To talk about the return of Christ is to invite a torrent of questions—you know them: questions about the millennium, the timing of Christ’s return, and the nature of the kingdom he will bring. These questions about Christ’s return can be helpful, and we will wrestle carefully with several of them in this and subsequent articles.
Because these questions are difficult to answer, they tend to lead to disagreement. Given our respective temperaments, conflict tempts us either to avoid the issue or attack our opponents. The net result is that the most significant event of human history can lose for us its crowning place in the Bible’s story of redemption. To say it differently, if Christ’s return is unimportant to us, or if we equate Christ’s return with our theory of the millennium, for example, we are not properly reading the climactic chapter of God’s story.
Recently one of our children finished a book only to discover that the last few chapters were missing. That’s a tragedy! But it would be equally tragic if, in the place of the last few chapters, someone had inserted a highly condensed summary of the ending followed by pages of technical literary analysis and point/counterpoint discussion of the story’s resolution. That’s sometimes how Christians reflect on the return of Christ. “What’s your view of the millennium?” isn’t a terrible question. But it is a terrible replacement for the wonder and awe we should experience when we reflect on how God will resolve this present age.
The return of Jesus as a historical event—the final historical event of this present age—cannot be understood apart from the rest of the history of this age. To put it briefly, this present age is a time of redemption.
The Context of Christ’s Return
That the present state of things is not all right does not need to be argued; we experience this fact in myriad ways. What is more challenging is to articulate why everything is wrong. If we could retell the story of the world from the beginning until now we would quickly realize that the two connected concepts of sin and God’s presence are at the heart of that story. Only when we grasp the relationship between these two realities can we understand Christ’s return.
Everything about the first two chapters of the Bible conveys that God was intimately present in the sinless world. God’s Spirit moved over the canvas of the universe, forming and filling the budding world with goodness (Gen. 1:2) So close was God to the world that his word produced substance and his breath brought life (Gen. 2:7). God made humans sufficiently like him so that they could uniquely enjoy his presence and experience his blessing (Gen. 1:26–28). When God spoke to Adam, his voice sounded friendly; everything he said was good and well-received. The end of the Bible’s story hints at what the beginning was like: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3). History began with the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and naked Adam and Eve, completely at peace with each other.
Notably, when the first humans sinned against God they lost the pleasure of his presence. Now, when “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden, in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8) Adam and Eve did not run to him. They ran from him. They “trembling fled from His presence” having made themselves “wholly miserable.”1 Having rejected God’s friendship, they turned their own way (cf. Isa. 53:6). Ever since then humanity’s most basic problem has been alienation from God. But in that dark moment God began to demonstrate a divine attribute that man had not yet known: mercy. God’s love toward his people never depended on their love for him but on his untainted goodness. And so, even when Adam and Eve began to despise God, he kept loving them. He pursued them in love, calling out to Adam (Gen. 3:9) the way a father cries out for his children who have become lost in a forest. When he found them he demonstrated the guilt of their sin so they would be able to appreciate the promises he was about to make. At the devil’s instigation they had traded their innocence for pain. Satan had driven the wedge of sin between God and his people. God would not overlook this evil. Instead, he would raise up an heir of Adam and Eve to destroy the devil and his works (1 John 3:8). God meant this promise to bolster Adam and Eve—and their believing descendants—to retain hope in a sad new world. Life would become hard (Gen. 3:16–19); God would seem less accessible (Gen. 3:22–24). But he would never be beyond man’s believing grasp (Acts 17:27).
Since the first sin people have yearned for God’s presence even when this yearning has become obscured by distractions. And since that first promise God has continued a work of restoration that he will complete on the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6).
The rest of the Bible provides glimpses into what the restored presence of God will be like. God continued to retain a remnant of people who would “call on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26) keeping alive hope that God had not altogether forsaken his world. God later chose Abraham to be the father of a special people who would show “all the families of the earth” the blessedness of knowing God (Gen. 12:3). God promised his people: “I will set my tabernacle among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” (Lev. 26:11–12). The physical tabernacle, and the later temples, were physical testimonies of God’s promise to be among his people.
