This is the seventh chapter of the audio book Whatever Became of Jesus Christ? The Biblical Case for the Second Coming as Accomplished Fact. Total listening time for this segment is 27 minutes and 37 seconds.
The remaining part of the book (the Afterword) will be published within the hour. There’s a fuller explanation of all this in the post for the first audio installment: WBOJC00 – Whatever Became of Jesus Christ? The Biblical Case for the Second Coming as Accomplished Fact – Preliminary Material.
Here’s the written text of what’s being read on the recording segment above:
Chapter Seven – How the Apostles Explained the Prophets
New Heavens and New Earth
The heavens and the earth became new when Jesus took the throne of the universe. Isaiah had prophesied it (Isaiah 65:17); 66:22) and John the apostle confirmed it (Revelation 21:1). It is a spiritual newness that is spoken of and this is obvious for several reasons.
First, many Christians will refer to a person who has trusted Jesus Christ as a “new creature” alluding to the following passage of Scripture:
Evangelical Christians will be quick to tell you that such newness has to do with spiritual things for the “new creature” will have the same shoe size, same eye color, and will still have to eat and sleep. These Christians will not, however, allow the significance of the newness to be devalued for those reasons. They will insist (for the context of 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 demands it) that such spiritual newness is eternal and far more important than any physical change could ever be (for physical things are only temporal). If such reasoning is acceptable for the salvation of an individual why not for the salvation of the universe?
Second, while describing the new heavens and new earth John quotes God as saying, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Note that He doesn’t say that He is making all new things, but that He is making all things new.
Let’s say your name is Sally Smith and God promises to make a new Sally Smith. Is your hope that He makes you new (that is, renews you by cleansing what is wrong with you and preserving what is right in you) or that He makes another Sally Smith, obliterating you in the process? Of course, you want to be new and improved – not have some other human being take your place. If God was going to make all new things instead of make all things new then He would have obliterated Adam and Eve after they sinned and started over. But even just two human souls are so precious in God’s sight that, rather than start over, He would set in motion a plan for redeeming and renewing what had already been created. This is the way God makes all things new. We don’t need a new physical heavens and earth. There is nothing wrong with the ones we have. They are beautiful, enthralling, awesome. What has been wrong with creation from the beginning has not been the sunrises, or the mountains, or the oceans, but the sin in mankind, God’s co-rulers of the earth.
Third, if we read John’s description of the new heavens and earth in context it is more than obvious that he is speaking spiritually. For one thing, John says “and there is no longer any sea” (Revelation 21:1) but just a few lines before (Revelation 20:13) he has described the sea as the place where the dead were kept. Physically speaking, the predominant place of burial is the land, not the sea. But, again, John is using sea in the spiritual sense, not the physical sense. In the spiritual dimension of heaven, earth, and sea, the sea corresponds to Sheol (or Hades, if you prefer the Greek term) which was the place which, according to the Old Testament, housed all the dead. Thus, with the Second Coming being the time that Satan and his angels are cast out of heaven and the dead being raised to heaven (Matthew 22:30) – that is, the “sea” was dried up – you can see that we do indeed have a new heavens and earth if you are thinking spiritually.
Rather than using the expression “new heaven and earth” sometimes the Scripture uses the expression “heaven and earth will pass away” (e.g. Matthew 5:18 and 24:35). The meaning and result, however, are the same. That is, the idea was that the existing heavens and earth would pass away and new ones would come. Just as with the 2 Corinthians 5:17 passage, the spiritual dimension was completely reconstructed while what is seen outward in the flesh appears unchanged. Those who set their minds on the flesh, however, keep wanting to see a new physical heaven and earth – yet, other than an absence of the sea, how would they recognize it?
Peter warned against this obsession with a new physical heavens and earth for he said just before his own death that
…mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation. 2 Peter 3:3-4 NASB
The primary thrust of this letter from Peter was a warning about the false teachers who would arise just before the coming of the Lord. Peter describes them as being sensual in nature. True to form then, they will point to the lack of physical change in the universe as proof positive that the day of the Lord has not come. Peter then invokes the memory of Noah who also labored long, preaching righteousness to people who never believed the judgment would really come…until it was too late. These false teachers were too sensual, too fleshly minded, to appreciate the spiritual orientation of the Scriptures.
