Immediately after the portents just mentioned “the sign of the Son of Man shall be seen coming on the clouds of heaven,” Matt. 24:30. In connection with this the following points should be noted:

  1. THE TIME OF THE SECOND COMING. The exact time of the coming of the Lord is unknown, Matt. 24:36, and all the attempts of men to figure out the exact date proved to be erroneous. The only thing that can be said with certainty, on the basis of Scripture, is that He will return at the end of the world. The disciples asked the Lord. “What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” Matt. 24:3. They link the two together, and the Lord does not intimate in any way that this is a mistake, but rather assumes the correctness of it in His discourse. He represents the two as synchronizing in Matt. 24:29-31,35-44: comp. Matt. 13:39,40. Paul and Peter also speak of the two as coinciding, I Cor. 15:23.24; II Pet. 3:4-10. A study of the concomitants of the second coming leads to the same result. The resurrection of the saints will be one of its concomitants, I Cor. 15:23, I Thess. 4:16, and Jesus assures us that He will raise them up at the last day, John 6:39,40.44,54. According to Thayer, Cremer-Koegel, Walker, Salmond, Zahn, and others, this can only mean the day of the consummation, — the end of the world. Another one of its concomitants will be the judgment of the world, Matt. 25:31-46, particularly also the judgment of the wicked, II Thess. 1:7-10, which Premillenarians place at the end of the world. And, finally, it will also carry with it the restoration of all things, Acts 3:20,21. The strong expression “restoration of all things” is too strong to refer to anything less than the perfect restoration of that state of things that existed before the fall of man. It points to the restoration of all things to their former condition, and this will not be found in the millennium of the Premillenarians. Even sin and death will continue to slay their victims during that period.[Cf. Thayer, Cremer-Koegel, Weiss, Bib. Theol. of the N. T., p. 194, note.] As was pointed out in the preceding, several things must occur before the Lord’s return. This must be borne in mind in the reading of those passages which speak of the coming of the Lord or the last day as near, Matt. 16:28; 24:34; Heb. 10:25; Jas. 5:9; I Pet. 4:5; I John 2:18. They find their explanation partly in the fact that, considered from the side of God, with whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, the coming is always near; partly in the Biblical representation of the New Testament time as constituting the last days or the last time; partly in the fact that the Lord in speaking of His coming does not always have in mind His physical return at the end of time, but may refer to His coming in the Holy Spirit; and partly in the characteristic prophetic foreshortening, in which no clear distinction is made between the proximate coming of the Lord in the destruction of Jerusalem and His final coming to judge the world. Sectaries have often made the attempt to fix the exact time of the second coming, but these attempts are always delusive. Jesus says explicitly: “But of that day and hour knoweth no one, not even the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only,” Matt. 24:36. The statement respecting the Son probably means that this knowledge was not included in the revelation which He as Mediator had to bring.

2. THE MANNER OF THE SECOND COMING. The following points deserve emphasis here:

a. It will be a personal coming. This follows from the statement of the angels to the disciples on the Mount of the Ascension: “This Jesus, who was received up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye beheld Him going into heaven,” Acts 1:11. The person of Jesus was leaving them, and the person of Jesus will return. In the system of present day Modernism there is no place for a personal return of Jesus Christ. Douglas Clyde Macintosh sees the return of Christ in “the progressive domination of individuals and society by the moral and religious principles of essential Christianity, i.e. by the Spirit of Christ.”[Theology as an Empirical Science, p. 213.] William Newton Clarke says: “No visible return of Christ to the earth is to be expected, but rather the long and steady advance of His spiritual Kingdom. . . . If our Lord will but complete the spiritual coming that He has begun, there will be no need of a visible advent to make perfect His glory on the earth.”[Outline of Christian Theology, p. 444.] According to William Adams Brown “Not through an abrupt catastrophe, it may be, as in the early Christian hope, but by the slower and surer method of spiritual conquest, the ideal of Jesus shall yet win the universal assent which it deserves, and His spirit dominate the world. This is the truth for which the doctrine of the second advent stands.”[Christian Theology in Outline, p. 373.] Walter Rauschenbusch and Shailer Mathews speak in similar terms of the second coming. One and all, they interpret the glowing descriptions of the second coming of Christ as figurative representations of the idea that the spirit of Christ will be an ever-increasing, pervasive influence in the life of the world. But it goes without saying that such representations do not do justice to the descriptions found in such passages as Acts 1:11; 3:20,21, Matt. 24:44; I Cor. 15:22; Phil. 3:20; Col. 3:4; I Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15-17; II Tim. 4:8; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 9:28. Modernists themselves admit this when they speak of these as representing the old Jewish way of thinking. They have new and better light on the subject, but it is a light that grows rather dim in view of the world events of the present day.

