Understanding the Prophecies About the Return of Jesus
|Table of Contents||
CHAPTER 2: THE RETURN
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am you may be also.” John 14:3
It was a dramatic moment. Just forty days earlier the disciples had greeted with skepticism the news that the tomb was empty and that He had arisen from the dead. But for the last forty days He had been with them; He had talked with them, explained the scriptures to them and even had eaten with them. They had touched Him, and as John said, they “handled” Him. (I John 1:1) There was no longer a question about His resurrection from the dead. While His body was different now than it was before the crucifixion it was just as real.
He had gathered them together as usual and was telling them to wait for the Holy Spirit, when suddenly He began to lift of the earth. They watched in awe as He went up into a cloud, and He was gone. Just like that! It was unbelievable! They could not take their eyes off of the cloud; they just stared, with their mouths wide open.
Then two angels appeared and announced to the disciples that Jesus is going to come back. Not in some spiritual way, but physically, in the same body, in the same way, as when He left. (Acts 1:1-11)
Jesus is coming back!
If there is any one thing we know from prophesy, we know that Jesus is coming back. He promised He would, and so there is absolutely no question. There is, however, little agreement among Christians as to the time, circumstances and nature of His return.
Various Views on Interpreting the Return of Jesus
Historically, the question of Jesus' return has always been important since the beginning of the church. In fact, the very early believers were in a quandary. Jesus said he was going to return, and they believed it was going to be very soon, even "tomorrow". Many believers identified the persecution under Rome to be the tribulation; thus they expected Jesus’ return soon. When it did not happen so soon they began to get worried. Then as the saints began to die there was concern in the churches.
So some of the letters in the New Testament were written specifically to comfort the church and reaffirm that, although Jesus had not yet come back, He was going to come back. II Peter is an example of such a letter. Many had died without seeing the return of Jesus, and some were beginning to scoff at that promise (II Pet 3:4). But Peter goes on to encourage the believers that God is giving the church more time to reach those who would perish on that day.
For the next 200 or so years the church continued to be persecuted under the Roman rule. In spite of often having to meet in secret the church grew, but it was still a persecuted church that looked forward to the return of Jesus to establish His kingdom on the earth. “II Clement” was a sermon composed between 100 AD and 140 AD by an unknown author. In it he said,
For the Lord said, “I am coming to gather all nations, peoples, and tongues”. This refers to the day of his appearing, when he will come to redeem us, each according to his deeds. And the unbelievers “shall see his glory” and might, and they will be astonished to see that sovereignty over the world belongs to Jesus.1
In 313 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, and with the Edict of Milan he not only legalized Christianity but also made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. That appeared to be a good thing, because the church was no longer going to be persecuted by the government. But it that also presented a problem.The Christian church was still a small minority of all the people in the Roman Empire. In order for them to be acceptable to the majority of the people as the state religion some changes had to be made in the nature of the teaching of Christianity. Among the things that changed in the teaching of the church was Jesus' return. If Jesus was going to return in the flesh to bring judgment, on whom is He going to bring judgment? The obvious answer was that He is going to bring judgment on all those who have refused Him, have rejected Him and all those who worship idols. That presented a problem, since many of the new “believers” continued in their old ways.
So the teaching in the church on the return of Jesus began to change. It began to move away from a literal return to becoming symbolic. Theologians use the term “a-millennial”, meaning “no millennium”, for this type of interpretation.2
Their primary system, known as amillennialism, holds that there will be no physical, earthly, thousand-year(millennial) kingdom over which Christ will rule. Thus the promises concerning an actual thousand-year kingdom on earth ruled by Christ must be understood as allegory, denying the literal understanding of scores of passages concerning the Kingdom found throughout the Old Testament and specifically referred to six times in Revelation 20:1-7.3
One of the results of the allegorical approach was a reinterpretation of the book of Revelation. A-millennialists do not believe that Revelation is, as it appears on the surface, a description of Jesus bringing judgment literally on the earth, which was the way it was believed in the early church. Rather it was written as a coded message to the church of John's day. Because at the time it was written the church was being persecuted by the Emperor Domitian, it is claimed that John used hidden codes in the text of Revelation to encourage the church.
