- Judges 4:1-7 & Psalm 123
- 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
- Matthew 25:14-30
Waiting for God’s son from heaven
From very early times, Christians have anticipated that Jesus would come (back) to our world from heaven as the glorified and all-powerful Son of God. After almost two thousand years without such an appearance taking place, that primitive Christian belief is losing its hold on the spiritual imagination of many people but there remain large numbers of people for whom the “Second Coming of Jesus” is an event expected to occur almost any day. Indeed there are Christians who drive cars ands other machinery with stickers warning that the driver may disappear at any moment, should Jesus return and call them to his side!
As the common Eucharistic acclamation demonstrates, the idea of a return by Jesus is the other side of the Easter affirmation. The one raised to glory and now seated at the right hand of God is the same one who must come to earth with that divine power to set things right in the messianic age:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
When Easter is understood as God raising Jesus to heaven (rather than returning him to normal human existence), it is highly likely that Easter faith will include some expectation of either his continuing presence and/or his eventual return. We see this expressed clearly in the sermon that Luke puts on Peter’s lips in Acts 3:
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:12-21)
This belief is so early and so well-attested that it ranks as item #2 in John Dominic Crossan’s inventory of historical Jesus traditions. Only the traditions about the Mission and Message of Jesus rank before this item. That is a powerful reminder of how close this belief takes us to the core of the religious aspirations centered on Jesus, the risen Lord, that were the drivers for earliest Christianity.
Crossan lists the following texts as witnesses to the Apocalyptic Return of Jesus:
(1) 1 Thess 4:13-18;
(2) Did. 16:6-8;
(3) Matt 24:30a;
(4) Mark 13:24-27 = Matt 24:29,30b-31 = Luke 21:25-28;
(5a) Rev 1:7
(5b) Rev 1:13
(5c) Rev 14:14;
(6) John 19:37.
Even that list is far from exhaustive, since there are several additional references to the appearance or coming of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians, not to mention 2 Thessalonians:
For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. (1Th. 1:9-10)
As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!(1Th. 2:17-20)
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1Th. 3:11-13)
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1Th. 4:15-17)
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. (1Th. 5:1-11)
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (1Th. 5:23-24)
An interest in the coming of the Lord is a particular concern of 2 Thessalonians, and the additional details provided about this belief have made some scholars think that we are dealing with a later (post-Paul) stage of the tradition in this document:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2Th. 1:5-10)
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned. (2Th. 2:1-12)
While the admonition against idleness does not explicitly associate that problem with millenarian expectations of the Lord’s imminent appearance, it seems likely that this is a further dimension of the problem:
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. (2Th. 3:6-13)
The parousia of the Lord
The most common term used in the NT for the coming of Jesus is parousia. In general use, parousia was simply a noun used to denote the presence, participation and/or arrival of some person or god. However, with Paul the terms seems to have taken a special significance as a term for the future arrival of Jesus as the divine Lord of all things.
According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT 5.860), the customary honors on the parousia of a ruler included the following ceremonies:
- flattering addresses
- asses to ride on and to carry baggage
- improvements of streets
- golden wreaths (natural or precious metal)
- feeding of the sacred crocodiles
Allowing for developments in technology, it seems that not much has changed in the way that visiting dignitaries like to be treated.
TDNT summarizes the situation in imperial Roman times as follows:
The imperial period with its world ruler or members of his household, if it did not increase the cost, certainly invested the parousia of the new ruler with even greater magnificence. This could be done by the inauguration of a new era … or holy day … or by buildings … or by the minting of advent coins, e.g., in Corinth on the coming of Nero: Adventus Augusti, or the like. Hadrian’s travels produced such coins in most provinces. That the parousia of the ruler could sometimes be a ray of hope for those in trouble may be seen from the complaints and requests made on such occasions, e.g., that of the priestesses of Isis in the Serapeion at Memphis (163/162 B.C.) to the “gods” Ptolemy Philometor and Cleopatra.
This common use, and especially its wide dissemination as imperial propaganda stamped on the coins used in daily commerce, reminds us once again that Paul is drawing on political terms as he develops his newly-fashioned Christology. Not only are Christians the ekklesia of God, but the divine kyrios they worship is soon to make his parousia as he ushers in the age of ultimatepeace and security. At every one of those highlighted terms, there was a direct conflict with the imperial theology of Rome.
