The Return of Christ
The Return, Second Coming, or Second Advent of Christ refers to the future return of Christ to earth at the end of the age. This return will be visible and physical as he comes from heaven on the clouds to bring final judgment and salvation.
The New Testament establishes the doctrine of the Second Coming. Jesus refers to his future return in glory. While the term “Second Coming” or “Second Advent” does not occur in the New Testament, there are several nouns and verbs used to refer to the return of Christ. The nature of the Second Coming is visible, imminent, and final. The hope believers have of his return gives confidence of his victory and the salvation of their mortal bodies from sin once and for all to have a glorified resurrected body that is pure, immortal, and incorruptible (1Cor. 15:35-49). The Second Coming, then, has implications for how believers live day to day in an attitude of watchfulness and readiness.
The doctrine of the Second Coming or Advent of Christ refers to the future return of Christ to earth at the end of the age. This return will be visible and physical as he comes down from heaven on the clouds to bring final judgment and salvation. It is often associated with the great day of the Lord in the Old Testament and corresponds to the messianic prophecies anticipating the messiah coming as King of kings in victory and glory to triumph over all the enemies of God and his people. The New Testament focuses primarily on the messiah’s first advent with the ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus who came as a sinless sacrificial lamb to make atonement for sin and provide salvation through faith in him by inaugurating the New Covenant. The New Testament also contains numerous references to the second advent of Christ who will come again to bring all things and all history to its proper conclusion. This essay will discuss some of the key passages and terms in the New Testament associated with the Second Coming, then seek to draw some conclusions about the nature of Christ return and highlight some implications of this doctrine.
New Testament Terms and Passages Referring to the Second Coming of Christ
The New Testament unambiguously establishes the doctrine of the Second Coming. Jesus refers to his future return in glory. It is also affirmed, expounded upon, and taught in the letters of Paul, James, Peter, and John. The Book of Revelation anticipates his “soon” return and gloriously depicts it in chapter 19. Although we may file this under the heading of the “Second Coming” or “Second Advent,” the New Testament does not use those terms. The expression “Second Coming” seems to have originated with Justin Martyr in the 2nd century.1 Nevertheless, there are a number of ways and terms the New Testament speaks of the Second Coming.
Nouns Used to refer to the Second Coming
One of the most common nouns used in the NT to refer to the Second Coming of Christ is parousia (e.g., Matt. 24:3; 1Thes. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2Thes. 2:1, 8; Jas. 5:7–8; 2Pet. 3:4, 12; 1Jn. 2:28). The basic meaning of the term is “presence” or “arrival.” While it is used generally to speak of people coming to be present as opposed to absent (2Cor. 7:6-7; 10:10; Phil. 1:26), it became a technical term in the early church to refer to the eschatological coming of Christ at the end of the age. In 1 Corinthians 15:20–26, Paul lays out the future expectation of the believers’ resurrection from the dead at the coming (parousia) of Christ:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming [parousia] those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
It is used in the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 23, where Jesus famously predicts the destruction of the Temple and signs associated with his return at the end of the age. After sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples come to him asking him “when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming [parousia] and of the end of the age?” In Matthew 24:27, Jesus says, “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man.” Jesus goes on to compare his second coming to the days of Noah:
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man (Matt. 24:36-39).
The coming of the Son of Man used in this context is eschatological and refers to his return with finality. Interestingly, from the Ptolemaic period down into the 2nd century a.d. the word parousia was a technical term for the arrival of a visiting king or important person. The association of parousia with the arrival of a King to a city naturally lends itself to becoming the most common term for the Second Coming of the King of kings.
Although parousia is the primary noun to refer to the Second Coming, there are a few other terms used to refer to it. Paul uses the term “appearing” (epiphaneia) once for his first coming (2Tim. 1:10), but usually it refers to his Second Coming in glory and judgment (2Thes. 2:8; 1Tim. 6:14; 2Tim. 4:1, 8; Titus 2:13). The language of appearing is closely related to “revelation” (apokalypsis), which is also used to refer to Christ’s Second Coming (1Thes. 1:7; 1Cor. 1:7, 2; 1Pet. 1:7, 13; 4:13). Both terms emphasize the visible nature of his return as opposed to something hidden from view, secret, or merely his spiritual presence among us.
Lastly, the Second Coming of Christ is referred to simply as “the day” (Rom. 13:12; 1Cor. 3:13; Heb. 10:25). It is often coupled with qualifiers to more clearly designate it as Jesus’ return such as “the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:10; 2:16), “the day of the Lord” (1Thes. 5:2; 2Thes. 2:2), “the day of the Lord Jesus” (1Cor. 5:5; 2Cor. 1:14), “the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6), “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor. 1:8), and “the day of God” (2Pet. 3:12).2 There is a two-sided aspect to the day when Jesus returns as positive and negative. For believers it is a day of salvation and redemption as their glorious hope (Phil. 1:6; 1Cor. 1:8; 2Tim. 1:12; 4:8; Eph. 4:30). However, for the unbelievers and wicked it is the day of judgment and wrath (1Jn. 4:17; Rom. 2:5, 16). Those who belong to him will watch and be ready for that day, but unbelievers will be caught by surprise and off guard as by a thief in the night (1Thes. 5:2-11).
