Notes of an address given at a meeting for ministers, March 1997 H. Sayers
In approaching this subject one fears that we can be in danger of giving greater prominence to things leading up to the event rather than the event itself. We can become so involved in the interpretation of books such as Daniel and Revelation that we lose sight of the overriding message that Jesus is coming `…resplendent in His glory, To take His own from out of this vale of night’ (A. J. Pearce). As John writes, `He which testifieth these things saith, “Surely I come quickly. Amen.” Even so, come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev. 22.20). This is not to say that our understanding of the rapture of the saints, millennial teaching, and prophecy is not important, but rather that we must not allow it to overwhelm the glorious goal of time and history. As C. D. Alexander writes, `The redemption of the church is the great end of all history’. (Revelation Spiritually Understood Pt l, pl I).
My concern then at the present time is to look, not so much at the prior events, but at the great climactic event of time when `the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God’ (1 Thess 4.16). Before we do so however I want to address two questions:
i. Why is this great subject in the background of the thinking and teaching of our generation? – Why is so little emphasis placed on it in the public ministry’? I cannot give definite answers but only make some observations and those not necessarily in order of priority.
It seems to me that there is a close connection between the doctrine of the Second Coming and a biblical concept of sanctification. Where the emphasis on practical, godly living is weak, so too is the emphasis on the Second Coming. Similarly this doctrine is weakened where there is a neglect of preceptive ministry (The Second Coming usually features in the preceptive parts of Scripture!). In the 1689 Baptist Confession we are told that one of the purposes of the doctrine is to promote godliness (Ch.32).
Another reason for the unpopularity of this doctrine is the trend towards a subjective and feelings-orientated ministry. The 1689 Confession again, and all confessional Christianity, places a stronger emphasis on the objective truths of Scripture; one of which is the Lord’s return. This is one of the great statements that should `give greater consolation to the godly in their adversity’ (Ch.32).
It further looks as though this truth is lost sight of when we become, as many have become already, confused and loose in their ecclesiology, failing to look forward and outward at the universal church.
Other things come to mind too; where this doctrine is taught there is an increased urgency in the presentation of the Gospel. Do we preachers live in the light of the imminence of our Lord’s return as we should? Would not our ministry benefit if we did’? Would not our zeal for the lost be greater?
Lastly this doctrine deals with the ultimate triumph and glory of Christ over all His enemies and the final defeat and downfall of Satan. We are in a continual warfare and it is to Satan’s advantage if he can suppress this truth and dishearten us. Surely in the end this is what our great adversary is doing. We need to reaffirm the glory and certainty of Satan’s defeat and Christ’s victory.
The second question I would ask is this:
ii. Why is this matter so important? – Some suggested reasons. As I have said it promotes godliness and a tender conscience before God and is of `great consolation to the godly in their adversity’. More importantly it is something that brings glory to God and His Christ. What greater glory can there be than when the exalted Christ returns to receive His redeemed to Himself and cast His enemies and the wicked into a righteous, awful and eternal hell; when the scenes of Rev. 19-22 burst into our view.
Furthermore the importance of the Second Coming lies in the fact that it concerns all men without exception. The judgment unto everlasting punishment lies before all who know not the Saviour and are outside of Christ, while the judgment unto eternal glory is before all who, according to the eternal purposes, believe in Christ. All men are in one or other of the two groups; they are sheep or they are goats (Matt. 25).
This, and its eternal reality and certainty, should emphasise to us the importance of bringing this day to the attention of men. If that is not sufficient to stir us then let us remember that our great commission is to proclaim the Gospel. The message of our Lord’s return is part of that Gospel and thus must be preached continually. The knowledge of it will stir the ungodly (see Felix in Acts 24.25) and encourage the godly (1 Thess. 4.15, 2 Thess. 1.5-7).
We now move on to the doctrine of the Second Coming itself under four headings, before some suggestions as to the use and application of it.
1. What is the Second Coming of Christ?
Just as we look back from our standpoint in history to the incarnation, or First Coming of the Lord to this world, so the Scriptures make it abundantly clear that He will return to this earth again. Our Lord Himself made reference to it (Matt. 24.30, 25.31, 26.64, Mark 13.26,
John 14.3,28) as also did the apostles in their ministry and epistles (see Acts 3.20-21, 1 Cor. 1.7, 1 Thess. 4.16, 2 Thess. 1.7,10, 2.1, 2 Tim. 4.1, Tit. 2.13, Heb. 9.28, Jas. 5.7-8, Rev. 1.7).
Some helpful suggestions as to what the Coming will be come from: John Calvin
For He will descend from heaven in visible form, in like manner as He was seen to ascend, and appear to all, with the ineffable majesty of His kingdom, the splendour of immortality, the boundless power of divinity, and an attending company of angels. Hence, we are told to wait for the Redeemer against that day on which He will separate the sheep from the goats, and the elect from the reprobate, and when not one individual either of the living or the dead shall escape His judgment. From the extremities of the universe shall be heard the clang of the trumpet summoning all to His tribunal; both those whom that day shall find alive, and those whom death shall previously have removed from the society of the living.
