The Return or re-appearance of Jesus, with the subsequent Judgment and final new unending Kingdom is by far the most difficult section to grasp fully, i.e. with an understanding that accords with every aspect of our Faith, and makes sense of all that we have come to believe about the eternal God. In the next article we shall specially think about the Glory and the Judgment.
In this series we thought first about the One and only true God as Creator and Father. Next his unique and only Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer, who lived amongst us giving all for us. Then the Holy Spirit of God who makes all this true and real in our lives just as he did for the very first Christians. That same divine Spirit also reveals the whole plan and purpose of God stretching across all time and eternity. So now we think about the great end goal; the glorious final purpose of God. To sum up: our first two articles dealt with the Christian doctrine of the Creation: “In the beginning God” (Genesis 1); now we look at the grand conclusion, or as we might briefly say, “in the end God”.
So let’s take a well-known verse from Scripture as our starting point. Writing to the Christians at Colossae St Paul makes this key statement of faith and hope: “Your life is hid with Christ in God [and] when Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:3-4). This is short hand of course, and like many passages in the New Testament speaking about the second coming or ‘coming again’ of Jesus (the first of course being his birth), it has been interpreted in differing ways. Moreover it has often been completely misunderstood, and then taught as true doctrine by many people and groups within the church, and outside the church.
The New Testament itself does show development in the meaning of Christ’s teaching and promises about the end times, and with differing emphases. Like much of our holy Faith, it rings real and true in our innermost heart and feelings, yet makes full rational, thought-out understanding very difficult. We are wrestling with crucial truths of faith with limited human language and knowledge; with beliefs that relate to both our natural order and world and the supernatural at the same time. The things of time and eternity intertwine and overlap, so it is far from easy to find adequate words to express these important beliefs; yet are nevertheless totally real and true. We have to hold in balance two different but related perceptions and consciousness of life here and life hereafter.
Hence the important question we now have to consider is this. How far (especially in our scientific and rightly critical era) must we take literally these Second Coming passages in the Gospels and other writings? For plainly they do speak of the physical return of Jesus which every human eye at that time would see. (Matthew 24:30; Revelation 1:7; etc). Indeed, in the early years after Pentecost such a coming again was regarded by most Christians as imminent, even longed for, and might well actually happen in their own life time (Mark 9: 1; 2 Peter 3:8-10; etc). Note also that the Kingdom which Jesus would inaugurate at his return is sometimes expressed as a glorious transformation of this present world order, yet also and most emphatically, is also seen as totally other and beyond our created world. (Revelation 21:1-6; 7:9-17; John 14:1-6; etc).
Jesus did not return soon as first expected. And the church’s prayerful reflective thought in the New Testament era and the following centuries gradually lifted belief in his Return from purely physical and down-to-earth concepts, to something absolutely real, but spiritual; within time indeed, yet transcending time and this created order, linking it to the eternal world of heaven. The new Kingdom is also seen as inexpressibly wonderful and perfect; all beautiful and lovely, unfading and unending; and above all, close to and somehow within the very heavenly life of the Holy Trinity.
About all this, apart from symbolic picture language, we are given little further explanation. And though future in one sense, we are linked to it now by faith and anticipation, looking forward to its complete fulfilment. This is because we are forever “hid with Christ in God”. Our lives are indeed firmly placed in this good world with present urgent tasks of love, but our eyes are also focussed on a far far greater future.
To sum up, after the Ascension and Pentecost Jesus did return again and again in countless good and wonderful ways; and whenever he came all was put right. (We shall think about the final putting right and ultimate judgment in our next article). Supremely this coming again was experienced at its most real and deepest in the Christian Eucharist (1 Corinthians 10: 16-17), in the Fellowship and the Prayer (Acts 2:42; Matthew 18:20), and as God’s nurturing Word of Holy Scripture is opened up (Colossians 3:16-17). All this is the first phase of the great final unending Kingdom: the very Kingdom of God ushered in by Christ for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. To this very day Jesus still returns to us, again and again and again.
At some point in time there will be a final Return and a final putting right of all things, though actually when and how that will be, and just what it will be like, we have no detailed knowledge. It is pointless to speculate about it, because we do not know God’s timescale or his full detailed plan, nor the future path of our Universe, or the progress of the human race. We do know however, with firm confidence, that within the sovereignty and loving purposes of the Eternal God everything from the beginning to the end is securely and safely within his hands and power. Nothing but nothing, within the time and space of our great universe of infinite capacity, and everything beyond all this in the heavenly eternal world, is outside that great Saving Love revealed in Jesus. The Incarnation, and the Death and Resurrection of Jesus with the glorious Ascension, confirmed and sealed at Pentecost, are the sure proof and guarantee (Romans 8:31-39).
One day, in God’s good time and merciful purpose, when our human life here is ended, you and I will indeed be taken to our eternal home by Jesus (John 14:3;1 Thessalonians 4:14). We will truly share in the ecstatic mystery of the final glorious return of Christ our King, seeing our beloved Lord face to face in joy forever (1 John 3:2). We will share eternal joy too with countless Angels and Saints (Hebrews 12:22-24; etc); with our loved ones already there, and with Mary the blessed mother of our Incarnate Saviour who at incalculable cost gave himself for us so that all this might be so.
Praise be to him! Amen.