The Second Coming*


Features of the second advent
Time of the second advent
The conversion of Israel
The Millennium

The Bible never actually describes the Second Advent of Christ as `the Second Coming'. Instead it uses three other highly descriptive words.

First, it refers to it as the parousia (parousia)**. This Greek word means `presence' or `arrival', and is best understood in this connection as referring to a royal visit. The church lives in expectation of a royal visit on the part of its living and risen Saviour.

Secondly, the Bible uses the word apocalypse (
apokalupsis): literally, an unveiling of Jesus. At the moment, the dominion and sovereignty of Christ are veiled. One day that veil will be drawn aside and the whole world will see the reality of His sovereign dominion.

Thirdly, the return of Christ is referred to as an epiphany
(epiphaneia). The church is expecting the glorious appearing of her great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13). This is very similar to the concept of apocalypse, but whereas apocalypsis means drawing aside the veil, epiphany is unmistakable manifestation. Once again, the idea is that at present the glory of God in the face of Jesus is not visible to us, but one day we shall see Him clearly in all His divine splendour.

Features of the second advent

What, then, are to be the leading features of the Second Advent of Christ?

First, it is going to be personal.
It will result in the personal presence on earth of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not going to be simply the presence of His memory or of His power or of His Spirit. It is going to be His real, personal presence in this world. The Bible does not tell us by what kind of process this becomes possible or what kind of journey it involves. All it says is that just as Christ was once really present in this world in His incarnate state, so one day that presence will again be a physical reality.

Secondly, it is going to be a return of Christ in glory.
The first advent was a real presence, but it was a presence in lowliness and humiliation. He came in obscurity. He came in hiddenness, in anonymity: incognito. He came into poverty, homelessness, oppression, lowliness and weakness. He came into pain, shame, dishonour, rejection, death and the cross. He came in kenosis, as the great Nobody: the one who looked simply like a servant. He came `in the likeness of men' (Philippians 2:7).

But when He returns He will return in the glory of the blessed God (Titus 2:13). He will look like what He is. He will look like the world's Saviour. He will look like God. He will come with the doxa, with the form, the splendour, the majesty, of God Himself. He will come in all the paraphernalia of deity. He will come in the form that He had for a moment on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke 9) . He will come in the kind of glory with which Yahweh came to Mount Sinai in the days of Moses (Exodus 19). He will come in the splendour with which Isaiah saw him in Isaiah 6. He will come with all the accoutrements of deity. He will come `in the clouds of heaven'; He will come with the holy angels. He will come with His glorified church. He will come with the voice of the trumpet that awakes the dead (Matthew 24:30‑31; 1 Thessalonians 4:16). He will come to the accompaniment of events such as never were seen since the first dawn of creation: the resurrection of the dead, the great judgment and the re‑formation of heaven and earth.

Thirdly, it is going to be a single Second Advent. That may sound a strange thing to say. Who could possibly imagine that there would be two second advents? Yet that idea is widely prevalent among Christians today. It is, for example, a fundamental tenet of Dispensationalism. There is, we are told, a parousia of Christ before the Tribulation to take away His saints (in case they suffer). Then after the seven years of the Tribulation, there is a revelation of Christ, when tie comes back again with His saints to establish His millennial kingdom. This form of teaching is sometimes called a system of double pre's: there is a preTribulation advent and there is a pre‑millenial advent. Christ comes first for His saints and then He comes with His saints.

This idea seems to have been first proposed in a meeting in Edward Irving's church in London in the early nineteenth century. It was taken up by J. N. Darby, who took it into the infant Brethren movement, thereby causing a split. More importantly, the Scofield Reference Bible took up the idea, and the widespread use of this Bible by American fundamentalists means that most evangelicals in the world today hold this view of separate pretribulation and post‑tribulation advents of Christ. One result of this is that the horizon of Christian hope is no longer the end of the world but the `Rapture', when Christ comes for His saints.

