Part Three – The Nature of the Second Coming
As we have said, the New Testament’s scheduling of the Second Coming of Christ for sometime late in the 1st Century A.D. only presents a problem to those who insist that Jesus was promising to show up in a fleshly body similar to the one He left in. However, the prophetic descriptions of the Second Coming in the New Testament add up to a spiritual, not a physical, event. And this is consistent with the whole movement and direction of the New Testament which is to wean the people of God from a physical orientation to a completely spiritual one.
Chapter Five – How the Bible Describes Truth
From Flesh to Spirit
The apostle John candidly shows us in his Gospel how he and his contemporaries were constantly misunderstanding Jesus. The most common type of misunderstanding was that Jesus would be speaking of something spiritual when they thought He was speaking of something physical.
In John 2, for example, Jesus says to the Jews in Jerusalem who opposed Him, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought He was speaking of the physical structure that was the pride of Jerusalem, but “He was speaking of the temple of His body.” In John 3, the teacher Nicodemus reacts to Jesus’ use of the term “born again” by protesting that a man “cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born.” Jesus then explains that there are things of the flesh and things of the spirit; and each produces after its own kind. We might understand this distinction better in our day by using the terms visible and invisible. Most people recognize that there are these two dimensions of creation. Nicodemus couldn’t get his mind out of the visible dimension long enough to fully appreciate the invisible dimension.
In John 4, Jesus asks a woman at a well for some water and then proceeds to tell her that He Himself has some “water” for her. It is obvious to us now that His “water” was spiritual water meant to quench spiritual thirst. When His disciples returned and encouraged Him to have something to eat, He kept up the “nourishment” metaphor saying, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” The first thing to their minds was not spiritual but rather, they say, “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?” Jesus then explains that the “food” He eats is “to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish his work.” Jesus then goes on talking about sowing and reaping and a harvest that is not four months off but rather ready now. John does not say if any of them thought He was contemplating that they should change their occupations from fishing to farming.
So far it’s only been amusing as we have seen the disciples become, just as we probably would have become, confused and disoriented by Jesus’ manner of speech. But by John 6, when Jesus tells people they must “eat” His flesh and “drink” His blood, it’s become a serious matter. Many of His disciples protested, saying, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” Jesus then tells them plainly that the spirit gives life while the flesh profits nothing: “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Even so, there was an exodus of disciples who could not handle this focus on spiritual understanding. When Jesus asked the twelve if they want to leave, too, Peter spoke for them saying, “you have words of eternal life.” They may not have understood everything He said…but they wanted to, believing He and His words were from God.
These are just a few of the misunderstandings over fleshly and spiritual meanings that John passes on to us. Nor was he the only Gospel writer to do so. For all the gospels attest that it was part of the phenomenon of the Nazarene Jesus that He was at least partially misunderstood by everyone – friend and foe! Even so, we do see cases where individuals not only picked up on the way Jesus was looking at things – that is, spiritually – but actually joined in with Him on it. This invariably pleased Him.
For example, in Matthew 15 when Jesus initially refuses the request of a non-Israelite woman to cast a demon from her daughter, He explains that He was “only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and that “it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She retorts, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” He promptly exclaims that her faith is great, and grants her request.
The disciples themselves, being true students of the Master, did eventually learn this outlook and language of the spiritual life. For by the time 1 Peter was written, we see the man who had stumbled as much as anyone we read about in the New Testament spouting off this stuff like the Master Himself. In that letter he called Jesus a “stone,” the devil a “lion,” and the believers a “flock” of sheep. But so far as we know, none of them surpassed John (perhaps because he outlived so many of the others and had longer to get it deep in his thinking) who closes out the New Testament talking about such things as a “Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes standing as if slain.” Who but God could give a humble Galilean fisherman the ability to say things that great minds would chew on for ages. (Did I say “chew” on? Was I speaking of physical chewing?)
This is a good time to say that we are not talking about simply the literary niceties of metaphor, similes, and such. We are talking about truth – which cannot be fully appreciated through physical senses alone, if at all. Yet visual images of physical things abound because any teacher must work from what is known and relate it to what is unknown. By the association of something unknown to something known, ignorance is converted to knowledge – or, shall we say, darkness to light. Jesus had so much truth to communicate that images were flying fast and furious. If we become more concerned about not mixing metaphors than finding truth then we cannot keep up as the woman did when Jesus is one second talking about “lost sheep” and the next second talking about “children at the table” never having changed His subject. One must focus on the truth Jesus is wanting to communicate. In this way, the images work together to establish a coherent message.
Flesh and Spirit…and the Second Coming
This use of multiple visual images to communicate a single spiritual truth certainly occurs with the subject of the Second Coming where, for example, Jesus may be spoken of one moment as “coming on the clouds,” and the next as “coming like a thief in the night,” and the next as “coming as the master of the house.” It’s hard enough to understand if you’re trying to keep up spiritually, but if you’re bent on taking everything in a physical sense you become absolutely dizzied by the images.