When we read these disaster scenes [the opening of the seals and the judgments] we should not overlook the fact that Revelation was written to encourage persecuted Christians living in disastrous times, not to frighten pagans into repentance. … The blasphemous monster from the sea probably suggested Domitian…The second beast symbolized the imperial priesthood which vigorously fostered the emperor cult in Asia.4
A-millennialism is still quite popular today, especially among the more liberal churches. Such an approach today has several characteristics.
Another interpretation of prophetic Scripture is that all things concerning the millennium refer to the church. The millennium is not a literal thousand years, but rather a very long time during which the Church expands. In this view the Church will grow to such a point that its influence will reach into the world and as men’s lives are transformed and uplifted they bring about a change in all of the world governments. It will be a change to righteousness and a golden age. Thus it is the Church, not Jesus, that brings in the millennium and the Kingdom of God. Such an approach is “post-millennial”, that is, Jesus returns after (post-) the millennium.
While this may sound fanciful, a good example of this type of thinking emerged during the Y2K crisis of a few years ago. All kinds of disasters were forecast to happen in the world when the date changed from the year 1999 to 2000. Computer systems that control major portions of the energy, communication and defense infrastructures were forecast to fail causing a major disruption in business and industry. The full extent of the problem was unknown, but nations around the world were trying to plan for the disaster that was looming. Even in the heart of Africa villagers were told to collect enough firewood to last a long time.6
Some Christians were quick to jump into the fray and were teaching that in the ensuing world-wide chaos the Church would begin to take dominion over the governments of the world and usher in a period of righteousness. It would be a new age, dominated by the Church and characterized by a world-wide obeying of God’s moral law. Then Jesus would return.
The characteristics of the post-millennial interpretation are:
There is yet a third approach, commonly called “pre-millennial”, which is the approach taken here. Pre-millennialism simply means that Jesus will return prior (pre-) to the millennium to establish the thousand year reign of His Kingdom on earth. There are three basic, generalized statements that define pre-millennialism.
A Literal Interpretation
The heart of the issue as to what we believe about when and how Jesus returns is how we interpret the Bible. It is the view put forth here that the Bible is the true and accurate word of God, and thus is to be taken literally. (See Appendix 1 for the rules of interpreting Scripture literally.) The testimony of Scripture itself is that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (II Timothy 3:16), that it is the word of God (Hebrews 4:12).
Both the a-millennialist and post-millennialist perspectives use a non-literal interpretation of the Bible, which places the “meaning” of the prophetic passages in the hand of the commentator. One of the short comings of non-literal interpretations is that they tend to ignore the judgment of God upon those who oppose and resist Him.
The prophetic literature is actually quite clear on the events and circumstances surrounding the time of Jesus’ return. Stated briefly, there will be a time when a world leader, strengthened by Satan, emerges and brings warfare and tribulation on the earth, and specifically, on the people of God. At some point God intervenes and begins to bring judgment on those who are persecuting His people.
Throughout the Bible the time when God brings judgment on the earth is the culmination of all history and is called the Day of the Lord. At this time God will judge all men and nations righteously, bringing punishment on His enemies and favor to His saints. It can be summarized as follows:
The army of God, led by Jesus, defeats His enemies in a final battle, and Jesus then establishes a kingdom on the earth which will last a thousand years. His archenemy, Satan, will be bound during this time so that peace and justice prevail on the earth. (See Revelation 20:1-6) This thousand year reign of Christ on the earth is called the “Millennial Kingdom.” In the Old Testament it is prophesied that the Messiah will re-establish the throne of David during this time.
While it may not appear so at first, the saints of God play a critical role in this entire scenario. It is for and by the saints that Jesus defeats Satan, that one who has opposed every believer. Because we play such a vital role it is important that we understand what is going to happen. There is a saying in our legal system that goes, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” God has gone to great lengths to give us the information we need, and He will not accept the excuse that we didn’t know.
The next few chapters will look at the major prophetic passages—Daniel, Matthew 24-25, I and II Thessalonians and Revelation—to establish a clear picture of the details of these events.