One response to this is that it is a very modern idea, dating only from the nineteenth century. Another is that it is obvious from the New Testament that the church goes through the tribulation, whatever that tribulation is: `These are they who have come out of the great tribulation' (Revelation 7:14) and, `for the elect's sake God has shortened these days' (Mark 13 :20). Yet another is that a careful comparison of New Testament passages shows that it does not distinguish the parousia on the one hand from the apocalypsis and epiphaneia on the other. The three words are applied equally to the same event, the last and consummatory advent of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Time of the second advent

There has been much discussion of the actual time of the Second Advent. When is the Lord going to return? The New Testament has three distinctive strands of teaching on this.

First, only God knows. We find this in the famous confession of ignorance on the part of the Jesus Himself: `No‑one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father' (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32). This is something the Mediator does not know; and since the church can know only what He knows, the church can never know this.

Isn't there something hugely instructive in Christ confessing that He doesn't know? Sadly, many Christians have pretended to know. There have been people in all ages who have said that Christ is coming at such and such a time. There are many today who believe that He is coming in our lifetime. Whenever a man says that, he is claiming to know something that even the Mediator did not know. Whoever, therefore, is the source of these guesses, it cannot be Christ.

The second strand is that Christ may come at any time. He will come `like a thief in the night' (1 Thessalonians 5:2). He will come suddenly, without warning, when least expected and when men are least prepared for it. People will be spinning and reaping and sowing; they will be grinding corn and baking bread; they will be asleep in bed, and the Lord will come (Matthew 24:40‑41; Luke 17:34‑36). We are to remain in a state of constant alertness because at any moment Jesus may be here.

It's said that John Wesley was once asked what he would do if he were told that Jesus was to return this evening. His answer was, `I should continue to do exactly what I am doing.' He was ready. Are we ready? What changes, what re‑adjustments, would we need to make if we knew the Lord would be here tonight?

Thirdly, there is a vein of New Testament teaching which seems at first sight to go against this second point: the Lord will not return until certain great signs have been fulfilled. There are four signs to note.

First, the gospel must first be proclaimed worldwide (Matthew 24:14; Mark 13:10); secondly, there will one day be a Great Tribulation; thirdly, there will come a great falling away, a great apostasy (2 Thessalonians 2:3;1 Timothy 4:1); and, fourthly, the Man of Sin will be revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:3). How can we say that Christ may come at any moment if we are also saying that He will not come until these signs have been fulfilled?

There are no straightforward answers to that, but it is highly possible that all these signs have already been fulfilled: fulfilled even before the close of the New Testament age itself. Take the fact, for example, of the gospel being preached to the whole world. We are inclined to assume that that means literal penetration of every people‑group on earth by the Christian message. Supposing that to be true, there never has been such missionary effort as there has been in the last 150 years, and almost every corner of the globe has been reached with the gospel.

But it is possible that what the New Testament really meant was that Christ would not come until the gospel had been established among `the Gentiles'. To us, the gospel moving beyond its Jewish confines into the Gentile community seems but a little step. But to early New Testament believers it was almost inconceivable that the kingdom of God would be opened to the whole Gentile community. Indeed, that caused huge problems in the early church. Yet, so very quickly, the gospel went to Samaria, to Europe, to every corner of the Roman Empire and to all the great cities of the world: to Antioch, Philippi, Athens, Corinth and Rome. By the time Paul was martyred, some thirty years after the death of Christ, the gospel was established immovably in the western world. From the standpoint of the Old Testament that was utterly revolutionary. From our standpoint, the first sign of the imminence of the Advent has already been fulfilled: the gospel has gone to all nations.

In the same way, it is doubtful if the Tribulation refers to any one single episode in Christian history. More likely, it embraces the whole period of the church's existence. We live in `the sufferings of this present time' (Romans 8:18), when `all who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution' (2 Timothy 3:12). Yet this persecution did not begin with real intensity immediately after Pentecost. There was a brief breathing‑space, during which the church was highly esteemed in Jerusalem (Acts 2:47) and Paul could speak in glowing terms of the imperial power (Romans 13:1‑7). But shortly afterwards, the `crushing' began and there were three terrible centuries for the church. In many ways that has been the pattern ever since. In every age of the church, God's children, somewhere, have been in that same crucible of persecution. Once it was the turn of Scotland. In our own day it has been the turn of Uganda, Eastern Europe, China, Manchuria and Iran.