It makes perfect sense, then, that when God sent his Son—the Word become flesh, God born of a woman (Gal. 4:4)—to break the curse and open up a new and living way to God, that he “dwelt among us”; literally “he fixed his tabernacle” among us (John 1:14). God was again among men, preaching good news, healing up broken hearts, announcing liberty to captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18).
But God was not yet ready to restore all things. Christ died like a sinner (2 Cor. 5:21), was raised in an imperishable body, and “was taken up” from his disciples into heaven (Acts 1:11) to continue working redemption until the time was right. In exchange for his physical presence, Christ left the Holy Spirit as a guarantee (2 Cor. 5:5) that when our present tabernacles, our bodies, are destroyed we will “have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will keep his promise (2 Cor. 1:22) to again live with us in unrestricted freedom. The Spirit guarantees that God’s people will not miss out on their inheritance; not a legacy of possessions but a bequest of belonging, God’s prized possession is bought back from a foreign land by the blood of Christ (Eph. 1:14).
In the light of the whole history of redemption Peter preaches the return of Christ. “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:19–21).
“Christ,” says John Calvin, “hath already restored all things by his death; but the effect doth not yet fully appear.”2 The barriers between God and man have not yet been completely removed. But when Christ returns he will restore full fellowship between God and his people. Toward that end Christ works from heaven, even now, restoring spiritual fellowship and preparing a dwelling place for the restored family of God (John 14:1–4).
Set within this story, it should be plain that the return of the King is not a postscript to the story of this age; it is the main event toward which this entire age leans. Neither is it a theory to debate. It is a reality that should steel our hope in God’s reconciling work.
Within this overarching framework of God’s work of restoration, several notable characteristics of Christ’s return emerge.
The Characteristics of Christ’s Return
A Literal Event
Any attempt to allegorize Jesus’ promise to return to his people conflicts with the clear words of Scripture. The Gospel writer Luke, writing as a historian who had “perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (Luke 1:3), pictures the apostles “gazing up into heaven” (Acts 1:11) after Jesus had just been “taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (v. 9). The two heavenly messengers told them, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (v. 11). As physically as Christ had been with the disciples, and was with them no more, so would he return again.
At the opening of both his Gospel and his first epistle John insists that Jesus, during his incarnation, was literally, physically with his people so that he was seen with eyes, looked upon (1 John 1:1, 2, 3), and beheld (John 1:14). John likewise expected a literal, physical return of Jesus; “Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him” (Rev. 1:7).
In Scripture Christ’s return is not a metaphor for a revival of spirituality or the advance of Jesus’ kingdom principles; a shouting, trumpeting Christ, riding the clouds (1 Thess. 4:16) is an unsuitable metaphor for a mere symbolic return. The hope of the gospel is not a restored sense of closeness with God but the actual “presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming” (1 Thess. 3:19). Faith desires to lay hold not merely of Jesus’ ideals but of Jesus himself. The only satisfying and comforting vision of the end is to “always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). Only Christ’s literal second coming is salvation (Heb. 9:28).
A Certain Event
Because of its central place in God’s plan of restoration it is no wonder that Christ’s return is an event resolutely and repeatedly promised by God. Three times in the Bible’s final chapter Jesus promises, “I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20). Jesus bolstered the faith of his troubled disciples with this promise: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). Not surprisingly, as the darkness of the shadow of death deepened, Jesus increasingly vowed to return after his departure (cf. Matt. 24:30; 25:19, 31; 26:64).
But even before Jesus’ first advent, God had promised to come back to his people. The New Testament reiterates a theme promoted by the prophets (e.g., Isa. 13:6; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10): The Day of the Lord will be a calamitous event for the nations particularly because the God whom they assumed to be afar off—never to return—will come near to avenge his people and his name (cf. Ps. 10, esp. vv. 11–12).
