, Jesus has not been literally sitting for two thousand years. The descriptions in this verse are representations of heavenly realities, using images from human experience (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-49). Thus, for example, Jesus did not cease to be seated at God's right hand (that is, holding his exalted position) when Stephen had a vision of him "standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55). He has remained figuratively "seated" while going about his work of bringing men to repentance (Acts 5:31) until the Day of Judgment (2 Pet. 3:7-10).
In what sense, then, has Jesus been "coming on the clouds of heaven," while enthroned in heaven? This image first appears in Daniel 7:13-14, which describes "One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven" (an escort) to "the Ancient of Days" to receive everlasting dominion over all people and nations (at his exaltation). Jesus then uses this imagery to portray the exercise of that dominion.
We have here, then, not a literal description of Jesus traveling in the earth's atmosphere, but a figurative description of him exercising his dominion over the world (cf. Isa. 19:1; Ps. 104:3). If the "sitting" means that Christ possesses ultimate power and authority, then the "coming" means that he exercises that heavenly power in a way that becomes evident all across the earth.
Down through the centuries, Christ has been exercising his power through the Holy Spirit, building his church. "I will come to you," Jesus promised his disciples (John 14:18), by sending the Spirit who would dwell in them (John 14:17). Christ would come in the Spirit's coming (John 14:23; 15:26; 16:7, 13).
As the church developed in Judaea and then spread across the Mediterranean world and beyond, accompanied by signs and wonders (Rom. 15:19; Heb. 2:4), it became increasingly (if painfully) evident to the members of the Sanhedrin that Jesus was indeed ruling in heaven and exercising his mighty power (cf. Acts 4:13-22, 33; 5:12-42). From Pentecost onward, those in Jerusalem saw that the Son of Man was sitting at the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of heaven (Acts 2).
Once we understand that "coming on the clouds of heaven" refers to Christ's exercise of lordship after his exaltation, we have a framework for understanding other puzzling references to the coming of Christ. The language of "coming" can apply to any manifestation of his power, in blessing or judgmentthe greatest of which will be at his personal return to earth.
Aided by our insights from Matthew 26:64, we can understand Jesus' Olivet prophecy. He first foretold a time of upheaval (war, famine, etc.) in which the saints would suffer tribulation at the hands of both Jews and pagans and yet would persevere (Matt. 24:4-14 [and 10:17-22]; Mark 13:5-13; Luke 21:8-19 [and 12:11-12]).
Some say that these verses describe the entire period down to Christ's return, but Jesus speaks of his apostles ("you") experiencing these things. The events described may extend down to "the end" (Matt. 24:6, 14; Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9), but that is not the same thing as "the end of the age" (Matt. 24:3)the consummation of history at Christ's return (see Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 28:20; cf. Heb. 9:26). When Jesus speaks of "the end," the Greek word for "end" is different than it is in the expression "the end of the age." In the context of the disciples' concern for the temple (Matt. 24:1-3; especially Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:5-7), the general term "the end" must refer to the time of the temple's destruction. All the nations of the "world" (in Greek, "the inhabited, civilized world," largely the Roman Empire) had already received the gospel prior to the fall of Jerusalem (Rom. 16:26; cf. Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:6, 23).
Then, still in the apostolic age ("you," again), Jerusalem would be destroyed by foreign armies (Matt. 24:15-25; Mark 13:14-23; Luke 21:20-24). Matthew adds that one should not look around for Christ at that time (dispelling the disciples' apparent opinion that he would then appear [Matt. 24:3]), for when he does come in person, he will be strikingly visible to all (Matt. 24:26-28; Luke 17:22-25, 37).
At this point, as Jesus moves on to describe his coming and the end of the age (see Matt. 24:3b), his language becomes figurative, full of "apocalyptic" imagery. It is the language of cosmic drama, focusing on the spiritual forces at work in the world (cf. Col. 2:15; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; and much of Revelation).
"Immediately after" the horrific destruction of the Jewish state, Jesus said, three things would happen. First, the sun and the moon would be darkened, the stars would fall from heaven, and "the powers of the heavens" would be shaken, producing fear and distress among men (Matt. 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25-26). A similar prophecy of celestial disruption in Joel 2:30-32 was fulfilled by the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21), which shows that this imagery should be interpreted figuratively (cf. Isa. 13:10-13; 34:4-5; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10; Amos 8:9). Upheaval on earth is triggered by upheaval among the controlling powers of heaven, symbolized by the celestial bodies. The "spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12) are sent reeling as Christ exercises his dominion (1 Pet. 3:22; Eph. 1:20-22).