The same is true of the Great Apostasy. Paul told the Church at Thessalonica that the end would not come until there had been this great `falling away' (2 Thessalonians 2:3). It is not clear whether this refers to a Jewish or to a Christian apostasy. Certainly there was a Jewish rejection of the Messiah during the lifetime of Peter and Paul. The later New Testament documents also bear out very clearly that by the close of the apostolic age there had been a very significant falling away within the Christian church itself. For example, the original Church in Ephesus was a glorious church. It was to it that Paul sent that incomparable document, the `Epistle to the Ephesians'. What great Christians they were! What minds they must have had! Had they understood that great teaching, as Paul in the first chapter soars like an eagle, expounding `every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus'? Had their children listened to Ephesians 6 read in the congregation? But it is to this very church that the Lord says so sadly in Revelation 2:4: `Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.' Had the apostasy not already come?

The same is true, too, of the revelation of the Man of Sin. It is quite evident that the Principle of Lawlessness which was in some special way manifested in this Man of Sin was already at work during the New Testament period. In 2 Thessalonians (2:112) Paul seems to have in mind some specific personality, but it is a very obscure passage; and one to which, unfortunately, we seem to lack the key. `Don't you remember,' he says, `that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?' (verse 5). We don't have that essential background information and that makes it hazardous to be confident who the Man of Sin was. There have been some very eminent theologians who held that it was the Roman emperor (the institution itself or a particular emperor). The Reformers were sure it was the Pope. Others have been equally confident it was Mohammed or one of the great leaders of world Communism.

But according to the clearest indication we have, this sign, too, was already fulfilled before the close of the New Testament. John, the last of the apostles, clearly indicates that in his own day the Antichrist was already active. He even says that `even now many antichrists have come' (1 John 2:18). More specifically, he identifies the Antichrist with those heretics (the Docetists) who were denying that Christ had come in the flesh. Such a man, he says, is the Antichrist (1 John 2:22).

There is nothing, then, in these signs by themselves to rule out the possibility that Christ may come at any moment. A11 the signs that have to be fulfilled before He comes can be said to have been fulfilled already.

The conversion of Israel

Except, possibly, one: the promise that one day the Jews will be brought back to Christ. There have been many distinguished Christian scholars, from the earliest ages through the Reformation and down to the present day, who have believed that in Romans 9‑11 the Apostle Paul teaches that one day ethnic Israel, the physical seed of Abraham, will be re‑grafted into the olive tree (Romans 11:17, 23) and brought to faith in the Messiah.

At the moment, I see no reason to abandon that interpretation. The context clearly indicates that the constituency in question is not the spiritual, but the ethnic, Israel. `Brothers,' says Paul, `my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that: they may be saved' (Romans 10:1) and he says, `I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of m5^ brothers, those of my own race' (Romans 9:3). This doesn't mean that every single Jew living at some point in time is going to be saved. It means that just as today Israel is collectively separate from Christ (although there are many Jewish Christians), one day the proportions will be reversed. Israel collectively will be Christian while a minority will remain unbelieving. That seems to be God's promise. He also promises that through this conversion of Israel there will come to the church an experience which Paul describes in Romans 11:15 as `life from the dead': an in‑rush of spiritual power such as the church has never known.

Now I have a problem. If that is the correct interpretation of Romans 9‑11, 1 would have to say that Christ will not return until the Jews are converted. I then have to live with this tension between the New Testament teaching that the Lord may come at any time and the teaching that the end will not occur until the Jews have been brought back to Christ. It is possible, of course, that I am wrong in my interpretation of the passages which seem to say that He may come at any moment. It is even more possible that I am wrong in my view of Romans 9‑11. After all, the church has often been wrong in its interpretation of prophecy and I know that I must hold this view of Romans 9‑11 with a loose grip. I can't assert it dogmatically, because only the fulfilment can really interpret the prophecy.

So much for the question of the time of the second advent. God alone knows; it may happen at any time; it will not happen until certain signs have been fulfilled; most of these have been fulfilled already. There is one more strand to add: the Lord will come at the end. The Second Advent is the terminus, the point at which everything is completed and consummated. That means that the Second Advent is simultaneous with the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment and the regeneration of heaven and earth. It is the day beyond which there is no other day: nothing but glory. It is the absolute End.