(Inst. Bk.2 Ch. 14 Sec. 17)
A. H. Strong
While the Scriptures represent great events in the history of the individual Christian, like death, and great events in the history of the church, like the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem, as comings of Christ for deliverance or judgment, they also declare that these partial and typical comings shall be concluded by a final, triumphant return of Christ, to punish the wicked and to complete the salvation of His people.
(Syst. Theology p.1003)
Louis Berkhof speaks of a personal – physical – visible – sudden – glorious and triumphant coming.
Various terms are used in connection with the event which we do well to notice. Three Greek words in particular are used which help us to grasp what the Lord’s coming will be:
Apocalupsis, meaning the unveiling or revealing of Jesus Christ to our vision. This is the word used in 1 Cor. 1.7 (NKJV = revelation), 2 Thess. 1.7, and various references in 1 Peter. The Second Coming of Christ will find Him open to the view of all creation as Rev. 1.7. The reverse of Acts 1.10 when a cloud veiled the Lord.
Epiphaneia, meaning a shining forth or glorious appearance.
This word is used concerning the Second Coming in 2 Thess. 2.8 (the brightness of His coming), 1 Tim. 6.14, 2 Tim. 4.1,8. The Second Coming of Christ will see Him appearing in great glory and power just as He went into heaven (Matt. 24.30, Acts 1.1 1). Parousia, meaning to be present. This is the word used by our Lord in Matt. 24.27,377 and by the apostles in I Thess. 2.19, 3.13, Jas. 5.7-8 as well as elsewhere.
Taking these three words we can see that the Second Coming will be the removal of all that prevents our eyes from seeing the exalted and physical Christ attended by His coming into view in His splendid glory to be physically present with humanity and creation.
2. The purpose of the Second Coming
It is clear from the Scriptures that Christ will come to receive the glory, honour, and praise that is appointed for Him and is His due (Phil. 2.10-11). He will receive that glory in various ways.
By taking His place as the Judge of all Matt. 25.31-32, Acts 17.31, 2 Cor. 5.10, Rev. 20.12, Jude v14-15.
By gathering before Him every human being from Adam to the last (see references relating to the Judge). This must involve the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15) and the gathering of the living in one vast concourse before Him to be separated and divided into the lost and the redeemed (Matt. 25.32-33).
By finally destroying all His enemies and the forces of evil and punishing the wicked. Christ’s ultimate triumph will be revealed and made known as the fearfulness of a lost eternity breaks into view and the lost enter into it. This is a fearful consideration but will bring lasting glory to God whose holiness and righteousness will be perfectly vindicated and honoured Matt. 25.41.
By finally completing the salvation of His people (A. H. Strong). The great chain of events described in Romans 8.30 will be seen to be completed as the now glorified saints enter in to be with Christ for ever as a bride adorned for her husband (Matt. 25.34, Rev. 21.22).
By the sheer majesty of what is happening. Just consider the phrases in Matt. 25.31 -The revealed exalted glory of the Son of Man – all His holy angels with Him – sitting on the throne of His
glory – Take this alongside such passages as Rev. 1.12-18 etc. By the ushering in of the new eternal and perfect state. The new heavens and the new earth prophesied by Isaiah 8 (Isa. 65.17, 66.22), Peter (2 Pet. 3.13) and John (Rev. 21.1). Creation is no longer groaning (Rom. 8.22) but delivered and cleansed (Rom. 8.21).
By the presentation of all the redeemed to God the Father as the Kingdom is delivered up to God (1 Cor. 15.24-28). Jude recognises this and points forward to it (Jude v24). The great prayer of John 17 will be answered as the redeemed are glorified and brought into perfect oneness with Christ and His Father.
Time will then be no more but the great and grand purpose of history will be completed. Paradise lost will be paradise regained at the Second Advent of Christ.
We now turn our attention to
3. The timing of our Lord’s return
As we realise the reality and amazing events of this great day the question naturally arises as it did with the disciples concerning the downfall of Jerusalem: `Tell us when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?’ (Matt. 24.3).