Jesus was constantly fulfilling the types and shadows of the Old Testament. Moses led the people of God from slavery. Joshua led them into the promised land. Joseph fed his own jealous brothers in time of famine. Jesus fulfilled all these, but He did so spiritually. This was in direct contradiction to what many people expected. And for Him to come in a different way than these false teachers were expecting was thus true to His form. For all the physical deliverances accomplished in the Old Testament foreshadowed spiritual things that Jesus accomplished in the New Testament. In accomplishing this, Jesus never merely duplicated an Old Testament episode as so many expected Him to do. That is, He did not lead a charge against the Romans driving them out of the land as Joshua might have done, nor did He lead His followers out of Israel to a new physical territory as Moses might have done, nor did He subdue the nations as David might have done. To be consistent with all these fulfillments, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Noah scenario could not be a mere duplication with fire in the place of water – it had to be a spiritual accomplishment of much greater proportions.
Peter concluded his second letter exhorting his readers to look for the new heavens and the new earth, but obviously not in the way that the false teachers were. Being dead to spiritual things they could have no appreciation for anything other than a new physical environment. These false teachers did not “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6) and so were not looking for a “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Let me remind you and make clear that just because a fulfillment is spiritual rather than physical doesn’t mean it is without ultimate physical effect. A person who sets his mind on the spirit and lives for spiritual things will effect change in the physical dimension. That Jesus fought spiritual battles instead of physical ones does not mean that He was less a hero than Moses, Joshua, or David. On the contrary, Jesus’ victories were greater…and therefore His glory is greater. He who overcomes sin (which is conceived in unseen places) has overcome the source of anything and everything that is wrong with the physical world.
As you have seen in this book, most of what is wrongly taught about the Second Coming is based on verses taken out of context. Let us return, therefore, to Matthew 24-25 and read in context the line “Heaven and earth will pass away.” Out of context it seems to speak of a new physical heaven and earth. But let’s now read it in its immediate context:
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Matthew 24:34-36 NASB
Isn’t is obvious by now that Jesus was promising something spiritual? And aren’t His words infinitely more durable than anything you can access by your physical senses?
The Nature of God’s Transitions
When God changes the night into day He goes about it very gradually. There is a world of difference between the way things look at midnight and the way things look at noon. But it was a gradual process at work for twelve hours that got things to that point. And the moment just after sunrise was not that much brighter than the moment just be before it. God performs the transition from night to day very gradually.
We see this same gradualness of transition when the seasons change. The difference between winter and summer is very great, but spring is the gradual transition. And even spring itself, though its beginning can technically be pinned down to a given day, begins very gradually. It seems God has everything in a perpetual state of motion (aren’t the particles of an atom always moving?). The transition from high tide to low tide works the same way. The ultimate difference between high and low tides is very dramatic, but there is not much different at all between the last wave before high tide and the first wave after.
Everyone knows that grass grows, but no one stops to watch it because there’s no movement in the moment to be noticed. Same with drying paint. Seeds become plants, but only time-lapse photography makes the process interesting enough for our continued attention. The earth spins and revolves, but those movements are so imperceptible to us that it creates the optical illusion that we’re walking around on a level surface.
Even the experience of human life itself shows how God works His transitions in gradualness. There is a world of difference between an adult and a child, but how easy is it to identify the exact moment when a person ceased being one and began being the other? Even the beginning of human life is so gradual that people argue over the moment of transition. This is true whether it is applied to the origin of a single human life or the origin of the species itself.
Note that we are not saying that there is not a specific identifiable moment of transition. There always is. There is a precise moment when the sun breaks the horizon, when the tide begins to recede, when the vernal equinox can be said to have occurred. It’s just that, from a human perspective, such precise moments occur within a great gradualness.
The Second Coming of Jesus Christ was a work of God that occurred in an instant of time (“like a flash of lightning,” “in the twinkling of an eye”) but that was set within a great gradualness. Hebrews 12 quotes the prophet Haggai who promised that God would “shake the heavens.” In the instant of Jesus’ coming, the invisible thrones of the spiritual dimension were abolished. In the resurrection, Jesus had been set above these “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” but in the return, Jesus demolished them – which created the new heavens.
This is why polytheism was the dominant worldview before the Second Coming and monotheism has been the dominant view since – and always will be. History tells us that polytheism, animal sacrifice, idol worship, each nation having its own deity, and related practices fell into disuse from the time of the 1st Century. It was not just among Christians that these things changed; it was among all peoples. It happened gradually, yes – over perhaps hundreds of years. But there was a precise moment when the spiritual fabric of the universe was changed, when the words of the prophet Isaiah were fulfilled, “And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:11). In the same passage, Isaiah went on to say that it would be a time when men cast away the idols they had made. If the goal of ancient Israel was to establish monotheism in the world, and that was a mission assigned to Abraham and his descendants, it can be said to have been achieved. For when Israel’s Messiah took the throne of the universe, all competing spiritual powers in the heavens were vanquished. The problem was dealt with at the root.