The Millennium

The question of the millennium fascinates many Christians. At some point in the future will there be a period, whether a literal thousand years or not, of special glory, prosperity, power and blessing for the church on earth? There have been three views on this issue.

First, there is the pre‑millenial view that Christ will come before the millennium to establish a personal reign on earth. There two varieties of this: the Classic Pre‑Millenial view and the Dispensational view. Both involve the idea that when Christ comes He will raise the blessed dead and they will reign on earth with Him for a thousand years. The Jewish theocracy will be reestablished, the whole world will be governed from Jerusalem and there will be a universal peace.

This interpretation is intensely literalistic. It implies that during this millennium the resurrected dead will live on this earth reigning with Christ and at the same time mingling not only with recently converted Christians, but even with unbelievers. Yet, incongruous though it sounds, this view has been held by some men whose praise is in all the Reformed churches, not least in Scotland. Robert Murray McCheyne, Andrew Bonar, Horatius Bonar and John Milne were all pre‑millennialists, holding views on this matter which were very similar to those of the Plymouth Brethren and J. N. Darby. They never accepted the idea of the pre‑Tribulation Rapture (that, in fact, was later than McCheyne), but their piety was sharply focused on a pre‑millennial advent

Then there is the post‑millennial view that Christ will not come until the world and the church have experienced a kind of golden age of spiritual prosperity. From this point of view, the advent is post‑millennial. There is a real problem here with terminology because the post‑millennial millennium is a completely different kind of millennium from the pre‑millennial millennium. In the latter, there is an earthly reign involving physical, economic and political prosperity. Post‑millennialists, on the other hand, think of the millennium only as a period of unprecedented spiritual revival. This was the view of men like Jonathan Edwards, who longed for the gospel to spread to every continent on earth and wrote to friends urging them join him in a great `concert of prayer' for worldwide revival.' Such a 'Latterday Glory' would come not as the result of the intrusion of new factors (such as the Advent) into human history, but by God's blessing the means of grace already given. It was closely linked to the idea of the conversion of Israel and the resulting `life from the dead' which would come to the church.

Thirdly, there is the a‑millennial view, according to which there is no millennium. Things will simply continue as they are, and as they have always been, until the Lord comes again. This takes a very pessimistic view of Christian and world history. In fact, those who hold it tend to believe that the world will get worse and worse so that when Christ comes He will not `find faith on the earth' (Luke 18:8). Paradoxically, this view is the one that dominates the Reformed churches in North America today, but it is to a large extent a reaction against the more shallow forms of pre‑millennial thinking                                                                                        

I don't think it would be helpful for me to pronounce on these issues. Our Confession of Faith has no position on the millennium and that leaves us total liberty of conscience on this particular issue. I have great sympathy with both the post‑millennial position and the a‑millennial position. On the other hand, I have great difficulty with the pre‑millennial point of view.

There are many reasons for that, but I shall just mention one: it reduces the Second Advent of Christ to just a transitional point on the line of history. Christ comes, and then history goes on for at least a thousand years. In the New Testament, by contrast, the Second Advent is definitive. It is the Day of the Lord; the great denouement; the day when the elements will melt with fervent heat and the heavens shall be dissolved (2 Peter 3:10). It is a curious fact that pre‑millennial belief, which by its own estimation makes so much of the Second Advent, in actual practice reduces its significance, shrinking it to only a transitional point. At the same time, I wish the Free Church of Scotland had adhered more durably to the piety of men like McCheyne and the Bonars.

The word millennium occurs only once in the New Testament  (in Revelation 20) and it is a great pity that on that one reference we should build such a beguiling concept. I might best describe my own position by saying that I am an a‑millennialist who believes in the conversion of Israel. I believe (tentatively) that one day God will bring His ancient people into the Christian fold.  If I am correct in that, I must also believe that that conversion will be like life from the dead to the church, bringing a level of spirituality and effectiveness such as it has never known before.

To that extent, and to that extent alone, I am a millennialist.


1. See in particular Jonathan Edwards' Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement. The full title was, "An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom on Earth, pursuant to Scripture‑Promises and concerning the last Time". It was first published in 1747

* From an article at:, author unknown. Visit their website for a source of excellent articles and sermons.
** Greek words in parens added for clarity.