WELCOME TO THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

 

               WHEN DOES CHRIST RETURN?  PART FIFTEEN    
 

The parousia of Christ:

     It is instructive that the Greek word rendered “coming” in the New Testament is the word “parousia.”  This words basic meaning is "presence."  It is interesting that the New Testament writers used this word to describe the coming of Christ.  In his Companion Bible, Bullinger footnotes “parousia” in Matthew 24:3 to explain that the “Papyri show that from the Ptolemaic period down to the second century A.D. the word is traced in the East as a technical expression for the arrival or visit of the King or emperor.”  This Greek word can also mean the coming of a “divinity who makes his presence felt by a revelation of his power.” (See, A Greek-English Lexicon, by Arndt, Gingrich and Bauer).

       The presence of Christ was experienced by first century Christians when He came a second time in the first century to fully implement resurrection from eternal death to eternal life. This resurrection from death to life was made possible by Jesus paying the death penalty for sin on mans behalf. This allows man to virtually become a new creation. This new creation is facilitated by man becoming reconciled to God because through Christ mans sins are no longer counted against him.

       2 Corinthians 5:17-19a: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.

       We all continue to physically/biologically die. Under the Old Covenant, our sins would have made that death eternal. Because of the Christ event, the death penalty has been removed and we have eternal life residing in us which negates the permanency of death due to sin. Eternal life residing in us allows for our transformation from having a natural body to a spiritual body upon physical death. Again let's look at what Paul wrote

       1 Corinthians 15:44a-49: If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.   So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven.  As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

       As previously covered, the Greek word rendered natural is ψυχικόν (psychikon) and means having the nature and characteristics of animal life (See Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). The natural body is seen as a physical/biological entity made of the dust of the earth. The Greek rendered “spiritual” is πνευματικν (pneumatikon) and has the general meaning of something non-physical.

       Jesus was resurrected to having a non-physical spiritual body as witnessed by His after resurrection ability to appear and disappear at will.  While He was able to interact with His disciples in a physical manner, it is apparent His composition had changed. It is this change in composition that first century Christians were looking forward to at the appearing of Jesus. 

The documentation problem:

       Based on the clearly documented expectations of the first century Christians as recorded in the NT Scriptures, It must be assumed that the deceased saints were invisibly raised from the dead at the expected return of Christ in the first century.  They were given spiritual bodies and transported into the Kingdom of God in the heavenly realm.  However, it is also apparent that first century Christians and their leadership firmly believed and expected that those alive at the expected near at hand return of Christ would also be changed from having physical bodies to having spiritual bodies. 

       Living Christians would not have to wait for physical death to receive a spiritual body. Paul taught that both the living and the dead would experience this change.  The dead saints would be revivified and given spiritual bodies.  Alive saints would be instantly transformed from having a physical body to having a spiritual body.  Both groups would join Christ in the heavenly realm and enter the Kingdom of God. This is sometimes referred to as the Individual Body View (IBV) as opposed to the Corporate/Collective Body (CBV) discussed in Part Eleven.

CBV versus IBV:

        As you may recall, The CBV believes resurrection to be spiritual in nature. Resurrection is seen as spiritually rising out from under the the Old Covenant of death into the New Covenant of life. Resurrection is seen as a dynamic of the covenantal transition that occurred during the 40 year time frame between Pentecost and the return of Christ.

       Sin is seen as spiritual separation from God and the penalty that causes eternal death. Physical death is not seen as the penalty for sin but the natural consequence of being mortal. Upon physical death the mortal body is seen as being transformed into a spirit body. Under this view, the living Christians at the first century return of Christ were not "raptured" and given spirit bodies but were given eternal life to dwell within them and when they physically died they would receive their spirit body. 

       The IBV does not see resurrection as a spiritual rising out from under the Old Covenant of death into the New Covenant of life.  Under this view sin is seen as producing both physical and spiritual death.  Resurrection is simply seen as the restoration of individual dead physical/spiritual bodies.  Because of the expectation seen by NT writers as to a change from physical to spirit that would occur at the return of Christ, IBV believe a "rapture" of the living saints occurred at the same time the righteous dead were raised.   

        The problem with this perspective is that while dead saints could have been resurrected unseen into the heavenly realm, this would not have been true of living saints. The disappearance of living saints would not have gone unnoticed.  Yet there is no written or oral witness to such an event occurring. 