In answering that question our Lord warns them to `Take heed that no man deceive you’ (Matt 24.2). We need to begin with the Word of God and not the various theories and suggestions of men. This, I believe, is one of the dangers of discussions and debates. I do not think the book of Revelation helps us particularly in addressing this question because it takes a broad sweep of history rather than giving us detailed predictions. It seems to me that our Lord’s teaching in Matt. 24 (and the parallel passages in the other Gospels), Paul’s writings in 1 Thess. 4 & 5 and 2 Thess. 2, together with Peter in 2 Peter 3 are far more helpful. Rather than deal with the various interpretations of Revelation (ably dealt with by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his series of tapes on Revelation and the numerous commentaries and systematic theologies – especially the late C. D. Alexander) we turn to these four passages. We can learn: No one knows or can predict when it will be. These are our Saviour’s own words (Matt. 25.36-44, Mark 13.27, Acts 1.7). Paul too tells us that it will be unexpected (I Thess. 5.2) and so does Peter (2 Pet. 3.10). We need then, if we are not to be deceived, to refuse those who seek to set times and dates as do many of the sects. We know too that:
A period of Gospel ministry and tribulation will precede that appearing. Again our Lord makes it clear (Matt. 24.15-38) as does Peter when he writes of false teachers (2 Pet. 3.3) and Paul when he warns of the great apostacy (2 Thess. 2). If we take the line that the book of Revelation presents various broad sweeping views of the history of the church; that it is a `spiritual book to be spiritually understood’ (C. D. Alexander); rather than a minutely detailed account of times and seasons, we observe the same things there, for that testing time would seem to run concurrently with the Gospel age. I cannot but feel that the day of the Gospel of the Kingdom being preached in all the world (Matt. 24.14) and the apostacy of 2 Thess. 2 are both with us.
It is plain too that, at whatever stage the world might be in the purposes and plan of God:
Our Lord’s return is imminent. When we remember, as Peter tells us, that with the Lord `one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day’ (2 Pet. 3.8), our perspective is radically changed. Yes, the scoffers question (2 Pet. 3.3-4) and deny, but if the Lord should wait another thousand years before He comes, what is that in comparison to eternity’? Whether then we stand where the apostles did or in our own day the return of our glorified Lord is imminent and we must minister in that light. We dare not give an accurate prediction as to when these things shall be but we can with confidence say that the Lord will come at the end of the Gospel age (Matt. 28.20) which involves witnessing to the Gospel and suffering tribulation in its various forms. We know too that His coming is `just around the corner.’ We turn now, before some concluding applications to the question:
4. What will the consequences of our Lord’s coming be?
In all that God does there is a purpose that must, by the nature and character of God, be perfectly fulfilled. He has a plan for His creation, for men, for angels, and for Himself. The consequence of all God’s activity is the completion of those purposes. Thus since our Lord’s Second Coming is the climactic event of time it must witness the ultimate fulfilment of God’s purpose for creation, men, angels, and Himself. This is the consequence of it. We look at these four points.
The consequence for Creation in general
On reading 2 Peter 3.5-12 and Romans 8.21-23 it seems to me, though I cannot understand it, that the old order will be burned up entirely and yet arising out of it will be a new physical creation. Examine 2 Pet. 3.5-12. Peter refers back to the flood.
When Noah came out of the ark it was into a new environment. A heaven and earth whose appearance had been radically changed. It was pure and clean and in a sense free from sin. Its old ways had perished together with its sinful and wicked inhabitants. A saved people and animals were to take up residence. All others had perished. All had been purged by water. Now in verses 7-12 Peter points us forward. This time the purging element will be fire which is more powerful and effective than water. Arising from the ashes will come a newcreated order and state to last for ever (Isa. 66.22) and be inhabited by a `saved’ humanity and creation, in perfect harmony with God and enjoying perfect intercourse with Him and itself (Isa. 65.17-25). It will be paradise!
The consequence for man
In considering this we must recognise that there will be a consequence for every human being in the resurrection and the judgment. As a result of the judgment there will be a consequence for the redeemed who will be welcomed into heaven, and a consequence for the unredeemed who will be consigned to hell. We look at these in turn. All this for the glory of God.
Judgment. The Scriptures are clear that all must appear before the judgment throne of the returning Lord (Matt. 25.32, 2 Cor. 5.10, 2 Pet. 2.9, 3.7, Jude v15, Rev. 20.11-13). Such judgment will be passed according to the lives that have been lived during time and upon earth. Perhaps the clearest description of the last judgment is in Rev. 20.11-13. The Judge is described (Rev. 20.11) and the scene is set (Rev. 20.12). The dead have been raised and the persons and beings of mankind are present, both body and soul (1 Cor. 15, 1 Thess. 4.14-17), before God. The books, or God’s records, are opened and the lives of men are reviewed. Before sentence is passed the book of life is opened (Rev. 20.12) in which are recorded the names of the redeemed by God’s grace. Whatever imagery is used whether sheep & goats (Matt. 25.31-33), wheat & tares (Matt. 13.37-42), good & bad fish (Matt. 13.37-50), clearly there is to be a separation of the saved and the lost. At the end of the day this is the great point.