The consequences of the Second Coming are still being worked out today. For though the Second Coming was spiritual, that does not mean that it was not to have physical consequences. Those consequences would be great and will continue for all eternity. For in the Second Coming, God was not overthrowing earthly kingdoms but spiritual ones. Do we think that the men and women of antiquity were so much dumber than us because they believed they lived under a heavens populated by multiple spiritual powers while we know better? Not at all. Our perception of spiritual reality is different from theirs because the reality itself is different. We are still searching and seeking to understand that reality. But praise be to God that we are not afflicted with the heavenly beasts our fathers in the faith had to fight. There is but one God dominating the heavens and those beasts have been thrown down to earth for us to fight where we are on equal footing. Yet, through God, they shall be crushed under our feet just as is always the case for those who fear and trust Him.
Relating to Things Spiritual and Physical
God is the God of both spiritual and physical things. He has been trying to teach us from the beginning, however, that spiritual things are more important than physical ones – even when we can’t understand why. Adam and Eve were told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they die. It was obvious that they did not understand the reason for such a command. When Eve saw the tree that “it was good for food, was a delight to the eyes, and was desirable to make one wise” then her decision was made. The physical sight of the tree proved too inviting. But she should have trusted the God she could not see…for He was right.
God understands our plight. He knows that we live in a physical world and that though our spirits are willing, our flesh can be weak. If we are to receive His compassion, though, we must make some move toward seeing things His way. The Jews in John 8 could not accept what Jesus was saying about their being slaves to sin because the only kind of slavery they could recognize was when one human being enslaved another. They were hardened against seeing anything in a truly spiritual way and ended up doing the bidding of their own spiritual master, Satan.
God was gracious to perform signs and wonders through Jesus Christ so that people could see something physical and believe. Many did (John 4:48) and many still do today as they read the Bible or hear its truths proclaimed by one means or another. Some people, however, will not believe even with an abundance of physical signs, for John later says,
And we remember that Jesus in all His life revealed the Father. For just as many people could see the miracles of healing and life and still not believe, throughout history many people have seen the workings of God’s power and yet not trusted Him. In all things, there is a point beyond which it will do no more good to show another physical sign.
We must be willing to accept instruction from Him as Peter was. On the Mount of Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah appeared in glory with Jesus, Peter was all set to build three tabernacles, one for each of them. Peter’s entire orientation to the experience was physical. But he was able to learn from Jesus that if it was a physical house that was lacking, God could build a better one for Himself than any of us could. The vision was for the purpose of communicating spiritual truth to the disciples’ hearts. Peter did eventually understand and wrote of this spiritual house of which Jesus was the cornerstone in his first letter.
The whole movement of the New Testament was a weaning of the people of God from a physical orientation to a spiritual one. With the resurrection, a spiritual emphasis was firmly established. Messiah was to reign from heaven, not earth; that is, from where He could not be physically seen. Some of the early converts wanted to go back to physical things, like circumcision. Paul had to ask them, “Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected in the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)
We could similarly ask, having begun with faith in a resurrection we could not see, are we going to be perfected by a return that we can see? If Jesus had showed up physically in the 1st Century A.D. we could easily imagine some of the idol worshipers boasting, “See, we told you so; God is best worshiped in the flesh with a physical image!”
Does God have to appear in the flesh before we will obey Him? If we intend to be more reverent and devoted when He appears in the flesh than we are right now, what does this say about us?
As we have said, God is mindful of our plight. He knows we live in a physical as well as a spiritual world. For this reason, Jesus gave His disciples earthly physical signs that would precede His coming. But if all the earthly signs were fulfilled, and it has been confirmed by the apostles in the New Testament that they were, then do we not have all the more reason to believe Him about the heavenly things? For He said to Nicodemus,
We cannot appreciate all the glory associated with Jesus’ Second Coming if we do not first acknowledge how right he was about earthly predictions He made. But He has gently led us this way, giving us a ladder to heaven, as it were. If we trust and follow the signs he has left in the physical realm (remember God’s creative miracles, Jesus’ redemptive miracles) then we can find our way to and through the spiritual realm.
In Matthew 24-25 Jesus referred to a great gathering of the saints. If this is to be physical then God will have to violate the physical laws of heaven and earth that He Himself created, for no physical sight can appear worldwide at the same time; at most, it could be view by one hemisphere, and probably only half of that. Since God is God and can do anything He wants, it is possible that he could alter or abolish all His physical laws and accomplish even this, but do you now think this is His intent? Is it not more consistent with His nature, His workings, and His plans that the gathering is to be spiritual; that is, to Him. The physical gathering at the Tower of Babel was not at all to His liking. It represented a spiritual scattering from Him, for He had commanded people to “fill the earth” and not stay holed up together. Those who obey God are gathered to Him now. They are the flock of which He is the shepherd. They are not gathered physically, for they are spread through the world. They are gathered spiritually and are close to Him. For the most part, they do not even see each other. This is the gathering that He seeks.
