David W. Hegg
The Return of Jesus Christ
Introduction: With this topic we delve into the murky, controversial waters of Eschatology. Throughout the history of the church various topics of theological inquiry have captured the attention of church leaders. The early church was preoccupied with issues relating to the person and work of Christ, the extent to which Adam’s sin had permeated the human condition, and church governance. The return of Christ and the relationship of the events preceding and surrounding it, as well as their relationship to biblical promises concerning Israel and the church, did not captivate the church broadly until the end of the 19th century. And, while the academic world was involved in the discussions at that time, for most American evangelicals, eschatological issues did not become popular items for discussion until World War II. In the 1950’s “prophecy conferences” became popular as Dispensational theology, with its emphasis on a pre-tribulational rapture, took the American heartland by storm. It is no exaggeration to say that most of us today grew up with this theological viewpoint being the “wallpaper” of our church experience.
In this lecture we will begin by introducing the concept of eschatological thinking, consider its historical development briefly, and then center in on the biblical material, terms, and theories that speak to the return of Jesus Christ.
1. Understanding Eschatology
Exchatology comes from the Greek word eschatos (escatoß) which means “last.” In the study of academic theology the last section of titled Eschatology deals with those events that are yet to come. But to associate this concept with events that are only future is quite mis-leading as we will see.
A) All history is eschatological
By this is meant that, from the beginning of creation, history has been moving forward to a set and purposeful conclusion. Unlike philosophical systems that teach history as cyclical, biblical theology recognizes that time had a starting point in God’s declarative, creative word (Genesis 1:1), and is being sovereignly superintended by God so that all human history will culminate according to his plan. Thus, at every point along the timeline of history there is understood to be an eschatological emphasis. We are ever moving forward to God’s appointed conclusion.
We might consider this visually in this way, with time as we understand it, enveloped in eternity. While God is eternal, without beginning and end, the same is not true for what we know as time. Our time, and the entire history of time and creation, lies within eternity.
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B) The “last days” began with the coming of Jesus Christ.
When we look closely at the New Testament material we find a very interesting and potentially confusing situation.
For OT saints, the following concepts were all eschatological. That is, they were connected with the “last days”, at which time history would be culminated:
• coming of Messiah
• judgment of sin
• God dwelling with man
But, in with the coming of Jesus as the Christ, all of these were – in some way! – accomplished, and yet still future! Notice the following verses that speak of “the last days” as already being experienced during the first century:
Heb. 1.2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
1Pet. 1.20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you
1John 2.18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.
We understand that with the coming of Jesus:
• Messiah did come
• Sin was judged (on the cross)
• God now dwells with each believer through the indwelling Holy Spirit
• Resurrection has happened (Jesus’ resurrection as the “first fruits” of our resurrection.
In a very real way, the future invaded the presence in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The theological term for this is “already-not yet.”
C) Already-Not Yet:
This is an important theological concept. As we think at the “last days” and the events and accomplishments that are considered future, we must also understand that, in some sense, many of them already entered our sphere of existence in the person and work of Christ.
For example, Christ brought the Kingdom of God to earth (see Matthew 12:28), and yet we continue to pray for the coming of the Kingdom (Matthew 6:10):
Matt. 12.28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Matt. 6.10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Matt. 26.29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
This is the concept Jesus himself taught in many of the parables concerning the Kingdom, especially those concerning the mustard seed and the leaven:
Matt. 13.31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Matt. 13.33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
As we think about all history being eschatological, it is correct to understand that the “last days” began with the coming of Jesus. The future has invaded the presence in his incarnational mission. The Kingdom of God has come, but awaits a future consummation when Jesus will return again to make all things new.
D) Eschatology in the history of the church:
• As mentioned above, the historic creeds and confessions of the church had little to say about the eschatological issues that occupy so much of our attention today. For example:
Westminster Confession, chapter VIII
IV. This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake which that He might discharge, He was made under the law and did perfectly fulfill it; endured most grievous torments immediately in His soul, and most painful sufferings in His body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. On the third day He arose from the dead, with the same body in which He suffered, with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sits at the right hand of His Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world.