In the dizziness, some people have tried to cope by interpreting the different images as different events. Thus you have the pre-tribulation, mid-trib (there are so many positions, a shorthand has developed for identifying them), and post-trib views of one aspect of the Second Coming. There is also the pre-mill (“mill” is an abbreviation of millennium, a reference to the thousand year period mentioned in Revelation), post-mill, and a-mill (meaning no millennium). He’s coming back this time for the church and that time for everyone else. There’s a rapture which is different from the Second Coming. Such interpretations proliferate and have even found their way into popular Christian literature. Yet, such explanations are impossible to reconcile. All this confusion is as if the non-Israelite woman had responded, “Look, Lord, I’ll help you find your lost sheep and I’ll even sweep up the mess on your kitchen floor; but once we’ve solved your animal and children problems, could you please help me with my daughter?”
Some, in an honest and appropriate response to all these conflicting opinions about the Second Coming, have humorously declared themselves to be “pan-mill” believing it will all “pan out” in the end. The good news I bring to you in this book is…it did!
The different images of the Second Coming are not different events but different ways of expressing the arrival of the King and His Kingdom. The Kingdom itself is described in different images. In Matthew 13, Jesus gives a series of parables to explain it. It’s “like a seed sown,” “like a man sowing seed,” “like a mustard seed,” “like leaven,” “like treasure hidden in a field,” “like a merchant seeking fine pearls,” “like a dragnet catching fish,” and so on. The very fact that multiple images are used to explain a single reality indicates that a single image cannot fully explain it. For if all the truth of the kingdom of God could be revealed in one image, why would God confuse the issue by bringing up more images?
The kingdom of God is a simple, yet immeasurably profound, reality which requires multiple images to convey its many facets. If the kingdom is described in a series of parables in Matthew 13, is it not consistent that Jesus would describe its coming by a series of parables in Matthew 24-25? For in the latter passage He says the arrival of the kingdom will be like, among other things, “a master returning to his house servants,” “a bridegroom coming for his bride (actually ten of them), “a master returning to his commissioned servants,” and “a king separating nations like sheep and goats.”
Now if we take these parables of Matthew 24-25, and instead of regarding them as parables, treat them as if they were descriptions of physical events, then shouldn’t we be required to go back and do the same with the parables of Matthew 13? That is, if we interpret the parable at the end of Matthew 25 as requiring Jesus to physically appear and physically separate the physical nations to His physical right and physical left, then should we not also go back to Matthew 13 and re-interpret the final parable as requiring angels to appear physically and cast a physical dragnet over all human beings? Since this would be patently silly, let’s just regard the series of parables in Matthew 24-25 in the way we’re accustomed to regarding parables – that is, as conveying spiritual truths through figurative expressions.
After all, though some spiritual speech can be misinterpreted as physical, there is a way to make it more difficult. And that is by making it incongruous or physically absurd. This is done over and over in the book of Revelation. When John describes, and thereby asks us to picture, Jesus as riding a white horse in the sky wearing a bloody robe and lots of crowns on his head with a sharp sword coming out of his mouth, has not John not practically begged us to take him spiritually and not physically? And doesnt it glorify Jesus to understand this image spiritually, and trivialize Him to prefer a physical fulfillment (which would make Him into some sort of science-fiction version of Don Quixote)? Why then are people afraid that a spiritual interpretation of the Second Coming will diminish or minimize the Second Coming of Christ…when actually the reverse is true!
Let us proceed as the disciples did, not fully understanding spiritual things…but wanting to learn more about them. With this attitude, we recognize immediately that the bridegroom coming to pick up ten brides on His wedding night in Matthew 24-25 – count ’em, ten – is an image demanding a spiritual interpretation. The God of monogamy has not lost His morals. Neither are we to think God has renounced the eighth commandment when Jesus promises to come like a “thief in the night.”
Now I can almost hear those who insist on a so far unfulfilled fleshly (that is,” future, physical”) Second Coming protesting that indeed they do interpret these parables spiritually. Perhaps so in some cases, but why do they interpret them as referring to different events? They say one refers to the rapture, another to the subsequent final judgment (they vary on whether it’s seven, three and a half, or a thousand years later). When Jesus strings together parables of seeds, treasures, pearls, and fishing in Matthew 13, the constant theme or subject is the kingdom of heaven. And when He strings together another series of parables – this time of nocturnal thievery, household service, midnight nuptials, and so on – in Matthew 24-25 the constant theme or subject is the coming of that kingdom. There is no warrant for carving up these parables and saying they each apply to different events. Read them in context. Jesus reels off one after the other in the context of explaining His Second Coming. He never says anything about changing His subject. You might as well go back to Matthew 13 and say He is describing multiple kingdoms as to chop up Matthew 24-25 by saying He is describing multiple comings. The proper way to understand the parables of Matthew 24-25 is to recognize that they are meant to describe different aspects of the same event.
