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If you want to start a debate, simply ask a group of Christians to explain what the Bible has to say about church government. If you want to start a shouting match, ask them what the Bible has to say about the second coming of Jesus. It is difficult to think of anything in the last two hundred years that has been the source of as much disagreement among professing Christians as the doctrines related to the second coming of Jesus. While most professing Christians agree on the fact of the second coming, virtually everything about it is debated. The sheer amount of disagreement reveals at least two important truths: First, the subject matter is inherently difficult; and second, prayer, humility, and patience are required in discussing it.
The second coming of Jesus is the climactic event within redemptive history, but how and where does it fit into that history? How is the second coming related to the kingdom of God? In order to answer such questions, it is necessary to take a step back and look at the Old Testament prophetic expectations. After David had subdued all of his enemies and had been made king over all Israel, God established a covenant with him (2 Sam. 7:1–17). God promised that he would raise up David’s offspring and establish the throne of his kingdom forever. When the kingdom later divided and both the northern and southern kingdoms began to slide into apostasy, the prophets looked back to the Davidic covenant as the grounds for future hope. They warned the people that continued disobedience would bring exile, but they also looked beyond the exile to a time when the kingdom would be restored under a new Davidic king — the Messiah.
When Jesus was born, many of the pious among the Jews were faithfully awaiting this promised time of restoration (see Luke 2:25–26, 38). They understood that a messiah was coming to establish his kingdom. What was not clear to them was that the establishment of the kingdom would occur over time. What this means is that we cannot separate Christ’s second coming from His first advent if we are to understand what the Bible teaches about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God was inaugurated at Christ’s first advent, but it has not yet come in its fullness. As Christians, we confess that Christ is presently seated at the right hand of God and that from there He will come again to judge the living and the dead. This means that Christians today live at a time when the kingdom is already present in one sense, but not yet present in another sense. How can we better understand what this means?
One clue is found in the Old Testament story of David. If we look at the establishment of David’s kingdom, we observe that it occurred in progressive stages. David was anointed as the rightful king by Samuel (1 Sam. 16). Later, he was anointed king over Judah (2 Sam. 2:4). But it was only after a long war between his house and the house of Saul (3:1) that he was anointed king over all Israel (5:3–4). What we see in the life of David, then, is his anointing as king, a long war between his forces and the forces of Saul, and finally his taking of the throne that is rightfully his. During the “long war,” David is already the rightful king, but his kingdom has not yet been established in its fullness. The king whose throne he is going to take (Saul) does not go quietly. His forces battle the forces of David for a long time before David obtains in truth what belongs to him by right.
The establishment of Christ’s kingdom is parallel in some ways to the establishment of David’s kingdom. Jesus was anointed as the rightful king at his first advent (see Matt. 28:18; Acts 2:30–36). However, the usurper, Satan, does not go quietly. The “house” of Satan engages in a long war with the “house” of Christ (1 Cor. 15:20–26; Eph. 6:11; 1 Peter 5:8). But the gates of hell will not and cannot prevail over Christ and His people. Ultimately, the last remnants of Satan’s forces will be destroyed (Rev. 20:10), and Jesus’ kingdom will be established in all of its fullness. Christians today live during this long period of warfare between the forces of Christ and the forces of Satan.
What is to occur when our Lord returns? After Christ’s ascension, two angels appeared to the disciples and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Christ ascended visibly some distance before being removed from the disciples’ sight (v. 9). The angels’ words, then, indicate that Jesus’ return will be visible. His presence will not be an unseen presence. According to the apostle Paul, he will descend from heaven with a shout. The dead in Christ will rise, and then those who are alive will be caught up to meet the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13–18; 1 Cor. 15:20–26). The resurrection of our bodies will occur in the blink of an eye, and death, the last enemy, will be destroyed (15:25–26, 50–57).
The second coming of Christ will also involve the reversal of the curse that was placed on creation at the time of the fall. The creation will no longer groan under the weight of the curse. It will be set free from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:18–25). All things will be made new. There will be no more tears, no more death, no more mourning, no more pain, for all of these things will have passed away (Rev. 21:1–8). The enemy Satan will be defeated and judged, no more to accuse and attack the people of God (20:7–10). All men will stand before the judgment throne of Christ. Those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will inherit the kingdom. Those whose names are not found will be cast into outer darkness (20:11–15).
In spite of all the disagreements, the one thing on which all Christians can agree is that Jesus Christ will be victorious and that His kingdom will be established in its fullness. And thus we pray with Paul and the saints of all ages, “Maranatha!” Our Lord, come!