       By this point in the development of the Christian Church, all evidence points to there being tens of thousands of both Jewish and Gentile Christians spread across the Roman Empire.  Yet nothing is written about Christians suddenly disappearing from their homes, jobs, schools, the marketplace or anywhere else.

       Some argue that this is the case because there were no Christians left to write about this event. The living Christians had all been raptured. However, there are no writings from secular historians of the time showing this event to have happened. Furthermore, when Christian writing does again appear early in the second century, there is no mention of a resurrection/rapture having occurred but instead we see writing that points to a yet future return of Christ and all associated events. 

       What complicates this matter even more is that Jesus, in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24), advised His disciples to flee Jerusalem when they saw its destruction was about to occur. There is some historical evidence that the Jerusalem based Christians fled to the city of Pella in the Decapolis on the other side of the Jordan River.  While it could be argued that they fled early in the war before Christ directly intervened, the question must be asked that if a rapture of living saints was to occur when Christ returned in judgement against first century Israel, why the need for the saints to flee Jerusalem?  Why were they not raptured out of Jerusalem?  There is no documentation of Christians being raptured out of Jerusalem, Pella or any other location.  Proponents of CBV see this as indicative of living Christians continuing to remain but now having eternal life abiding in them resulting in their receiving a spiritual body at the time of their physical death. 

        Since it is believed the leadership of the NT church were led by the Holy Spirit in coming to believe what they did, it is argued that the Holy Spirit could not have led the NT leadership to anticipate these events happening in their lifetime if it wasn’t going to happen.  Therefore, it must have happened and the recorded expectation that it was going to happen is believed to be documentation enough. 

       To this point in this series, we have shown conclusively that the leadership of the NT church believed and taught that the coming of Jesus and the related events of judgement, resurrection and establishment of the Kingdom was about to occur and would occur in their generation.

       It appears Jesus made it very plain to His disciples shortly before His crucifixion that he was going to prepare a place for them and would return to bring them to the place He had prepared. 

       During the meal Jesus was sharing with his disciples just before his arrest, Jesus made a very encouraging promise to the disciples as recorded in John 14. Keep in mind here that Jesus is addressing His disciples who were present with Him at the time. They would have understood Jesus to be making this promise to them, not to people living hundreds and thousands of years in the future.  Here is the promise.

       John 14:1-3: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

        While it is true this passage has had a variety of interpretations, the general interpretive consensus is that Jesus is speaking literally of going to where the Father resides to prepare a place for His disciples and will return to bring them to this place so that they can reside with Jesus where Jesus is which is apparently where the Father is.  Many Scriptures show the Father resides in the heavenly realm which is were the seat of authority is for the Kingdom.

       Since Scripture shows Jesus ascended to the Father 40 days after His resurrection and we know the Father resides in the heavenly realm, it would appear it was into the heavenly realm that Jesus ascended and it was there where He was going to prepare a place where both the dead and the living saints would be taken.

        Most Christians look at this passage and completely ignore audience relevance. They conclude Jesus is addressing all Christians of all ages.  However, the context is Jesus’ imminent crucifixion and his absence from being with His disciples. He is trying to reassure them that after all is said and done, He is going to return to them and take them to be where He is.  He reiterates in verse 28 that He is coming back to them.  This would have been of little encouragement to them if His returning to them wasn’t going to take place until after they were dead for thousands of years.  

        John 14:27-28: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. "You heard me say, `I am going away and I am coming back to you.' If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 

       Some see Jesus' promise about going to the Father and returning as relating to His resurrection from the dead where Scripture shows He did ascend to the Father but then returned and spent 40 days with his disciples teaching them about the Kingdom before re-ascending to the Father.  Preparing a place for them is seen as preparing a spiritual place and that through His crucifixion and resurrection Jesus had facilitated a spiritual union with Jesus and the Father. 

       This view, however, does not harmonize with Jesus speaking of there being many rooms (Greek: μοναὶ, meaning "abodes") in the Father's house. Nor does it harmonize with the Scriptural passages we have discussed that speak of being clothed with a heavenly dwelling and the Kingdom having residential location. 

       Paul shows we cannot be in the Kingdom as flesh and blood, perishable Beings. We must be transformed into a Being of different composition, an imperishable Being that will live forever.  Paul clearly speaks of this transformation occurring for both the dead and the living Christians at the anticipated return of Christ in his generation.