As we said earlier, the reason for giving multiple parables or visual images to explain a single spiritual event or reality is that no one single parable or image can do it justice. If a mustard seed fully explained the kingdom of God in every respect then the kingdom of God would not be the kingdom of God – it would be a mustard seed. Likewise, Jesus’ coming is not fully explained in the image of a thief in the night. Otherwise, we have a criminal for a Savior. Rather, we look for the respect in which the spiritual reality is similar to the physical image presented. In these cases, the kingdom of God, like a mustard seed, may start small but grows tall; and the coming of Jesus, like a thief in the night, escapes notice. But wait a minute. Jesus was talking about coming on the clouds, and lots of angels and a great trumpet earlier in Matthew 24. Now He says it will be like a thief in the night. These images – if taken physically – are utterly contradictory. One is a picture of broad daylight, big crowd, fanfare; the other, darkness of night. How are we to understand Him?
Putting Together Images
We have already seen the error of assuming that the additional image must refer to an additional event. And we have also seen that it is only the insistence upon a physical Second Coming that forces one into such an error. But since we are spiritual people looking for spiritual answers, let’s look at this issue spiritually.
Fortunately, the apostle Paul has already done the work for us on this one. In 1 Thessalonians 4-5 he is coaching his disciples about the hope of the Second Coming and mentions the clouds, angels, and trumpet we heard about from Jesus in Matthew 24-25. Paul then goes on to say that
…the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4 NASB
Aha! Jesus’ coming will be like a parade to those in the light and a pickpocket to those in the dark. This is not so difficult. Jesus is telling us that His coming will be open and obvious to some…and totally undetected by others. The key concern should then be – how do I make sure I am one of the people who sees? This same contrast between those who see and enjoy the Second Coming and those who are oblivious to it, is seen in Paul’s next letter to the Thessalonians. For in its first chapter we seen him speaking of Christ coming “to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.” But Paul also mentions “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” and who, as a result, will be “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” You and I can see the same sort of contrast today, for, to some, God is a great light, but to others He is nowhere to be seen. The contrasting images are different facets of the same reality.
Such contrasting images take us back to the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the LORD,
“Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose heart turns away from the LORD.
For he will be like a bush in the desert
And will not see when prosperity comes,
But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness,
A land of salt without inhabitant.” Jeremiah 17:5-6 NASB
Note the phrase “and will not see when prosperity comes.” Jesus and Paul were speaking of these kinds of people. These people would not see because they were not willing to see. Prosperity, for them, would come and go like a thief in the night and they would never be the wiser. For them, life is a desert waste. They wonder why God has taken so long and not answered their cry. They had missed Him because they had made “flesh their strength.” That is, things they could see with their physical eyes became their only source of encouragement. Wasn’t the entire ministry of Jesus to lead us away from a reliance upon flesh – that is, what we can see with our physical eyes – to a reliance upon spirit (that is, upon the Lord Himself, who we cannot physically see)?
For those who would trust in the Lord there was a far different outcome. Jeremiah goes on to say in the passage started above:
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD
And whose trust is the LORD.
For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
That extends its roots by a stream
And will not fear when the heat comes;
But its leaves will be green,
And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
Nor cease to yield fruit.” Jeremiah 17:7-8 NASB
The contrast is striking: bush in a desert versus tree by a stream. “Which do you want to be?” asks Jeremiah. Of course, he’s urging a move to the spiritual orientation. And Jesus picks up the same theme in the gospels. As a result of the resurrection, the temple of God was no longer to be the stone structure in Jerusalem, but rather the body of believers in Messiah. But a Christian who put his trust in that temple of believers would eventually be in just as bad a shape as the Jew who kept looking to the stone structure. This because that body of believers that one can see is flesh.
Even if Jesus should appear to us one day in the flesh, wouldn’t that put us in a faith quandary? Who would we trust: the God we could see (Jesus in the flesh) or the God we couldn’t (the invisible Father in heaven)? No one can serve two masters. In Jesus’ first coming there was no conflict, for He came not to reign but to serve as a human being. He sought to downplay that He was the Messiah until the resurrection because it was only the resurrection that would reveal the true nature of Messiah’s role. How much more was it necessary to conceal the fact that God was walking around in the flesh! In the Second Coming, however, Jesus comes in “the glory of His Father,” meaning, of course, a divine, and not human, presence. We will say more about this later. The important point here is that a physical, human Second Coming of Jesus would present us with a dilemma of choice between focusing on the Father and the Son while a spiritual coming allows them to be what they eternally are – One.
Therefore, we have seen that the contrasting images are understood as referring to the ways the Second Coming will strike people. And the question of, “How do I make it strike me correctly?” is dealt with in other parables. The one that rounds out Matthew 24 and the three that comprise Matthew 25 have a common element. That is, what happens at the moment of arrival is determined by what happens before it. To put it simply, the more righteously one lived prior to the Lord’s coming the better the reward one would find. This is perfectly consistent with all we’ve been taught from the Bible. Righteous living is rewarding – both in this life and the one to come.
What we have said about the parables the Lord told in Matthew 24-25 in referring to His Second Coming does not, of course, exhaust their meaning. There is much richness of thought waiting to be mined. But then what exposition of the kingdom parables in Matthew 13 ever exhausted their meaning? Won’t there always be more to learn from them? Our purpose has been to show that since Jesus used spiritual language – parables – to explain His Second Coming, then we ought to understand Him spiritually and not force His words into some physical mold they were never intended to fit.