b. It will be a physical coming. That the Lord’s return will be physical follows from such passages as Acts 1:11; 3:20,21; Heb. 9:28; Rev. 1:7. Jesus will return to earth in the body. There are some who identify the predicted coming of the Lord with His spiritual coming on the day of Pentecost, and understand the parousia to mean the Lord’s spiritual presence in the Church. According to their representation the Lord did return in the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and is now present (hence parousia) in the Church. They lay special emphasis on the fact that the word parousia means presence.[This interpretation is found in Warren’s The Parousia of Christ, and in J. M. Campbell’s The Second Coming of Christ.] Now it is quite evident that the New Testament does speak of a spiritual coming of Christ, Matt. 16:28; John 14:18,23; Rev. 3:20; but this coming, whether to the Church on the day of Pentecost or to the individual in his spiritual renewal, Gal. 1:16, cannot be identified with what the Bible represents as the second coming of Christ. It is true that the word parousia means presence, but Dr. Vos correctly pointed out that in its religious eschatological usage it also means arrival, and that in the New Testament the idea of arrival is in the foreground. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that there are other terms in the New Testament, which serve to designate the second coming, namely apokalupsis, epiphaneia, and phanerosis, every one of which points to a coming that can be seen. And, finally, it should not be forgotten that the Epistles refer to the second coming repeatedly as an event that is still future, Phil. 3:20; I Thess. 3:13; 4:15,16; II Thess. 1:7-10; Tit. 2:13. This does not fit in with the idea that the coming was already an event of the past.

c. It will be a visible coming. This is intimately connected with the preceding. It may be said that, if the coming of the Lord will be physical, it will also be visible. This would seem to follow as a matter of course, but the Russellites or Millennial Dawnists do not seem to think so. They maintain that the return of Christ and the inauguration of the millennium took place invisibly in 1874, and that Christ came in power in 1914 for the purpose of removing the Church and overthrowing the kingdoms of the world. When the year 1914 passed by without the appearance of Christ, they sought a way of escape from the difficulty in the convenient theory that He remained in hiding, because the people do not manifest sufficient repentance. Christ has come, therefore, and has come invisibly. Scripture does not leave us in doubt, however, as to the visibility of the Lord’s return. Numerous passages testify to it, such as Matt. 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27; Acts 1:11; Col. 3:4; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 9:28; Rev. 1:7.

d. It will be a sudden coming. Though the Bible teaches us on the one hand that the coming of the Lord will be preceded by several signs, it teaches on the other hand in an equally emphatic manner that the coming will be sudden, will be rather unexpected, and will take people by surprise, Matt. 24:37-44; 25:1-12; Mark 13:33-37; I Thess. 5:2,3; Rev. 3:3; 16:15. This is not contradictory, for the predicted signs are not of such a kind as to designate the exact time. The prophets pointed to certain signs that would precede the first coming of Christ, and yet His coming took many by surprise. The majority of the people paid no attention to the signs whatsoever. The Bible intimates that the measure of the surprise at the second coming of Christ will be in an inverse ratio to the measure of their watchfulness.

e. It will be a glorious and triumphant coming. The second coming of Christ, though personal, physical, and visible, will yet be very different from His first coming. He will not return in the body of His humilation, but in a glorified body and in royal apparel, Heb. 9:28. The clouds of heaven will be His chariot, Matt. 24:30, the angels His bodyguard, II Thess. 1:7, the archangels His heralds. I Thess. 4:16, and the saints of God His glorious retinue, I Thess. 3:13; II Thess. 1:10. He will come as King of kings and Lord of lords, triumphant over all the forces of evil, having put all His enemies under His feet, I Cor. 15:25; Rev. 19:11-16.