• They were much more concerned with other issues pertaining to the “last days”:
Chapter XXXIII: Of the Last Judgment
I. God has appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.
II. The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power.
III. As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin; and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity: so will He have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly, Amen.
Summary: Until the late 19th century the study of Eschatology focused on issues of resurrection, judgment, heaven and hell. Today, for the average Christ-follower, the word stands for the various views concerning the timing and accompanying events surrounding the return of Christ, along with its relationship to the nation of Israel.
2. The Return of Christ
A) Biblical Material
A simple survey of the New Testament writings shows a consistent theme regarding the promised return of Jesus Christ:
Matt. 24.44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
John 14.3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
Acts 1.11 and 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.”
1Th. 4.16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
Heb. 9.28 so 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.
James 5.8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
2Pet. 3.10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
1John 3.2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
Rev. 1.7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
Rev. 22.20 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
B) What we know for sure!
1) Jesus will return bodily, suddenly, personally, and visibly:
• Matt. 24.44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
• Acts 1.11 and 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.”
• 1Th. 4.16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
• Rev. 1.7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
2) No one knows when he will return:
Matt. 24.30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other … 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Matt. 25.13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Mark 13.32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.
3) We are to live as though the return of Christ could happen at any time:
It is here that the biblical material must be understood very carefully. Some verses certainly suggest that the return of Christ is imminent:
Matt. 14.36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.
Matt. 25.13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Luke 12.40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
1Th. 5.2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
James 5.7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.
• Certainly the commands to watch speaks to the expectation that the Lord could return at any time!
• Yet, there are also texts which speak to certain events taking place before the return of Jesus:
The Gospel going to all nations:
Mark 13.10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.
Matt. 24.14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
The Great Tribulation:
Mark 13.7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
The appearance of false prophets and christs:
Mark 13.22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.
The appearance of the “man of lawlessness” and the rise of great rebellion:
2Th. 2.1 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
The restoration of Israel to God:
Rom. 11.25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
• It is also clear that, while the Apostles believed the return of the Lord was imminent, it also became clear to Peter that he would not live to see that return:
2Pet. 1.13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.
Conclusion: It is apparent that most, if not all of these things have not yet occurred. So, how does this impact our understanding of the imminency of Christ’s return? If we take into account all the biblical material we come to the conclusion that:
1) The Apostles lived with the expectancy of imminency.
2) In reality, the return of Christ was not imminent in their day.
So, this must also be our pattern. We must live as though Christ could return at any time, being watchful, ready, and prepared to be found by him faithful to our confession of faith, and the mission of Christ.
Yet, we must also consider how to prepare our children and grandchildren to persevere in faith, to follow Christ boldly and winsomely, should he delay his coming for another thousand years.
C) Important terms relating to the return of Christ
• Parousia: This Greek term means “coming” or “appearance” and is the term most often used to describe the return of Jesus Christ:
Matt. 24.3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Matt. 24.27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Matt. 24.30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Matt. 24.37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
• Appearing: This is Paul’s favorite word in describing the return of Jesus Christ:
1Tim. 6.14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ,
2Tim. 1.10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,
2Tim. 4.1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:
2Tim. 4.8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
Titus 2.13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,
• Tribulation: This word refers to a period of great chaos, upheaval, and persecution of the people of God occurring prior to the return of Christ.
Matt. 24.21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.
Matt. 24.29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
• Millennium: This Latin word means “a thousand” and is used in reference to the “thousand years” of Revelation 20:2-7. It refers to a period of 1000 years during which Satan is bound.
D) Theological Positions on the Return of Jesus Christ:
There are 4 major views on the timing and events surrounding the return of Jesus Christ. Each of them also have spawned several variations making it even harder to classify some adherents.
1) Amillennialism: This position is the simplest, and most likely, the oldest of the three views.
