THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST
In many algebra textbooks, the solutions appear in the back of the book. But students quickly discover that copying these answers down will not help them understand how to solve algebraic equations. What a student must do is apply what he has learned to a problem, then see if his solution lines up with the answer sheet. If not, he’ll know to reexamine his methodology.
Likewise, we won’t be able to make much sense of end-time prophecies by flipping straight to the apocalyptic verses. To understand what the time of tribulation or “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7) entails, we first need to establish a framework to guide our interpretive efforts. Faced with many confusing variables, we need to identify the constant in the equation, then define the variable according to what is known. In other words, all our end-time interpretations and assumptions should be measured against the context of what God has been accomplishing throughout human history.
So we need to start at the beginning, learning the basics of how God revealed himself to his people and established a relationship with them. Then we need to look forward, learning what we can about the inheritance God has promised through his covenants, old and new.
Having done this foundational work in the previous chapters, we’re ready to look at some specific end-time prophecies. But some end-time passages are clearer than others, so let’s start with these and improve our interpretive framework in preparation for the more complex passages to come.
The End of the Age
“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come.”
—2 Thessalonians 2:1–2
A similar concept is found in 2 Timothy 2:18, stating the fact that the resurrection has not yet occurred. Paul differentiates physical resurrection from spiritual “raising” in many passages.
Why did people in Paul’s day wonder if the day of the Lord had already happened? Surely Christ’s return would not be easy to miss. The earliest Church fathers would have recorded a physical reappearance of Christ, no matter how brief. Yet the rumors spread. Then, in AD 70, the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were scattered. This felt to many early Christians like the prophesied end of the age. But though the destruction of the Temple was a seismic event Christ himself predicted, in no specific prophecy does the destruction of the Temple portend the physical return of Christ. As traumatic as the event was to the Jewish people, it did not mark the end of human history or the arrival of God’s final judgment for all the earth. Nor did it fundamentally change what God was already doing through his Spirit in the world.
A few hundred years later, Eusebius and Augustine seized upon the idea that the Temple destruction had marked some kind of profound spiritual turning point, treating it as a climactic age ending event in human history. The historian Josephus adopted a similar perspective, which is understandable given his Jewish-Roman heritage. And even today, many preterists and amillennialists point to Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24:1–2 as evidence that the new covenant caused the Church to usurp Israel’s place. According to this view, the destruction of the Temple was God’s judgment marking the end of the Old Testament age and ushering in the Church age through the spiritual return of Christ.
But as we’ve seen, Christ will physically come back to earth. How have so many believers across history overlooked this clear biblical teaching?
Matthew 24 and the book of Revelation are difficult to understand at first. They are more easily placed into timing sequences based upon other passages. We need to study the whole Bible—not just passages like Matthew 24 in isolation. And while ancient voices like Eusebius and Augustine can provide us with good insights, we should critically examine each teaching before accepting it as truth. Their replacement theology as described above does not hold up to biblical vetting.
The second coming of Christ is sure to be the most important historical event since creation itself; according to prophecy, upon Christ’s return he will bring about the restoration of all things.[footnote]See Acts 3:21.[/footnote] Christ enabled redemption when he came to earth the first time, but this second advent will mark the climax of redemption. We can see that the theme of restoration is central to the Jewish mindset in Luke 2:38; later, following Christ’s resurrection, his apostles are certain the final restoration is at hand:
“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’”
Christ was about to ascend to heaven, but the apostles were fixated on their earthly realm. They didn’t question Christ about heaven, didn’t understand that He had to return to the Father, and didn’t understand how heaven would come to earth to bring about the restoration they longed for.
If the apostles believed a spiritual or heavenly kingdom reign was the final fulfillment of the Old Testament covenants, they would have been jumping up and down in the Acts 1 account. But the apostles never demonstrate such sentiment at any point in the New Testament. They knew an everlasting kingdom was to be physically established on the earth. Going to heaven in a different realm was not the salvation they hoped for. It is very important that we understand this mindset that linked the land promise to the kingdom to come.
The Big Three
The apostles’ focus, without question, is on the “Big Three” end-time events. Listed below, these should serve as guideposts to help us chart out the sequence of events in Matthew 24 and Revelation.[footnote]Remember that we must start with clear passages to help us interpret the unclear. Some of the passages below include descriptions of multiple related concurrent events. These cluster passages are particularly illuminating.[/footnote]
- Judgment: God’s assessment of our faith, to take place following the second advent (Matthew 16:27; John 5:24–29; 1 Corinthians 4:5)
First Christ will come again to earth, then the just will receive bodily resurrection, and finally God will judge each resurrected person. (These judgments are evaluative, for rewards given or taken away).