God has promised to return to save his people and judge his enemies. But he tells no man the day or the hour (Matt. 24:36). Some assume, by God’s delay in keeping his promise to return, that the Lord is “slack concerning his promise” (2 Pet. 3:9). They forget that God always keeps his promises, though they are a long time coming. They forget that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (v. 8). “As nothing outlasts God, so nothing slips away from Him into a past.”3 God is astonishingly patient. He is content to allow more time for the church to fulfill the Great Commission and for the unreached to repent.4
A Calculated Event
While it is not for us to “know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority” (Acts 1:7), Scripture does speak of signs of Christ’s coming. These signs have always been evident during the last days, the time between Christ’s two appearances. But they will culminate in unmistakable tokens of Christ’s return immediately prior to the great day. In this way the signs of the end affirm that “the coming of our Lord is approaching” and encourage us to “be ready at any time to receive him.”5
First, before Christ returns “the gospel must first be preached to all the nations” (Mark 13:10; cf. Matt. 24:14) to the extent that the good news becomes “a sign that calls for decision.”6 Immediately before his departure Jesus charged the church to bring his story to the world (Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15–16; Luke 14:46–49; Acts 1:8) so that salvation might come to “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
Second, through worldwide evan-gelization the fullness of Israel will be saved. While God began his work of grace primarily among the Jewish people, “they have not all obeyed the gospel” (Rom. 10:16). With a heart overflowing with love toward his fellow Jews (Rom. 10:1), Paul uses Isaiah to express his disappointment over Israel’s general unwillingness to believe in Jesus: They are “a disobedient and contrary people” (v. 21). Still, insists Paul, “God has not cast away His people whom he foreknew” (11:2). Before Christ’s return God will “turn away ungodliness” from his first people, “and so all Israel will be saved” (v. 26). Despite differing interpretations, it seems that Paul firmly hoped for a large-scale conversion of the Jewish people before the return of Christ.7
Third, near the end of this age, God’s restraint of the devil will relax, resulting in the great apostasy and tribulation. John saw that, at the end of this age, “Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations,” making war against God’s people (Rev. 20:7–8). Not only Jesus (Matt. 24:9–12, 21–24; Mark 13:9–22) but also Paul (2 Thess. 2:3; 2 Tim. 3:1–5) and John (Rev. 6:9; 7:13–14) expected God’s people, especially near the end, to enter the kingdom of God through great tribulation (Acts 14:22).
Fourth, before the true Christ returns from heaven, the spirit of antichrist, who has always been in the world (1 John 2:18; 4:3), will be manifested in a single person. During the unprecedented tribulation (Mark 13:19), “False christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (v. 22). A single “man of sin . . . the son of perdition” will be “revealed” as an imposter; him “the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming” (2 Thess. 3:3, 8).
A Relevant Event
Christ’s return is relevant exactly because it will be powerful and glorious (Mark 13:24–27). “Power” and “glory” are biblical shorthand for what makes God so unlike his creation; the terms contrast the weakness (Rom. 6:19) and vanity (see Ecclesiastes) of human life. At Christ’s coming believers will trade dishonor and weakness for glory and power (1 Cor. 15:43). A reunion with the God of glory and power (Rev. 19:1) is good news for inherently insufficient people.
Because of Christ’s promise to return we can face the disappointments of life with sure hope that God is fixing the mess we made; he has not given up on his people. We can wait for him (1 Thess. 1:10) patiently, trusting that he is neither impulsive nor sluggish. “Therefore, we expect that great day with a most ardent desire, to the end that we may fully enjoy the promises of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”8
1. Belgic Confession, art. 17.
2. John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 1:153.
3. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1958), 114.
4. Says Calvin, “And this is the reason why Christ doth not appear by and by, because the warfare of the Church is not yet full.” Commentary, 1:153.
5. William Hendriksen, The Bible on the Life Hereafter (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), 113.
6. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 698.
7. For a brief elaboration on this thesis, see Cornel Venema, Christ and the Future: The Bible’s Teaching about the Last Things (Carlisle, PA.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 59–65.
8. Belgic Confession, art. 37.
Rev. William Boekestein
happily serves Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI. He has written several books, including Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation (with Joel Beeke).