This view holds that the millennium is not a literal period. Hence, the name a millennialism, where the alpha privative denotes a negative (eg. amoral, etc). Revelation 20:1-10 is understood as relating to the present age when Satan’s influence has been dramatically reduced, due to the effects of the cross (see: Hebrews 2:14,15 below).
Heb. 2.14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
In the amillennial scheme, we are now in the church age. Christ will return, resurrection will take place, God will judge unbelievers, and believers will enter into the eternal state. As shown, this view is quite simple as all the end-time events happen at the same time.
Note: Amillennialists do not see any future restoration of ethnic Israel. Rather, they believe all the promises to Israel are to be fulfilled in the church, which has become the “Israel of God” (see: Galatians 6:16).
Gal. 6.16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.
2) Historic Premillennialism: This position, dating back to the early centuries of the church, sees the Old Testament in much the same way as the amillennialist, but sees the millennium as a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on earth following his return, and also a restoration of Israel to God, but not apart from the church.
This view teaches that the present church age will end with a period of great tribulation that will only be cut short by the glorious return of Jesus Christ. When Jesus comes, he will bring with him all those who have died in Christ and they will receive their resurrected bodies. At the same time, living believers will be caught up to meet Christ and those believers returning with him, and have their mortal bodies changed to immortal ones, suitable for reigning on earth for 1000 years. After meeting Christ in the air, the amassed believers will accompany him back to earth (as in the Triumphal Entry) and the millennial reign of Christ and his church will commence. At the end of the millennium, the great rebellion of earth’s unbelievers is overcome by the armies of heaven, and all unbelievers are resurrected to face the judgment of God. Then, hell will be filled, and the new heavens and earth prepared for the eternal dwelling of God with his redeemed church.
3) Dispensational Premillennialism: This view is the newest of the 4 with its beginning traced to the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). Dispensationalism sees God’s activity as distinctly different in 7 epochs of history. While the past 25 years has seen the rise of “progressive dispensationalism” which has moved more toward historic premillennialism, the classical dispensational scheme continues to depict the eschatological view held by dispensationalists.
Classical dispensationalism sees the present church age ending in what they refer to as the “rapture.” This event sees Christ returning with all who have died in Christ. Resurrection takes place and they receive their immortal bodies. Those believers still alive are caught up to meet Christ in the air, and then he takes all the believers back to heaven rather than continues down to earth. This 7 year period is called the Great Tribulation. During this time there is great chaos and violence on earth. At the end of the 7 years, Christ returns to earth with the raptured believers, and initiates his millennial reign during which ethnic Israel is reconstituted as a nation. Christ reigns through Israel, in Jerusalem. The Temple is rebuilt, and the sacrifical system re-instituted with Jesus as High Priest. At the end of the 1000 years, there is a huge rebellion and the army of heaven destroys the armies of the unbelieving world, the dead are raised, judgment is meted out, hell is filled, and believers are ushered into the eternal state. Older dispensationalists also insist that there is an eternal distinction between Israel and the Church, with the church inhabiting the “new heavens” and Israel living on the “new earth.”
4) Post Millennialism: Post Millennialism teaches that the millennium precedes the return of Jesus Christ.
This view teaches that, during the church age, the gospel goes forth with increasing power and the church increases to the point that a majority of the earth’s population will become Christ followers. As a result, there will be a significant Christian influence on society, and gradually the kingdom of God will be brought in, and a “millennial age” of peace and righteousness will be achieved.
The millennium, in this view, is simply a long time, and not necessarily a literal 1000 year period. At some point however, the millennium will end with the return of Jesus Christ to commence the final resurrection and judgment, and the eternal state.
A helpful chart comparing 4 eschatological views:
A helpful article contrasting historic and dispensational premillennialism:
A defense of Reformed Amillennialism
Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem
Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird
The Blessed Hope, George Eldon Ladd
The Presence of the Future, George Eldon Ladd
Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God, George Eldon Ladd
The Bible and the Future, Anthony Hoekema
More than Conquerors, William Hendricksen
Three Views on the Millennium, Darrell Bock
A Case for Historic Premillennialism, Craig Blomberg, Sung Wook Chung, eds.