Why does the Lord use parables in the first place? Fortunately, the disciples had the same curiosity, for they asked Him this very question. We have His direct answer in Matthew 13 where Jesus answered that question by saying:
…because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Matthew 13:13 NASB
Jesus was explaining that while His disciples could understand Him, those who refused to be His disciples could not. A parable, therefore, was a means of conveying truth to both groups.
The disciples could understand the parables, Jesus said, because
“For whoever has, to him more shall be given…” Matthew 13:12 NASB
In other words, the more you understand, the more you are able to understand. The disciples had understood His call to repentance and responded to it. This resulted in a humble attitude which enabled them to learn more about God This did not mean that they would automatically understand all the parables right away, however. In fact, we see them on occasion asking Him for an explanation . And He, in His graciousness, was prompt to give it.
The parables, however, were a flexible enough tool to allow Jesus to pass truth to those who hearts were not yet truly yielded to it. For a parable is a catchy little story. And stories are far easier to remember than abstract prose. Whoever “tried to memorize” the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Most of us have long since forgotten things we stayed up half the night memorizing to recite in school, yet we can still remember stories we were casually told as a child. A parable then works like a “timed-release” medicine for the unrepentant. Once they become repentant, the parable, having been previously stored in their memory bank, is ready to release meaning to them as they need it. This is why Jesus closes the parables in Matthew 13 by saying,
“Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” Matthew 13:52 NASB
Therefore, once having encountered opposition to His teaching, Jesus starts using parables so that the truth might not be wasted (He didn’t want any of the leftover fish and bread lost; how much more then, food for the soul!). Both the disciples and the unrepentant could hang on to these “truth packages” and be taught by them all their lives. The key that opens the package is a teachable spirit – that is, becoming a disciple, one who learns. We should also admire Jesus at this point for His intense love even for those who criticized Him. His every word to them, however harsh they might seem to our ears, dripped with the fullness of His love and desire for their deliverance from lies and confusion.
Parables, therefore, lent themselves quite well to teaching about the Second Coming, and for several reasons. First of all, parables are a means of teaching about spiritual things – things you can’t see. And that’s what the Second Coming was – something spiritual that could only be seen spiritually. Second, parables are pictures that act as a “truth packages” for the hearers. The disciples were better served by Jesus’ parables than if they’d had a dozen steno pads and a tape recorder. What they heard about the Second Coming of Jesus on that hillside east of Jerusalem would have to carry them through some of the most difficult times men have ever faced. They needed, in the worst way, to be able to retain what they heard. The fact that the whole world can today read what those disciples heard, after all the tribulation that ensued, is testimony to the effectiveness of Jesus’ teaching method (which involved, of course, the Holy Spirit). And third, parables were useful to teaching about the Second Coming because not all who came to hear the disciples in the churches were true disciples anymore than all those who came to hear Jesus in His earthly ministry were true disciples. The unrepentant, too, needed a way to hang on to the truth so that they might come back later and absorb what they’d missed the first time. Though the unrepentant were spiritually blind, there was always the hope they would eventually repent and return to the God who can heal such blindness.
The Language of Sight and Sound
The issue of parables brings us face to face with the fact that we use the language of sight and sound in two distinct senses. For Jesus said, in justifying His use of parables, “while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear.” He is using the same word in two different senses. Otherwise, His expression is self-contradictory, right? For how can you see and not see simultaneously? Obviously, what He meant was that people were seeing Him physically but not seeing Him spiritually (that is, not understanding who He was). They were hearing Him physically but not hearing Him spiritually (that is, getting His words but not getting His meaning).
These two different senses in which the language of sight and sound is used are not just found in the Bible but are common to us all. We go back and forth in our own speech without giving the transitions a moment of thought. One minute we ask, “Do you see my new ring?” and the next minute, “Do you see what I mean?” We never stop to explain that we are switching the sense in which we are using the word “see.” We don’t have to. People pick it up from the context. Likewise, when the drill sergeant booms in your ear, “Do you hear me?” he is not asking if your auditory nerves are registering the reverberations of his vocal chamber. He wants to know if you understand him. Therefore, when we read Jesus saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” we can understand what He means because we speak this way ourselves. Any parent knows that children are able to hear without actually hearing.
Now, since the purpose of the Bible is to help us understand God (that is, to see what He means) we will see the language of sight and sound used a great deal – and in both senses. We took an example from Jesus; let’s take one from Paul.
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:20 NASB
Paul is talking about us “clearly seeing” things (“attributes”) that are invisible. Isn’t that contradictory? Only if you deny the fact that in the Bible, as well as in everyday life, people constantly use the words about seeing and hearing in two different senses, with the context determining which sense is intended. Of course, what Paul means when he says we “see” God’s attributes is that we understand them, which in this verse he explicitly states, using the expression “being understood”.
