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The Coming of Christ (parousia)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

“Parousia” is one of several Greek words used to describe the second coming of Christ. Its essential meaning is “arrival”, or more precisely “arrival and consequent presence with”. It can simply be used for the arrival of a person, like Titus (2 Cor 7:6). It can also mean the presence of a person - the Corinthians said that Paul’s bodily presence (parousia) was weak (2 Cor 10:10). It described a royal visit by the emperor, when special coins were struck or monuments were erected. This word therefore pictures Jesus as the coming king who is currently seated in glory at the right hand of God.

A variety of other words are used for the coming of Christ. His coming is an “apocalypsis”, or unveiling (2 Thess 1:7), meaning that he is currently invisible, but will be revealed to all the world at his coming, when every eye shall see him (Rev 1:7). The other term is “epiphaniea” or appearing, which is used for both his first (2 Tim 1:10) and second comings (Tit 2:13). Dispensationalists separate Jesus’ coming to rapture the church before the seven-year tribulation, from his coming to establish his millennial kingdom.

Teaching on the parousia is prominent throughout the New Testament as an encouragement to believers (1 Thess 4), particularly those facing persecution. It is the blessed hope (Tit 2:13) anticipated by believers. Academic speculation about future events is discouraged, as his coming is also intended as a stimulus to holy living (2 Pet 3:11ff).

His coming will be visible and unmistakable. Every eye will see him (Rev 1:7), it will be as bright as lightning flashing across the sky (Lk 17:24), and accompanied by the sound of God’s trumpet (1 Thess 4:16), a major argument against a secret rapture of the church. His coming will be sudden (Lk 17:22, Rev 22:20), and unexpected, like a thief in the night (1 Thess 5:2, 2 Pet 3:10), as the judgement in the days of Noah (Mk 24:37). His coming will also cause a separation of peoples (Lk 17:34), like sheep being separated from goats (Mt 25:31ff).

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus used many parables to teach about his coming. Disciples are called to be ready, like the wise bridesmaids (Mt 25:1ff). The parables of the kingdom tell that his coming will be the time of harvest at the end of the age (Mt 13:39ff), when evildoers will be gathered for punishment, and the righteous will shine like the sun.

In John’s gospel, Jesus spoke about the general resurrection at the end of the age, when all who are in their graves will be raised, the righteous to eternal life, and the wicked to condemnation (Jn 5:25-29). Paul also predicted the resurrection, believers will be raised at his coming (1 Cor 15:23), in imperishable bodies (v52), when the final enemy, death will also be destroyed (v55).

Throughout the N.T. there is a tension between the imminence of Jesus’ return and a delay. Believers are called to be alert and ready because they do not know the day of his coming (Mk 13:33), but are called to get on with life, using the talents given by God (Mt 25:14ff). Some have claimed that Paul thought that the coming would be in his lifetime (1 Thess 4:15), but was mistaken. The early church expected him to return soon, and had to adjust their expectations as the years passed without him returning. Some scholars have seen this as a major problem for the early church and a possible reason for Luke writing his gospel and Acts. Paul corrected this expectation when writing to the Thessalonians, telling them not to be lazy but to work hard (2 Thess 3:6ff), and that the man of lawlessness must appear first (2 Thess 2:1ff).

In Acts, after the ascension, the angel predicted that Jesus will return in the same way he ascended (Acts 1:11), again implying a visible return. However, in their preaching, the apostles tended to emphasise the recent death and resurrection of Jesus more than his future return.

The author of Hebrews emphasises the incarnation of Jesus and his earthly sacrifice as the great high priest, but he does state that Jesus will appear a second time to save those eagerly awaiting him (Heb 9:28).

The coming of Christ is a major theme of Revelation (1:7). However his coming is not necessarily the final coming at the end of the age (eg. 2:5). He is described as coming on a white horse of victory to judge the nations (19:11ff), and the forces of evil (the beasts and the dragon), and to establish a new heaven and new earth (21:1). Again, his coming is intended to act as an encouragement for persecuted Christians to persevere, rather than to provide a detailed plan of events for the end of time.

Many believe that there will be specific signs to show that his coming is soon. Jesus said that the good news of the kingdom must be preached to all nations and then the end will come (Mt 24:14). When faced with scoffers grumbling about the delay, Peter said that God is waiting for people to come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9). Paul taught that the man of lawlessness must appear first, and will be destroyed by his coming (2 Thess 2:8).

Unfortunately, although the coming of Christ is intended to be an encouragement to believers, it has also been the source of much controversy and argument in the church. The main source of debate is over the millennium (only mentioned in Rev 20), whether Jesus will return before (pre-) the 1000 years, or after (post-), or whether the 1000 years is symbolic for the present age (amillennial). The pre-millennial view separates the parousia from the final judgement by 1000 years, a concept not explicitly taught elsewhere in the New Testament. Within the pre-millennial view, there is also a debate over the timing of the rapture, whether it comes before or after the tribulation. A pre-tribulational view can effectively mean there are three separate comings of Christ.

Bibliography:
M.J. Erickson: Second Coming of Christ in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. ed. W.A. Elwell. Baker 1984.
D. Guthrie. New Testament Theology. IVP 1981.
G.E. Ladd. Theology of the New Testament. Eerdmans 1974
L. Morris: Parousia in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE). ed. GW Bromiley. Eerdmans 1986