All other events before and after the second coming need to be viewed in light of the return of Christ. Christ’s return is the primary focus as it is the inciting incident for our resurrection and God’s judgment. Together, these Big Three end-time events inform our perspective on all other prophesied occurrences. As we seek to determine the location, timing, and significance of each end-time event, the Big Three gives us our moorings. We will see how the return, resurrection, and judgment relate to the new covenant and land promise later.
Christ is coming back to earth again. This will be a physical return, not a spiritual return. This has not happened yet. Acts 1:11 shows that his next coming will mirror his ascension into heaven (where he resides in a risen body today).
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take [receive] you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Christ stated he is returning to earth so we can be together with him. God and his people dwelling together is a common theme throughout Scripture. This dwelling will occur when the earthly and heavenly realms meet (Ephesians 1:10), culminating at the end of time (Revelation 21:3–6).
“Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
Peter, James, and John saw a glimpse of this “great glory” described in Matthew 24:30 previously in the vision at the Transfiguration event.[footnote]See Matthew 17:1-9.[/footnote] They saw white clothing, brightness, and a radiant face. Such elements also feature in the visions of the Old Testament prophets (including Daniel 10:2–14) and in John’s apocalyptic visions (Revelation 1:12–16).
Many other passages describe the physical return of Christ. He will come with angels, the righteous dead will be raised, and there will be a gathering of all the saints in one place so we can finally dwell with him forever—these same themes are repeated over and over.
Many passages correlate to Matthew 24:30–31 and its description of angels, a trumpet, a voice, and clouds at the second coming/resurrection event. These include the following:
- Matthew 13:24–43; 16:27
- Mark 8:38
- Luke 21:27
- John 5:28
- 1 Corinthians 15:52
- Philippians 3:14
- 2 Thessalonians 1:7
- Jude 1:14–15
- Revelation 1:7.
These passages describe God’s people meeting Christ in the air—but what happens next? Will we all head off to heaven or back to a newly restored earth? This is where many people get confused.
Gathered or Taken?
There is a very interesting passage in 1 Thessalonians that includes the same familiar elements of the second advent (trumpet, angels, etc.). As you read, see whether a figurative or literal interpretation makes more sense. Even if some of the language is figurative, is Paul trying to describe physical aspects of Christ’s return?
“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
—1 Thessalonians 4:14–17
Paul does not specify whether we will go to some celestial realm or back to earth to be with Christ in this passage, but there are some other important details here that we can later compare with other passages.
First, notice how Paul immediately sets the tone by stating a sincere belief. Based on his firm understanding that Christ physically rose from the dead, he also has confidence that all believers who fell asleep (died) will likewise be physically raised.[footnote]Paul speaks of the resurrection of the dead more than anyone else, as we shall see in chapter 7.[/footnote]
Also notice the words “to meet” in verse 17. The root word for “to meet” is found three times in the New Testament. Here are its two other appearances:
“But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’”
“And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.”
The Greek root translated “to meet” fits our normal English usage of the phrase. To meet someone at the door is generally to welcome them into a building. To meet someone for dinner may involve going to a restaurant that is halfway between the parties involved.
So is Christ coming to meet us halfway on our trip from earth to heaven? Or are the living believers rising to meet Christ on his way from heaven to earth? In the Matthew and Acts “meeting” passages, there is a return to the starting point after the meeting. And in the 1 Thessalonians passage, the point of reference is Paul’s position, not Christ’s position. Christ will come to raise and transform saints on earth. Why would Christ bring the spirits of dead saints to earth if they are all going back to heaven? We will get more clues later as to why we would meet Christ in the air and not on the ground, and why God would not simply transport us to some heavenly realm.
Another root word to focus on in the 1 Thessalonians 4 passage is translated “caught up.” This is the rapture event. There are many disagreements about where precisely the rapture will fall in relation to the tribulation, but we do not need to worry about timing at this point. For now we simply want to understand the root word itself. “Caught up” means to seize, catch, snatch, or grab on to.
“And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.”
This passage in Jude is a metaphor using the same root word that is translated “caught up” in 1 Thessalonians 4. Jude used the Greek word in figurative language, instructing believers to assist in salvation by keeping someone from damnation. (Again, let’s overlook the various physical and spiritual interpretations of hell for now).
Jude used “caught up” figuratively, while Paul used the same root word in a literal fashion. However, the basic concept is the same: Christ and believers can each perform works of salvation by “snatching.” Christ literally saves people from death while believers can help save people from death as well (likely by spreading the gospel, given Jude’s New Testament context). The wicked are destroyed, or taken away—a different root than what is used to describe the just being saved (snatched) from destruction.