The apostle John says, “No man has seen God at any time” (John 1) and Paul says God is the one “whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6). In the same vein, Jesus says, “God is spirit,” meaning that God is not flesh and therefore not detectable to physical senses. All three statements are in agreement that God cannot be seen. And yet we have Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount promising, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5). Are we puzzled by this “contradiction” or does it not seem to us that we are being promised a greater understanding of God as we purify our hearts? And when Jesus from heaven offers the church at Laodicea “eye salve to anoint your eyes that you may see” in Revelation 3, do we not recognize that He is concerned about their spiritual blindness, resulting from their lukewarm attitude? Why then, when the writer to the Hebrews in exhorting them about the great day to come says, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord,” do some insist that he was preparing his readers for a physical manifestation of Jesus? Is it not obvious that his meaning is right in line with Jesus and Paul? (Whether or not Paul was the writer to the Hebrews, the point remains the same.) That is, the pure in heart would see the Lord’s coming and the impure would miss it. For one kind of person it would be like the Lord had filled the sky with light and for the other it would be like the dark of night in which a thief had come.
Sometime we are not quite sure whether a word like “see” is being used in the physical (flesh, visible) sense or the spiritual (invisible) sense. As we said, the context usually clarifies. For example, when the New Testament says “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds” (Matthew 24 and other places) are we to take it in a physical or spiritual sense? We already know by the additional visual images (parables, if you will) that follow it that it must be taken spiritually; otherwise, the pictures result in a mass of physical contradictions. But let’s assume we didn’t have that piece of knowledge and had to look elsewhere for our answer. In this case, the phrase shows up again in Matthew 26 when Jesus is on trial before the high priest and the Sanhedrin. When asked if He is the Messiah, Jesus responds,
“You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matthew 26:64 NASB
Since the verb “see” applies to both His sitting at the right hand of God and His coming on the clouds, we know that whatever sense applies to the one also applies to the other. Now, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, when the disciples went about preaching that Jesus was seated at the right hand of God, they did not do so on the basis of physical senses. These witnesses could testify of Christ’s resurrection by their physical senses and it was crucial that they do so. However, as to the right hand of God, all they physically saw was Jesus ascending from the earth and then disappearing behind a cloud (Acts 1). They knew He was at the right hand of God because Psalm 110 declared that to be His specific heavenly location “until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet.” Therefore, the apostles saw Jesus at the right hand of God by faith; that is, by the eyes of the heart (as it says in 2 Corinthians 5, “we walk by faith and not by sight”). Likewise, these apostles encouraged their hearers to see Him there, too (that is, to believe and relate to Him as if He were there – because He was). The apostles certainly didn’t enter a town, point to the sky and say, “Look: see for yourself; there He is.” But they did tell people to join with them in “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” who “has sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 12). I myself have heard many people exhort me and others by this verse and never once did they mean to train my physical eyes on Jesus. If we do not object to seeing Jesus at the right hand of God spiritually, why should we object to seeing Him come on the clouds spiritually? Especially since he spoke of seeing the two in precisely the same way in this statement from His trial?
Given the way regular people use words of sight and sound in two distinct senses, and given the fact that the Bible does the same, it seems reasonable to approach Scripture passages about the Second Coming with this in mind. Strangely enough, some people will insist that a word like “see” or “appear” in these contexts can only be taken in a physical sense. It appears (in which sense am I using this word?) that they are unwilling to let the Bible speak as it wishes. To make it more personal, they appear unwilling to let the Lord speak as He wishes. – and as any human being has the freedom to speak in either sense. Thus, such people experience what a writer of old called “the inevitably cramping influence of a pre-conceived opinion.” Once you close your eyes, you can’t see a thing – even if it’s right in front of you. I am not saying, however, that people like this cannot become more open-minded. I did.
Signs To See
The disciples weren’t the only ones to ask Jesus about when He was coming. The Pharisees, too, asked. But while the disciples framed the question around “Your coming,” indicating their faith in Him, the Pharisees put it in terms of when “the kingdom of God” was coming. That is, while they didn’t believe in Jesus, they did still hope for the kingdom of God. We have already seen, by the way Jesus interchangeably uses these terms, that their meaning is synonymous but it is interesting to see the disciples approach the subject so personally while the Pharisees show interest in the kingdom without recognizing Jesus would be the King of it. Jesus, however, took no offense (He gives the word “class” a whole new meaning, eh?). Here is His answer:
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Luke 17:20-21 NASB
Before we say anything else about this answer, we should note that it clearly rules out a physical Second Coming. How could He have been more to the point? Will you pause for a moment and simply contemplate the profundity of His words…and our obtuseness in nevertheless insisting that His coming will be physical?
I’m tempted to end the book here for what more needs to be said? (If you actually paused to think as I just asked you, you would ask probably ask me to stop the book here.) Nonetheless, I will continue so that you might have even more reinforcement for the sake of your faith.
We see in this exchange Jesus telling the Pharisees that the kingdom was already present in Himself and they couldn’t recognize it. If they couldn’t recognize it when it was right in their midst then (in Him), they wouldn’t be able to recognize it when it was right in their midst later (in others).
