Leading Question: What did Jesus teach about his second coming?
Studying the biblical evidence for the second coming can yield startling results. Where, for example, can one go in Jesus’ Bible – the Old Testament – to learn about the second coming? In Nave’s Topical Bible, the only Old Testament passage under “Jesus Christ, Second Coming of,” is Job 19:25, “I know that my Redeemer liveth....” But the OT context indicates that the application of Job 19:25 to the second coming is secondary. The first application would see the goel (KJV “Redeemer”) as the near kinsman who would come to defend Job’s integrity, just as Boaz was the goel (KJV “Redeemer”) who came to defend Ruth’s rights (see Ruth 4:4-6).
So where did the idea of a “second coming” originate? One could hardly expect the idea to be clear in the Old Testament, since those who heard Jesus preach didn’t even understand that the Messiah was divine or that he would die after his first coming. Only after the resurrection did those beliefs come clear. How can one grasp the Second Coming if one doesn’t see the First?
What one does find in the Old Testament, however, is the hope of restoration. Isaiah 65:17-25 speaks of new heavens and a new earth, one in which the wolf and lamb would feed together and the lion would eat straw like the ox. But Isaiah 65:20 clearly states that death still reigns in that new heavens and new earth. There would be no premature death, but death still comes to those who have lived a full life. Isaiah 66:22-24 also speaks of the new heavens and new earth; but again the marks of evil remain vivid in the form of the dead bodies of the rebels.
Isaiah’s vision of a vegetarian kingdom in Isaiah 11 uses some of the same imagery as Isaiah 65; it envisions a world no one had ever seen. But it reveals the Old Testament hope at its best.
The phrase “Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament is also revealing. Here are the key references:
1:15; 2:1,11,31; 3:14
From an Adventist perspective the passages in Joel are particularly interesting for the “Day of the Lord” was clearly a grasshopper plague in Joel’s own day. But that wasn’t the end of it. “Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament, while it was always a local day of disaster, already began to point to the ultimate Day of the Lord and the return of Yahweh.
Joel 2:31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved;
And here one begins to see the idea of multiple applications. The celestial signs marking this day were signs of a local “day” which were re-applied to later events in expectation of the final “Day.” In Acts 2, Peter applied Joel’s prophecy to the events surrounding the death of Jesus:
Acts 2:16 (NRSV): No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Our Adventist pioneers applied these same signs to events in the 18th and 19th centuries, i.e. to events in their day: Lisbon earthquake (1755), dark day (1780), and falling of the stars (1833). Finally, in Revelation 6, the same celestial signs are applied to the second coming:
Revelation 6:12 (NRSV) When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.
Adventist pioneer, Uriah Smith, was so focused on a strict historicist interpretation that he could only see the traditional historicist applications. But in the Bible, these are all repeatable signs. In Revelation 6 they clearly refer to the second coming.
A study of the use of these heavenly signs in the Old Testament reveals that these signs were almost always linked with the idea of the “Day of the Lord,” a local judgment which then could be seen as a type of the final Day of the Lord. Here is a succinct list of both OT and NT passages with their applications as indicated by the context;
Given the tantalizing nature of the Old Testament evidence for a “second coming,” it is remarkable that the doctrine is so clear and emphatic in the New Testament. The traditional passages are all clear:
Acts 1:10 (NRSV) While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
1 Thess. 4:16 (NRSV): For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
From the Gospels, one thinks immediately of this passage from John:
John 14:2 (NRSV): In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
But there is another lesson from Jesus that believers have often overlooked: You can’t know when he is coming! That is especially true of Matthew 24-25 which first lists the signs of the end, then proceeds to say that the coming will be a surprise. Here are the key texts, including one from Acts and one from 1 Thessalonians, all of which state that the day will come as a surprise:
Matthew 24:36-39: But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Matthew 24:42-44: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Matthew 24:48-50: But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know.
Matthew 25:5-12: As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Acts 1:6-11: 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
The practical application of these passages from Scripture is spelled out with clarity by C. S. Lewis in his essay, “The World’s Last Night”:
“We must never speak to simple, excitable people about ‘the day’ without emphasizing again and again the utter impossibility of prediction. We must try to show them that the impossibility is an essential part of the doctrine. If you do not believe our Lord’s words, why do you believe in his return at all? And if you do believe them must you not put away from you, utterly and forever, any hope of dating that return? His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions. (1) That he will certainly return. (2) That we cannot possibly find out when. (3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him.” – C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 107
Should one be fearful of the coming “Day”? Perhaps. As Lewis put it in the same essay:
“Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several others things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.” – WLN, 109
The value of being prepared is also seen in this quote from Thomas Merton who was asked how the Shakers, who believed the world would end at any moment, could still build such marvelous furniture. Merton said: “When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well.” – from Rodney Clapp, “Overdosing on the Apocalypse, Christianity Today, October 28, 1991.
The message for our day is clear. Be prepared. Jesus could come today.