Parousia occurs some 24 times in the NT and we can see the range of meanings went well beyond the “coming” of Jesus:
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying,
“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming [parousia] and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3)
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west,
so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man. (Matt. 24:27)
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man.
… and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away,
so too will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man. (Matt. 24:37,39)
But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits,
then at his coming [parousia] those who belong to Christ. (1Cor. 15:23)
I rejoice at the coming [parousia]of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus,
because they have made up for your absence; (1Cor 16:17)
But God, who consoles the downcast, consoled us by the arrival [parousia]of Titus,
and not only by his coming [parousia], but also by the consolation with which he was consoled about you,
as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. (2Cor. 7:6-7)
For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong,
but his bodily presence [parousia tou somatos] is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (2Cor. 10:10)
so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus
when I come [parousia] to you again. (Phil. 1:26)
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence [parousia],
but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; (Phil. 2:12)
For what is our hope or joy or
crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming [parousia]?
Is it not you? (1Th. 2:19)
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness
that you may be blameless before our God and Father
at the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1Th. 3:13)
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord,
that we who are alive, who are left until the coming [parousia] of the Lord,
will by no means precede those who have died. (1Th. 4:15) May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely;
and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless
at the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Th.5:23)
As to the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ
and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, (2Th. 2:1)
And then the lawless one will be revealed,
whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth,
annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming [parousia].
The coming [parousia] of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan,
who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, (2Th. 2:8-9)
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.
The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth,
being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.
You also must be patient.
Strengthen your hearts, for the coming [parousia] of the Lord is near. (James 5:7-8)
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we made known to you the power and coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2Pet. 1:16)
and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming [parousia]?
For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” )2Pet. 3:4)
waiting for and hastening the coming [parousia] of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? (2Pet. 3:12)
And now, little children, abide in him,
so that when he is revealed we may have confidence
and not be put to shame before him at his coming [parousia]. (1John 2:28)
Like a thief in the night
One of the interesting twists to the parousia expectation of the earliest Christians is the metaphor of Christ coming like a thief in the night. This image modifies significantly the dominant metaphor of the triumphant visitation by a new emperor. Now we have an unexpected intruder coming under cover of darkness and catching the householder unprepared.
This motif is also widely-attested in the early Christian texts:
012 Knowing the Danger
(1a) 1 Thessalonians 5:1-5
/1/ Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. /2/ For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. /3/ When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! /4/ But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; /5/ for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
(1b) 2 Peter 3:10
/8/ But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. /9/ The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. /10/ But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
(2a) Thom 21
/1/ Mary said to Jesus, “What are your disciples like?” /2/ He said, They are like little children living in a field that is not theirs. /3/ When the owners of the field come, they will say, “Give us back our field.” /4/ They take off their clothes in front of them in order to give it back to them, and they return their field to them. /5/ For this reason I say, if the owners of a house know that a thief is coming, they will be on guard before the thief arrives, and will not let the thief break into their house (their domain) and steal their possessions. /6/ As for you, then, be on guard against the world. /7/ Prepare yourselves with great strength, so the robbers can’t find a way to get to you, for the trouble you expect will come. /8/ Let there be among you a person who understands. /9/ When the crop ripened, he came quickly carrying a sickle and harvested it. /10/ Anyone here with two good ears had better listen! [Complete Gospels]
(2b) Thom 103
/1/ Jesus said, “Congratulations to those who know where the rebels are going to attack. [They] can get going, collect their imperial resources, and be prepared before the rebels arrive.” [Complete Gospels]
(3) Q Gospel ( Luke 12:39-40)
/39/ “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. /40/ You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
/43/ But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. /44/ Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
(4a) Rev 3:3
/3/ Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.
(4b) Rev 16:15
/15/ (“See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.”)
- 178 The Entrusted Money: (1a) 2Q: Luke 19:(11)12-24,27 = Matt 25:14-28; (1b) GNaz. 18.
- 040 Have and Receive: (1) Gos. Thom. 41; (2) 2Q: Luke 19:(25-)26 = Matt 25:29; (3) Mark 4:25 = Matt 13:12 = Luke 8:18b.
- 125 Gnashing of Teeth: (1a) 2Q: Luke 13:28a = Matt 8:12b; (1b) Matt 13:42b; (1c) Matt 13:50b; (1d) Matt 22:13b; (1e) Matt 24:51b; (1f) Matt 25:30b; (2) Dial. Sav. 14e
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.