The disciples did recognize the kingdom of God in Jesus though they might not have expressed it in just those words. They knew Jesus was “from God,” “of God,” “being directed by God.” They could “see.” The Pharisees, on the other hand, were blind (“they are blind guides of the blind” Matthew 15:14) because they could not “see.”
This explains a discrepancy. When the disciples asked for signs, Jesus reeled off a string of them (as we saw), but when the Pharisees asked for signs, He had none to give them. Why? Because, as He elsewhere said, the evil generation does not does not get a sign. Because God does not want to give them a sign? No, because the unrepentant can’t see signs. They’re blind. The only sign they get is the sign of Jonah. That is, having thrown Jesus overboard into the abyss of death and having experienced as a result a temporary tranquility of circumstances, they would later be shocked – just as those sailors surely were, to hear that, having been spared from death, He was still preaching repentance.
The righteous are given signs that the unrighteous simply cannot recognize. For example, Jesus could tell His disciples that their persecution and the destruction of the temple were signs that things were moving on schedule toward the great day and that they would be delivered. The Pharisees (the unbelieving ones, that is) could never see these signs because they could never interpret these events from that point of reference. The Pharisees would not “see” the apostles as the godly being persecuted. Rather, the Pharisees would see the apostles as blasphemers and heretics in rebellion against the God-ordained authority of the Pharisees. And the destruction of the temple, from the point of view of the Pharisees, would be something to be prevented at all costs, for it was the expression of God’s glory. If they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies they could never dishonor God (as they saw it) by the cowardice of flight! And so it goes. Things just don’t look the same from the faithless and thus disobedient side of the fence.
Paul speaks of the phenomenon of signs for the righteous in this passage in which he exhorts his believers to walk in a manner worthy of Christ:
in no way alarmed by your opponents–which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you… Philippians 1:28 NASB
When you are persecuted, it is a sign to you that you are on the right track (“all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” 2 Timothy 3:12) and that you will eventually be delivered (“many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all” Psalm 34:19) while the persecutor will eventually be destroyed (“Then He will speak to them in His anger” Psalm 2:5). Paul makes known to these Philippians the kindness of God. The opposition that they would otherwise find alarming is actually a comforting sign to them of God’s presence in them, and surrounding protection of them. We see then that God’s signs could have no meaning for the unrighteous. They could not even see them, for the unjust would not “bear up under suffering while suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19). Moreover, the unjust would never see themselves as opposing the righteous, for those who inflict religious persecution always see themselves as the righteous.
God does indeed have signs to give, but they are signs for those who have, by faith, chose to be players…and not mere observers. This is why Jesus was clear with the Pharisees that His kingdom was not coming with signs to be observed: nor will they say “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” The kingdom of God is not a spectator sport. The signs can only be observed if you are personally engaged in the action.
End of Chapter Five
Chapter Six – How the Old Testament Prophets Set the Stage
The Language of the Prophets
In understanding the Second Coming of Christ, it is essential to recognize that it is not an idea that originated with Jesus – at least not with Jesus in the flesh. Rather, Jesus and His apostles were explaining and elaborating on something that the prophets of Israel had written about in the Scriptures centuries before the time of Jesus and His apostles.
We have already noted that Jesus’ location after the resurrection and ascension was the right hand of God, and that this expression, so often found in the New Testament, originated with Psalm 110, written circa 1,000 B.C. Likewise, the expression “Son of Man coming on the clouds” was not coined by Jesus of Nazareth but rather taken from the Old Testament – in this case from Daniel 7, written circa 500 B.C. In this passage, Daniel is conveying a vision God had given him. In the vision, Daniel saw “the Ancient of Days” (presumably God the Father) sitting on His throne with a garment white as snow and hair like pure wool. The throne was ablaze with flames and its wheels were a burning fire. A river of fire was flowing from before Him. When the Son of Man came on the clouds, He came up to this Ancient of Days and received a kingdom. Re-read the last few sentences if necessary, but be sure you have Daniel’s entire picture in mind. Got it? Okay. If someone expects to see Jesus physically coming on clouds, he should also expect to see in the same moment all the rest of this scene. It can’t be right to say that the Son of Man part of it will be physically fulfilled but the Ancient of Days part will not.
Such a scene physically acted out would make the coming of God’s kingdom exactly what Jesus said it would not be – a spectator event. Not only this, but would such a scene physically acted out even be worthy of God? Jesus goes to all the trouble (crucifixion being only the centerpiece of His effort on our behalf) to teach us that God is spirit, just so it can one day be revealed that He wasn’t spirit after all but rather someone with hair like wool, who could burn without burning up, and who we could see with our physical eyes if we just wait long enough? Is this what Jesus died for?
Besides all this, those who insist that Jesus must physically appear coming to earth on physical clouds as if He would take delight in riding a cosmic surfboard before the physical eyes of humanity, have Him going the wrong direction! For in Daniel’s vision He’s coming up to the Ancient of Days, not down to earth.
Daniel was not the only prophet who communicated this sort of imagery. Moses had written some thousand years before Daniel that
“There is none like the God of Jeshurun,
Who rides the heavens to your help,
And through the skies in His majesty.” Deuteronomy 33:26 NASB
There is no record that anyone took Moses to be describing the physical sight to be seen whenever God was coming to someone’s help.