Verbs Used to Refer to the Second Coming
Jesus, the Messiah, was the long awaited promised one whose coming is now understood in two distinct advents. As such, there are references to his first advent where he is called the “coming one” or “he who comes” (Matt. 3:11; 21:9; Luke 19). He is also coming again to fulfill all things (2Thes. 1:10; Rev. 1:7; 22:7). There are numerous instances where the verb for “come” (erchomai) is used in reference to Jesus coming again in the clouds “with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27). That Jesus comes with the clouds derives from the Old Testament where clouds are associated with a representation of divine glory (Dan. 7:13-14; Exod. 40:34; 1Kgs. 8:10-11) so that Jesus will come in divine glory. Jesus exhorts his disciples to watch with readiness because they do not know the exact day or hour the Lord is “coming” (Matt. 24:42, 50, Mark 13:33, 35; Luke 12:40-46; 21:34). Jesus will “come” with his angels and sit on his throne to separate his sheep from the goats and reward his servants (Matt. 25:31-34). As Jesus was preparing his disciples for his ascension back to the father, he comforted the them with the promise that “If I go away … I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). When he ascended, Angels said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). At his coming he will bring all hidden things to light including the intentions of people’s hearts so that his judgment is true and just (1Cor. 4:5). He will come in glory with his saints (2Thes. 1:10). He is coming soon and he will come in the clouds in victory, power, and glory and every eye will see him (Rev. 1:7, 8; 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20).
Other verbs used for the Second Coming are “appear (1Jn. 2:28; 3:2), “revealed” (Luke 17:30), and “descend” (1Thes. 4:16).
The Nature of Christ’s Return
The nature of the Second Coming is visible, imminent, and final. Jesus promised the disciples he would not leave them as orphans by sending the Holy Spirit to dwell in them and in that why the presence of Christ already dwells in believers (John 14:18-26; Rom 8:9), but that is not what is meant by the return of Christ. He will return visibly and publicly in a way that all people will see him coming in the clouds (Matt. 24:27; Rev. 1:7). As such, any notion that he will come secretly or that someone may have missed it is misguided because there will be no doubt about it when it happens (2Thes. 2:2).
The return of Christ is also imminent, meaning it is near and when it comes it will happen quickly. The fact that we cannot know with any certainty about exactly when Jesus will return is clear when Jesus states, “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…. Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 24:42; 25:13). Early Christians anticipated that Christ could return in their lifetime and admonished believers to watch and be ready. Because the specific time of Christ’s return is unknowable, believers are exhorted to be prepared by purifying their lives from sin and living in obedience to Christ daily.
The imminent return of Christ, however, does not mean it could happen at any moment without any preconditioned fulfillment of prophecies or signs. Paul told the Thessalonians they were children of the light, and therefore they would not be taken by sudden surprise, like a thief (1Thes. 5:1–5). There are at least three events that are mentioned as taking place before the second coming: (1) the gospel preached to all the nations; (2) the great tribulation and the great apostasy; and (3) the coming of the Antichrist. The point is certain things must happen before Christ returns but exactly how and where these signs are fulfilled is difficult to say. Consequently, we must always be open to the possibility that Christ could return at any time. Thus, although certain “signs” have been present throughout history, such signs will intensify before Christ returns. That is, these signs will become clearer before they reach their climax. Imminence does not necessitate suddenness devoid of potential indicators.
The return of Christ is also final and unalterable. He will come in victory and judgment. While he first came as a babe in a manger and lived gently and humbly, when he comes again he will come as King of kings and Lord of lords. Revelation powerfully depicts his return as a triumphant warrior king and judge in Revelation 19:11-16:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
At his return, every knee in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will bend to his sovereign majesty and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11). He will come as true judge to reward his saints and judge the wicked (Rev. 11:18). It is the day when, according to Paul’s gospel, “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16). Jesus will establish his rule and reign over all nations, he will set all thing to rights, and he will rule with a rod of iron so that his will is done on earth just as it is done in heaven.
Implications of the Second Coming
The Second Coming of Christ is a necessary feature of the Gospel message. Christ’s first coming brought salvation through his death and resurrection, but his second coming will bring about the resurrection of our bodies which is the final goal and hope of our salvation (1Cor. 15:20-28; Rom. 6:5-10, 8:23; Phil. 3:10-11, 21). The hope we have of his return is more than an addendum to the Gospel. It gives us the confidence of his victory and the salvation of our mortal bodies from sin once and for all to have a glorified resurrected body that is pure, immortal, and incorruptible (1Cor. 15:35-49). The Second Coming, then, has implications for how we live our lives from day to day. Paul sums it up well when he writes: “… training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…” (Titus 2:12-13). Waiting for his return is not passive, it is an active purifying of our lives in the pursuit of holiness in readiness for our Lord. John tells us that as Children of God, we will be like Jesus when he appears and “And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself just as he is pure” (1Jn. 3:3). To watch with readiness for his return means we conduct our lives in such a way as to please him rather than be ashamed when he appears. Another implication of his return is that we can trust him to judge and make all things right when he comes. No matter what trials, suffering, of challenges we face here and now it is only temporary. We are to refrain from seeking revenge or judging people, because we can entrust that the true and worthy judge will deal justice according to truth (1Cor. 4:5; Rom. 12:19). Finally, any delay in the Lord’s return is to allow more time for people to come to repentance and find salvation (2Pet. 3:9). There will be no hope of salvation for the lost after Jesus comes, today is the day of salvation. It is imperative that we share the gospel and hope salvation in Christ by grace through faith.
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