       1 Corinthians 15:50: I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

       As shown in the Chapter in this series on the Kingdom, we as physical Beings can participate in the spiritual dynamics of the Kingdom. These dynamics pertain to our conduct before God and man.  While physical, we can also have imperishable eternal life abiding in us through the action of the Holy Spirit. In this respect, we are provisionally in the Kingdom.  While this was also true for first century converts to Christ, it is also apparent that these first century converts expected to have the eternal life abiding in them to become manifest in experiencing a transformation from having a physical body to having a spiritual body at the return of Christ. 

      1 Corinthians 15:51-57: Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

        Paul says, “we will not all sleep.”  Many interpreters view this as an editorial "we" in that Paul meant those Christians alive at a yet future to us (future to our 21st century time) return of Christ.  However, it is evident from the entire corpus of Paul's writings that he believed and taught that Christ would return in his generation and this is when resurrection would occur.  Thus the “we” he is addressing are the Corinthian Christians.  Paul is not addressing people living thousands of years into the future.  Paul is speaking of an event that he anticipated would take place shortly before some of those he was addressing would die.  Paul says the “we” will be changed.  That change for the “we” would take place at the same time the dead in Christ were receiving their change.  Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Philippian Church and also discusses this transformation In a second letter to the Corinthians.

       Philippians 3:20-21.  But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

       2 Corinthians 5:1-5: Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.     

       At the return of Christ during the events associated with the destruction of the temple, it was at that moment in history that Christ consummated the process of change from the Old Covenant ministration of death to the New Covenant ministration of live.  The power of sin to produce eternal death was broken. The victory over death was won and continues won to this day. This appears to be certain.  What remains uncertain are the dynamics of how this all played out relative to resurrection of the dead and the living when Christ returned in the first century. 

Unanswered questions:

       We continue to have the problem of the lack of documentation.  We don’t have written witness to either resurrection of the dead or transformation of the living actually taking place in the first century.  While first century historian Josephus records reports of several "supernatural" events occurring in association with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, these reported events are not independently substantiated nor do they give  evidence to a resurrection/rapture taking place.

       What we do have are NT documents that record great expectation and anticipation of these events. What we have is a great deal of Scriptural assertion that the return of Christ and related events was imminent to first century Christians. This is a very critical issue for the Christian doctrinal system. If these events didn’t happen in the generation being addressed by Paul, the other Apostles and Christ Himself, then the early Christians were taught false doctrine by their leaders. The ramifications of this for the integrity of the Scriptures and the Christian doctrinal system are enormous.  If the teaching that a first century return of Christ accompanied by all associated events was a false teaching, the reliability of Scriptural content becomes extremely compromised and very problematical.

       At the time of the first century return of Christ, it is believed deceased believers in Christ and OT righteous were resurrected and given transformed spiritual bodies. This is believed by proponents of both CBV and by those who also believe in a first century rapture of living saints. What is unclear is what happened to the OT unrighteous dead? All indications are that they were to be resurrected as well. We see this in a passage in Daniel 12 that appears to be associated with the return of Christ.

       Daniel 12: 1-3:  "At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people--everyone whose name is found written in the book--will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.

       In view of our discussion so far as to resurrection, the multitudes that awake to everlasting life can be seen as both OT and NT saints being resurrected at the first century return of Christ. However, this passage also speaks of others being awakened to everlasting contempt. Who are these folks?  Are they all the "wicked" who have ever lived?  What does it mean for them to be awakened to everlasting contempt? Are thy consciously alive in some place of punishment to this very day?

       An even greater question is what has been going on since the first century parousia?  Paul made it clear that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Paul believed “there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (Acts 24:15) and "we will all stand before God's judgment seat" (Romans 14:10).  The writer to the Hebrews said "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).  It appears Jesus taught a judgment of all humans who have ever lived (See Matthew 10:15, 11:11 and 12:41) 

       Is Paul and other teachers thinking only in terms of events associated with the first century return of Christ or are they speaking of all humans who have been and will be born throughout human history?   If it is all humans, what is the nature of their resurrection/judgement? 

       For additional discussion of these questions and the dynamics of life and death as seen in the Biblical Scriptures, go to What Happens After Death?  

PART SIXTEEN