Moreover, if Jesus must come to physical Jerusalem as those who teach the “future, physical” Second Coming say, how are people in the Western hemisphere even going to see it? Some have gone so far as to say tha the Second Coming will be televised – spectator sport you can watch on TV! When will such teaching nonsense end? What will it take before we recognize that God would rather we forgive one sin, show compassion to one person in need, do one act of spontaneous kindness…than to wait for Him to put on such a physical show for physical eyes?
Has God not already proven that His displays of power are unequalled? The wonder of a rainbow, a thunderstorm, a sunrise – who could do such things but God? Yes, He could put on a physical display of Jesus that would dazzle every eye, but is that what God wants? If physical displays of His power and glory were sufficient to make people believe then all humanity would be converted at every sunrise, for no human architectural or scientific feat was ever half as glorious. And all of Israel would have been converted every time Jesus did a miracle. Unfortunately, we humans have shown a remarkable resistance to being moved by physical displays of God’s glory. So could this be God’s crowning act through Jesus Christ? That’s not what the prophets of Israel said. They said He wanted us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). That’s the display He put on through Jesus when He humbly walked this earth. Indeed, some saw the spectacular nature of it for the apostle John said, “and we saw His glory” (John 1). John came to appreciate that spiritual glory was greater, more meaningful, more signficant, more lasting, and far more important than physical glory.
Surely Daniel would be disappointed if all we received from his vision was hope for a physical display of God. The main point was that this Son of Man was coming into authority – the authority of God. Did not Jesus say, “My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18)? If He was going to reign on earth in a physical body then the crucifixion was unnecessary, for there was no flaw in Him – spiritual or physical. He was perfectly qualified to reign before He was crucified, if that was the type of kingdom God wanted to establish. But Jesus declined such a kingdom for a place with the Father, for he said, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14).
One other important example of the language of the prophets should be examined and that should be enough to establish the pattern of their speech and Jesus ‘ adaptation of it. This example and ones like it are found in several places in the Old Testament as well as being quoted in several places in the New Testament. Here’s just one:
The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky Matthew 24:29 NASB
You’ll recognize from the book and chapter reference that Jesus spoke these words as He was describing His Second Coming. But if someone quoted you these verses apart from their context and told you that they were a physical description of the end of the universe as we know it, you might believe them. And if you did, then every time you came cross these verses your mind would translate a physical interpretation. You would be reading something into a the Bible because of what you were taught and it would be very hard to break free from that thinking. This is what has happened with so much of the teaching about the Second Coming. We have had verses lifted out of their contexts and given new meaning that they never originally had. We saw an example of this phenomenon in the previous part of this book with the phrase “But of that day or hour no one knows.” That phrase has been separated from the rest of what Jesus said, and impressed on people’s minds that the time of the Second Coming cannot be known. Thereafter, when this verse is read, the listener relies upon the previous understanding. He is perhaps confused by the context, but most people just don’t have the time or inclination to sit down and sift out what they’ve heard for so many years.
For those who do have the time and inclination, one way to correct such misunderstandings is to locate the respective passages in the Bible and to read what comes before it and after it. And not just the immediate context, but their place in the Bible as a whole. The phrase above from Matthew 24 appears first not in Matthew but in the Old Testament prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Therefore, we note that this phrase was not coined by Jesus, but by the prophets before Him. Therefore, it makes sense to look at how these prophets used the term, for Jesus would expect His hearers to recognize that He was quoting the prophets.
Just to take one example, we see Isaiah using the expression in Isaiah 13:10 to describe the fall of Babylon. Now Babylon had fallen long before Jesus ever lived. If the expression is meant to be taken physically then we have a problem because the physical sun, moon, and stars were still in operation during the time of Jesus as they are today. But if we take them spiritually – that is, understand them to be a figure of speech, then we have no problem, for history confirms that the mighty Babylon fell just as Isaiah said it would.
The expression of sun, moon, and stars falling or failing is a figure of speech indicating that the powers that be, or the status quo, or the existing power structure, or prevailing order is going to fall or fail. In creation on the fourth day, these lights were established to rule or govern. They came, therefore, to symbolize ruling or governing powers. This is why when Joseph tells the dream of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him in Genesis 37, his family had no problem understanding that it referred to the existing family authority structure yielding to the much younger Joseph. That is, though Joseph was next to the youngest and possessing hardly any authority in their family, the entire family would be subjected to him. This is why they got so upset with him.