3. THE PURPOSE OF THE SECOND COMING. Christ will return at the end of the world for the purpose of introducing the future age, the eternal state of things, and He will do this by inaugurating and completing two mighty events, namely, the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment, Matt. 13:49,50; 16:27; 24:3; 25:14-46; Luke 9:26; 19:15,26,27; John 5:25-29; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:3-16; I Cor. 4:5; 15:23; II Cor. 5:10; Phil. 3:20,21; I Thess. 4:13-17; II Thess. 1:7-10; 2:7,8; II Tim. 4:1,8; II Pet. 3:10-13; Jude 14,15; Rev. 20:11-15; 22:12. In the usual representation of Scripture, as already intimated in the preceding, the end of the world, the day of the Lord, the physical resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment coincide. That great turning point will also bring the destruction of all the evil forces that are hostile to the Kingdom of God, II Thess. 2:8; Rev. 20:14. It may be doubted, whether anyone would have read the relevant passages in any other way, if Rev. 20:1-6 had not been set up by some as the standard by which all the rest of the New Testament must be interpreted. According to Premillenarians the second coming of Christ will primarily serve the purpose of establishing the visible reign of Christ and His Saints on earth, and of inaugurating the real day of salvation for the world. This will involve the rapture, the resurrection of the righteous, the wedding of the Lamb, and judgments upon the enemies of God. But other resurrections and judgments will follow at various intervals, and the last resurrection and final judgment will be separated from the second coming by a thousand years. The objections to this view have partly been given in the preceding and will partly be mentioned in the following chapters.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: Why cannot the term parousia simply be rendered ‘presence’ wherever it is found? In what different senses does the Bible speak of the coming of Christ? How should Matt. 16:28; 24:34 be interpreted? Does the discourse of Jesus in Matt. 24 speak of a single coming? Does the doctrine of the national restoration of the Jews necessarily involve the doctrine of the millennium? Do the following passages teach such a restoration: Matt. 23:39; Luke 13:35; 21:24; Acts 3:6,7? Does Daniel refer to Antiochus Epiphanes as a type of Antichrist in Dan. 11:36 ff.? How are the beasts of Rev. 13 related to Antichrist? Should the man of sin, of which Paul speaks, be identified with Antichrist? What is the restraining power which is mentioned in II Thess. 2:6,7? Did the apostles teach that the Lord might return during their lifetime? Does the New Testament warrant the idea that the phrase “the end” or “the end of the world” simply means ‘the end of the age’?

LITERATURE: Bavinck, Dogm. IV, pp. 712-753; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Consummatione Saeculi, pp. 117-245; Vos. Geref. Dogm. V, Eschatologie, pp. 22-23; id., Pauline Eschatology, pp. 72-135; Hodge, Syst. Theol. III, pp. 790-836; Pieper, Christl. Dogm. III, pp. 579-584; Valentine, Chr. Theol. II, pp. 407-411; Schmid, Doct. Theol. of the Ev. Luth. Church, pp. 645-657; Strong, Syst. Theol., pp. 1003-1015; Pope, Chr. Theol. III, pp. 387-397; Hovey, Eschatology, pp. 23-78; Kliefoth, Eschatologie, pp. 126-147, 191-225; Mackintosh. Immortality and the Future, pp. 130-148; Kennedy, St. Paul’s Conceptions of the Last Things, pp. 158-193; Salmond, The Chr. Doct. of Immortality, pp. 241-251; Snowden, The Coming of the Lord, pp. 123-171.

From Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof

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