Glorification. Once the judgment is past there will be a consequence for the redeemed, or those who are saved according to the plan and grace of God. They will be welcomed into the glory of heaven to enjoy the pleasures of Paradise for ever and ever (Rev. 21-22:5). Their state is described variously as:
The final state of the righteous is described as eternal life (Matt. 25.46), glory (2 Cor. 4.17), rest (Heb. 4.9),
knowledge (1 Cor. 13.8-10), holiness (Rev. 21-27), service (Rev. 22.3), worship (Rev. 19.1), society (Heb. 12.23), communion with God (Rev. 21.3).
(A. H. Strong)
This can be summed up by saying that the consequence is to be like Christ (l John 3.2, John 17.22) and with Christ (John 17.24). Again we could simply say that the final word of Rom. 8.30 is fully realised – glorified.
Damnation. For those who are not the redeemed of the Lord the fearfulness and reality of hell will be their portion. If we cannot fully grasp the wonder of heaven, neither can we fully grasp the horrors of hell where eternal banishment from the gracious presence of God will be suffered. It will be the exact opposite of what we have just described; eternal death, shame, unrest, ignorance, evil, rejection, hatred, disunity and the wrath of God. We must briefly consider:
The consequence for angels
We know from the Bible that the angels are the ministers or attendants upon God and His Christ. Those who did not fall will, at the Second Coming, be waiting upon and glorifying the great Judge (Matt. 25.31) and, according to His purpose, be the instruments in separating and ordering the assembled concourse of humanity (Rev. 14.14-20, Matt. 13.41,49). For the fallen angels however their own final judgment will be passed (2 Pet. 2.4, Jude v6) and their sentence announced (Matt. 25.41). Satan, the Devil, the fallen archangel, will be put to shame and be cast for ever into the bottomless pit of the deepest hell. Lastly under this head:
The consequence for God
Surely the best and only way of putting it is to say that He will be glorified and exalted as described in Rev. 7.9-12 and Rev. 5.9-14.
In preparing this paper four things in particular have struck me with regard to the ministry and also in a personal way. They are things that we all wish to see in our people (and ourselves) and will be encouraged among them as we place a greater emphasis on the Second Coming of our Lord.
Perspectives will be changed. In the first place there will be a far healthier view of the brevity and transient nature of life. An eternity to be spent in heaven or in hell will become an
increasing reality together with the need to be prepared for it. How short really is the time of opportunity for men to repent and believe. What a greater urgency would be found in our ministrations. Again we see many of the Lord’s people so disheartened and downcast, with so little a sense of assurance. I suggest that instead of focussing on their frames and feelings and continually commiserating with them we would do far better to direct them to the eternity and certainty of the glory that lies ahead on -our Lord’s return. Here, as the 1689 Confession puts it, is a great `consolation to the godly in their adversity’. Here is the believer’s hope in a hopeless world, a strength in the face of all that opposes, including death itself, a cause for praise in our saddest hours. Ought we not to sing more, `Thanks be unto God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 15.57). We must point our people to the objective certainties of our faith and the future glory that lies ahead. After all, we rejoice in them, do we not? A firmer grasp of this doctrine will put a spring in the believer’s step and a longing in his heart. Denominationalism and isolationism must fall before this great prospect. Should we really be taken up with our sibboleths and shibboleths when we are part of a great and glorious Church which shall be revealed and presented ere long without spot or wrinkle before God? The small and intimate details are needful in measure but they must be put against the larger, glorious background of the one universal Church. I believe this would fill us with greater joy and peace and improve our relationships with other churches.
Holiness of life and real godliness would be encouraged. Once more the 1689 Confession reminds us that this truth should `deter all men from sin’. True love to the Lord promotes godliness but so too does a knowledge of the real and eternal consequences of sin. We all need deterrents sometimes even as Christians. In our Lord’s ministry, when speaking of the Second Coming in the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25.1-13), our Lord makes application by saying `Watch therefore’. Because of the seriousness of the judgment we should be godly and alert. He uses similar expressions elsewhere. Peter too uses the doctrine in this way in 2 Pet. 3.11-12 and no doubt other instances come to mind.
This doctrine gives a cutting edge to the ministry. In our day smooth things are the order of the day, generally speaking. Both believers and unbelievers need to be stirred up and challenged as to their personal relationship with the Lord, their service of God and their witness to the world. I believe that the teaching of the
Second Coming will do this and be a means of separating possessors from professors, it will stimulate the lost to repentance, and the uncertain to give greater diligence to make their calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1.10). It will stir the believer to greater diligence to be found without spot and blameless (2 Pet. 3.14).
Lastly this doctrine brings great glory to God and His Christ as it vindicates the holy and stern justice of God and exalts the sovereign grace of God before us all. What a day it will be when in all His exalted glory Christ is fully revealed and His name and work lifted up above all things as His enemies are put under His feet and His redeemed church enters into a redeemed world.
I close with l Thess. 4.16-18.
`For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.’