Jesus was predicting a decisive advance of the kingdom of God (the church) following the destruction of the Jewish state. After that, Christianity emerged from the shadow of Judaism and flourished mightily, soon challenging the Roman state itself (thus triggering Roman persecution).
This remarkable advance of Christ's dominion in the lives of men was described by Jesus as "the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matt. 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27). This would be witnessed by "all the tribes of the earth," as the gospel continued to spread "in all the world" (Matt. 24:14; Mark 13:10). Ever since his exaltation, Christ had been coming on the clouds of heaven, but now he would be doing so "with power and great glory."
His "coming" will continue until the end of the age, when it will culminate in his personal return. At that time he "will come in the glory of His Father with His angels" (Matt. 16:27; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26), visibly in a "cloud" (Acts 1:9-11), to judge all men (Matt. 16:27).
Finally, Jesus said that he would send out his angels, who would gather his elect from all over the earth (Matt. 24:31; Mark 13:27). The work of gathering the elect out of the world (through conversion) accelerated after the fall of Jerusalem, and angels facilitated the work (Heb. 1:14). This gathering will culminate at Christ's return, when the elect on earth will be brought together with the elect in heaven (as Mark 13:27 probably indicates) (see 1 Thess. 4:14-17; 2 Thess. 2:1). This brings us to the end of the age.
Thus we see that "all these things" mentioned by Jesus did indeed occur during the apostolic generation (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32), which extended to the end of the centurythough some of them continued beyond that, and will continue until the end of the age. These things were an indication that "the kingdom of God is near" (Luke 21:31), for the kingdom of God advanced mightily in the final decades of the first century.
The "redemption" that was drawing near when "these things" began to happen (Luke 21:28) is best understood as relief from the Jewish persecution (emphasized in Luke 21:12-19) that preceded the Jewish War (Luke 21:20-24). The destruction of the Jewish state was a divine judgment on the Jews ("the days of vengeance") for rejecting Jesus and persecuting Christians (Matt. 10:17-23; 23:29-39; Luke 11:47-51; 13:34-35).
It was this avenging, I believe, to which Luke 18:8 refers: after some years of endurance, God "speedily" brought vengeance in the form of Roman legions (see Matt. 23:33-36; Luke 11:49-51). This coming in judgment is also in view in Matthew 10:23, since verses 17-22 have been moved there by Matthew from the Olivet prophecy (see Mark 13:9, 11-13; Luke 21:12-19) to provide amplification. Relief from pagan persecution (Luke 21:12b) would come for now on an individual basis, even in the form of martyrdom (compare verse 16 with verse 18).
Jesus told his disciples that "there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom" (Matt. 16:28)"till they see the kingdom of God present [that is, "having come"] in power" (Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27). The implication is that this "coming" would take place late in the lives of the last survivors of that generation. Therefore, I do not see here a reference to the general coming of the Son of Man that began at Christ's exaltation (as in Matthew 26:64), but rather to the special manifestation of his power after the fall of Jerusalem (as in Matthew 24:30). Only after Christianity had emerged from the shadows of Judaism and was ready to shake Rome to its very foundations, was it evident that the kingdom of God had come in power.
Since Christ has been "coming" ever since his exaltationexerting his influence in people's lives and even in the affairs of nationsthere is no reason to understand references to his coming quickly as references to his final coming at the end of the age. Thus, such passages as James 5:8, Hebrews 10:37-38, and Revelation 22:7, 12, 20 (quoted above) should be understood as teaching that Christ will bring relief in the lives of his afflicted and persevering people.
Some may be surprised that I understand Revelation 22:7, 12, 20 to have been quickly fulfilled in the churches of Asia Minor. But it should be clear from Revelation 2:5, 16, 25; 3:3, 11 that Christ was about to bring relief (or punishment, when appropriate) to them. Also, it should be noted that Revelation 1:7 repeats the themes of Matthew 24:30, which was fulfilled in the decades following the fall of Jerusalem. As the gospel advanced, "every eye" in its path did see Christ "coming with clouds."
As we look for the coming of Christ, we look especially for his final coming at the end of the age. He may still come within our lifetime, but in the meantime we can also look for manifestations of his power today, for his coming to help us now. That should give us hope as we face the trials of this life. The cry of God's people, "Come, Lord Jesus!" is a cry for his final coming in glory, but it should also be a cry for his cominghis powerful workingin our present lives and circumstances.
Dr. Scott is the managing editor of New Horizons. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 1999.