We use similar expressions today when we say, “it was a dark period for their country,” or “that’s the night that the lights went out in Georgia,” or “the sun is not going to shine for them.” Such figures of speech indicate that the existing order will give way to a new one and that the authorities that people relied upon will fail. This is what Jesus was warning would be true for the nation of Israel. People would no longer be able to look to Jerusalem, and the temple, and the priests to give them guidance, for that time of Israel’s existence was now coming to an end. The only salvation was to accept what Jesus was teaching about the kingdom of God because Israel was going to fall and be overrun by enemies. The prophets had warned of judgment on Israel before, but never with this sort of finality precisely because a new covenant was being enacted which would have no physical reference points – only spiritual ones. Do you see how practical this advice was for those Jews? Had the whole nation listened to Him they could have walked away from Jerusalem and started a new life trusting in the promises of God just as their forefather Abraham had done over 2,000 years before. While many of them did believe Jesus, many did not and instead stood by the high priest, the temple, and the old order. When the Romans crushed it in 70 A.D., those unbelieving Jews were crushed with it. It was tragic. It is always tragic when we ignore God’s warnings to turn from our sins, but this was worst moment ever in the life of ancient Israel, and it marked the end of the nation.
To be more specific and accurate about this specific quote of Jesus, however, we should point out that it spoke about a shake-up of heavenly powers. That is, the heavenly Babylon ruled by Satan was going to fall with the Second Coming. The fall of earthly Israel would be prior to that. We will say more about these things as we go along. For now we are just making clear that the kind of warning Jesus was giving above was the same kind of warning that Israel and other nations had heard from the prophets before Him. What was different was the magnitude of the judgment (heaven as well as earth) and the transfer of the living covenant relationship from the physical descendants of Abraham to the spiritual descendants of Abraham (who could be either Jew or Gentile).
The prophets used poetic and picturesque language to convey their truths and warnings in memorable ways. Photocopiers and tape recorders were not around – you had to speak in ways that memories could hold. It is not fair, therefore, to take the prophets’ words out of context and give them strange new meanings they never had. If we approached everyday life and conversation this way, we would never know that “purple mountain majesties” and “alabaster cities” were referring to the United States of America. Neither would we be able to get over our shock when the news reporter told us that there was a talking building on the east coast of the United States (“The White House said today that…”). If we were Joseph’s family, we might have asked him why he thought the sun, moon, and stars were going to alter their courses for him, figuring he’d gone wacko with too much physical science homework. But we would only be following in the stumbling footsteps of the disciples who, when Jesus said Lazarus was asleep, could only assume that he would therefore eventually wake up. Jesus then had to tell them plainly that Lazarus was dead (John 11:11-14).
We can see now that Jesus’ manner of speech, which confused so many, was not entirely original, for He lived His life as a prophet of Israel, drawing from the Scriptures written so many years before He came on the scene. Growing up like other Jewish boys, Jesus was a student of Moses and the prophets. And this also helps us understand why He seemed puzzled when His fellow Jews didn’t understand His spiritual meanings. He was only communicating in a way that should have been quite familiar to them all. After all, hadn’t His contemporaries grown up going to the same synagogues and listening to the same Scriptures?
What Exactly Was Daniel Getting At?
Let us return to the Daniel 7 passage. It is as significant as Psalm 110 in terms of understanding the kingdom of God. At His trial (Matthew 26:64), Jesus quotes both Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13. Upon the fulfillment of these two scriptures hung the inauguration of the kingdom of God. Psalm 110:1 was fulfilled when Jesus was raised from the dead and made to sit at the right hand of God. Daniel 7:13 was fulfilled when the Son of God came again in the glory of His Father.
We have already seen that the main point of Daniel’s vision was that the Messiah was receiving authority. Specifically, He was receiving the authority of God. We have also seen that a physical interpretation of Daniel’s vision is out of the question. One more proof of this is that when Daniel himself asked for an interpretation of it, he was given a spiritual one (Daniel 7:15-28). The four beasts which preceded the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man were four kingdoms. (Need we mention that a physical appearance of the Son of Man would require not only a physical appearance of the Ancient of Days but of these four physical beasts as well?)
The common theme of Daniel’s whole vision is kingdoms, their authority and duration. The culmination and climax of the vision was the Son of Man receiving the kingdom that would never end and would crush all other kingdoms. This would have to be the kingdom of God. Now we remember that Jesus told His disciples that He would come in “the glory of His Father with His holy angels.” As man is superior to the beasts, so God is superior to man. Jesus, having eschewed an earthly kingdom now accepts the heavenly one. This means He receives heavenly glory, the same glory of God. If humanity is largely blind to the glory of God – and it is – would it not also be blind when the Son came in that glory?
And so we see that Daniel’s vision shows Messiah “coming” into great authority and glory – the authority and glory of God. This is what is meant by saying Jesus came the first time as man and the second time as God. The “coming” was not to a mountain in Jerusalem or Samaria (John 4:21-24), but to every human heart in spirit and in truth. At the resurrection, Jesus took the throne of Israel (Psalm 110:1); at the Second Coming, He took the throne of the universe (Daniel 7:13). Jesus prophesied these twin achievements at His trial in Matthew 26:64.
End of Chapter Six
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:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 2 Corinthians 5:17 NASB
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 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,
But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him. John 12:37 NASB
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 worshippers boasting, “See, we told you so; God is best worshipped 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 that they were, then do we not have all the more reason to believe Him about the heavenly things? For He said to Nicodemus,
“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” John 3:12 NASB
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 acknowledgement 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:
“…when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:8 NASB
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