Heavenly Signs - 3

The earth’s atmosphere can be stable or volatile; it can be brilliant in color or muted and gray.  It has been the highway for the Lord, the Spirit and angels to traverse between the temporal and eternal realms.  But there yet remains one more sign to come in the heavens, a sign that Jesus, angels and apostles all announced would occur when this physical creation has reached its terminus in the purposes of God.

9. The Return of the Lord.  As noted last week, Jesus ascended with an assurance of two angels that “this same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Ac 1:11).  As Jesus visibly rose into the skies over the Mount of Olives, so Jesus will visibly return in the skies – but not just over a hilltop outside of Jerusalem.  This “second” – last – coming of Jesus will be unmistakable to all who dwell on the earth.  Let’s examine this future eventuality via a series of questions:

Will Jesus come back in a “secret” return?  In a word, no.  The premillennial doctrine of the “rapture” – a term not used in Scripture – asserts that prior to the end of all things Jesus will come quietly and remove all of the faithful from the earth in a sudden disappearance:  “It is usually called the secret rapture, i.e., it is secret in the sense that it takes place in the invisible, spiritual realm.  The return of Jesus that results in the rapture is not visible to the world in general.  No one except the raptured will see him or know he is there.  Also, when believers are raised and transformed, their physical bodies disappear from this world and their new bodies just appear in the spiritual world, totally unseen by those left behind.  This instantaneous disappearance is the only thing noticed by the unraptured” (Cottrell, The Faith Once for All 549).

When Paul describes the future of the righteous in 1 Th 4 (he does not here deal with the condemned), he uses picturesque figures both audible and visual:  “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.  For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.  For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (4:14-17).   There is nothing clandestine about the return of the Lord – shout/voice/trumpet all announce the Lord’s presence. 

Is there one resurrection, or several spaced out over time?  Premillennial theories posit several resurrections:  at the “rapture,” after the “7-year tribulation” and after the “1,000 year reign” of Christ on earth.  This contradicts Jesus’ teaching on a singular resurrection of all the dead, righteous and wicked, at the same time (cf. Jn 5:28-29; Mt 13:30, 39-43, 49-50).  The NT doesn’t teach multiple comings of the Lord (secret and public), a 1,000 year reign on earth or a staggered schedule of resurrections.  The next return of the Lord will be visible, universal and final; all the redemptive plans of God will have reached their consummation.   

Jesus is now reigning in heaven and will do so “till He has put all enemies under His feet” (1 Cor 15:25).  Note that when the righteous are raised, “then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power” (15:24).  Premillennial doctrine says that when the righteous are “raptured” seven years of tribulation will begin, and afterward Jesus will come and reign on earth for 1,000 years.  However, Paul says the raising of the righteous will herald the end of His reign, not the beginning.  One major flaw of this theory is the denial of Jesus’ current reignSince Jesus didn’t establish a visible kingdom, His plans must have gone awry, they say.  Thus they assert that Jesus will return in the future to do what He failed to do the first time.

What does it mean that “God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Th 4:14)?  When we die, our spirit departs the body to return to God and the physical body “returns to dust” (Ecc 3:20; 12:7).  But Jesus will bring the spirits of all men (remember, this passage only focuses on the righteous) and will reunite them with a raised and transformed physical body.  Paul is here giving reassurance to the misguided Thessalonians that death would not disadvantage the righteous in any way.  Rather, “we who are alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17).  Whenever Jesus returns, some will experience it  within the span of their earthly lives (a small minority compared to all the humans who will ever have lived).  But “the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them …” (4:16-17).  There is no advantage to being alive when the Lord returns vs. dying before that day.  The souls of those who have departed are in the Lord’s safe keeping.

When Jesus comes back, will He refurbish the earth and return it to a state of perfection?  Will some of the righteous be on a restored earth throughout eternity?  No, this is another fanciful theory that ignores what Peter taught about the fate of creation in 2 Pet 3:  “But the heavens and the earth which now exist are kept in store by the same word, reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men … the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.  Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat” (3:7, 10-12).  One would think that this would remove all doubt about the future of the cosmos, but false teachers still assert that this is merely a purifying fire, not an annihilation.  But Jesus and His apostles point us away from a created, material world to a heavenly one (Jn 14:2-3; Ph 1:23; 3:20; Col 3:1-4). 

Will we at least have fair warning ahead of Jesus’ return?  No.  The only “fair warning” given is that His return will most assuredly happen, but when is not revealed (Mk 13:32-37).  “For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night …” (1 Th 5:2; 2 Pet 3:10).  We should live daily in a state of expectation knowing that at any moment the Lord might return to take us home.  Are you prepared?