Jesus has oriented us to expect a spiritual coming. His references to Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter as being “asleep” before He raised them from the dead, to the Pharisees’ hypocrisy as leaven in the bread, and many other such things point us to a new way of thinking – God’s way (see Isaiah 55:8). It is the way of viewing spiritual things as more consequential than physical ones. God Himself is spirit and we are primarily spirit (for the body perishes). What more reason do we need for esteeming spiritual things more highly than physical ones? If a spiritual Second Coming seems a puny let down from the great display we were expecting in the traditional Second Coming doctrine then it only means we are still needing a lot of weaning from our physical orientation. The spiritual Second Coming of Jesus Christ was not less dramatic, less cataclysmic, less staggering than the one we have traditionally imagined. It was more of all these things. And as we grow spiritually, we will be able to better appreciate the spiritual fireworks that attended it.
If the Second Coming was to have been a worldwide physical cataclysm then, as we discussed earlier in the discussion of timing, Paul’s explanation to the Thessalonians as to how they could know it had not yet occurred doesn’t make sense (2 Thessalonians 2). You don’t explain to people that the earthquake of all earthquakes (that would physically disrupt all space and time) has not happened yet – they would know as well as Paul would whether a worldwide physical cataclysm had or hadn’t happened yet. If, however, the Second Coming was to be a worldwide spiritual cataclysm then such an explanation from Paul was altogether appropriate. Similarly, the passage from 2 Timothy 2 we discussed where Paul talks about some who were prematurely saying that it had already occurred. This, he rightly said, “upset the faith of some.” Again you see that it is faith, not sight, that is at stake. If the Second Coming was a physical event that interrupted everyone’s life then there could be no upset of faith – or even need of it, for that matter.
It was wrong to announce prematurely that the Lord had come. Those who did so were rightly condemned. But it would also be wrong to deny the coming once it had occurred. People send belated birthday cards in the belief that they are far superior to no acknowledgment at all. It is better to just admit we missed the passing of the date. And so we can say to Jesus, however belatedly, “Welcome home!” Our answer can be “yes,” however belatedly, to His question:
Has He found faith in you?
Conclusion About the Nature of the Second Coming
We started our discussion of the Second Coming by remembering that some Jews (certainly not all) missed the coming of the Messiah for whom they were looking. And they continue to miss it only when they refuse to believe it could be missed. For it is common knowledge that there are Jews who even today open their minds to the possibility that Jesus was and is their Messiah. Then when they examine the evidence, they embrace Him. It is as if a veil has been lifted from their eyes. Seeing such a phenomenon in our Jewish brothers are Christian brothers not adequately forewarned of the dangers of closing one’s mind about a coming of Messiah (be it His first or second)?
This is especially so now that we have seen that the description of the Second Coming is spiritual and not physical. For if the first coming which was partly physical (Jesus came in an earthly body) was “missable,” how much more the second coming, being entirely spiritual, would be “missable.” The first coming had certain physical aspects to it that could be verified (e.g. Messiah had to be a descendant of David) whereas the second did not. But we who live almost twenty centuries later have a benefit those in the first century did not. That is, we can see how monotheism has displaced polytheism as the dominant worldview among humanity. Even the God that atheists don’t believe in and agnostics aren’t sure about is one God. They insist that there’s insufficient proof of God’s – not the gods’ – existence.
In case there is anyone who has read this far and still doggedly maintains that Jesus Christ must appear again in the flesh for the promises of the Second Coming to be fulfilled, consider Elijah. In Matthew 17, Jesus says that the prophecy of Elijah’s returning to precede Messiah was fulfilled in John the Baptist preceding Him. If you insist on the Second Coming being physical then you must reject Jesus as even being the Messiah in the first place. For He produced no physical Elijah as His forerunner. In other words, you would have to disown the One you have called Savior because he spiritualized the prophecy about Elijah and the Messiah.
But I have good news for you! It is not necessary to reject or disown this Holy One. He has kept His promises. He was Messiah and He is just as surely God. The faithfulness of God is revealed once again, this time in the glorious keeping of His promises regarding coming again. Let us therefore happily acknowledge His presence in the earth as well as heaven. Let us not wait until some future date to show constant reverence toward Him. Let us live every moment for His pleasure. We were created to know Him and to make Him known. Another way of phrasing this is to be aware of Him and to make others aware of Him. Let us break free from this stifling existence of acknowledging only what we can see with our physical eyes. Let us break free from the smothering dominance of flesh and breathe in the life of His Spirit.
End of Chapter Seven
End of Part Three