Proponents of a pre-tribulation rapture often point to Luke 17:33–37 as an illustration of what it might look like when God spirits away his people. But this passage is actually describing an opposite event. The Biblical texts show that the saved (raptured) are the ones left behind to be with Christ in his earthly kingdom. Christ’s parable of wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24–43) reveals the same concept. The rapture event is not believers being “taken” to heaven. “Taken” has a negative connotation here. Instead, we are grabbed (snatched) out of harm’s way, while the ones “taken” in Luke 17 are discarded or disposed like trash.
Old Testament prophecies, Christ’s statements in the Olivet Discourse and on the Temple grounds, and John’s vision in Revelation 19:11-18 all mention the destruction of many people upon the Messiah’s second coming. So when we read about believers being caught up in the air, this is salvation from the judgment upon the earth. These passages describe how avian scavengers like vultures and eagles will arrive to clean up the mess after the destruction. We are spared, kept safe, delivered—not taken or thrown away.
When correlating Luke 17 to other passages, the case for a pre-tribulational rapture appears thin. The doctrine depends on an equivalent meaning of believers being “taken” with “caught up.” To be taken is to fall under judgment and destruction; to be caught up is to be delivered.
“‘There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.’ And they said to him, ‘Where, Lord?’ He said to them, ‘Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.’”
The passage in Luke 17:22-37 is clearly describing Christ’s return, which is very different from the pre-trib rapture understanding. The evil are taken and the good are left to be with Christ. The people being taken in this passage are being destroyed; they are described as a corpse or a dead body.
“Taken” recalls the tares of Matthew 13:38–42, which are thrown outside the kingdom in an illustration of damnation.
Matthew 24 cannot be understood without reading other statements Christ made in Luke 17 and 21. His prophecy in Matthew 24 is not meant to be a continual chronological narrative. Note how the destruction of the Temple is prophesied first, followed by a description of the end of the age in response to the disciples’ questions; Christ does not explicitly say that the destruction of the Temple will incite the end of the age or happen concurrently. So our focus here will be on the multiple other prophecies featured in Matthew 24.
The wicked will be destroyed and judgment will occur following the visible return of Christ. Acts 1:11 states with certainty that Christ is coming back physically. Matthew 24:30–31 and related passages reveal that there will be loud noises and visual effects that will capture the attention of the entire world—then we will be gathered together “in the clouds” (the Old Testament concept of where God dwells in glory). Under Christ’s protection, we will be spared from the wrath coming upon the earth. When the danger is past, then we will return to earth alongside our savior.
The 1 Thessalonians 4 passage does not offer any specific timing that places Christ’s return and the resurrection of dead believers (saints) before or after a tribulation period. But this is vital information if we are indeed called to be prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom. So we must look to other passages for clarity about the resurrection of the dead or other end-time events to further understand how they fit together in a timeline.
Timing is everything. Instead of looking at more difficult passages, let’s look at some short, basic passages about timing.
“Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’”
“There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.”
Here we have the resurrection and judgment at the last day. What is “the last day”? We won’t find the full answer in these short verses, but we do start to get a sense that the end of the age is tied to the return of Christ.
Passages regarding the advent of Christ often feature the Greek word parousia, sometimes translated as his “coming.” This word specifically connotes a royal arrival, as seen in 1 John 2:28. So according to a literal translation, Christ doesn’t merely pop into view—he presents himself with pomp and authority. Christ’s second advent is a royal event that all eyes will see.
A visually related term describes the appearances of Christ following his resurrection.[footnote]See Luke 24:34 and Acts 1:3.[/footnote] Taken out of context, some may think Christ’s coming speaks of spiritual, symbolic, or metaphorical appearances and means something besides a physical return. However, the use of related “optic” and “epiphany” root words conveys the idea that physical eyes will see him. Passages such as Matthew 24:30, Luke 17:24; 17:30 and Revelation 1:7 convey a physical arrival of Christ.
This is why Acts 1:11 is so crucial to our understanding of end-time events; it discourages us from over-spiritualizing the second coming (even though there are some metaphors to understand). These advent passages below often relate to the timing of the return, resurrection, and judgment.
Acts 1:11 describes the way Christ will return to earth—the same single event featured in the following passages:
- Job 19:25
- Isaiah 26:21; 35:4; 40:10; 59:17–20; 62:11
- Daniel 7:22
- Matthew 16:27; 24:30–31; 25:31
- Luke 17:24–30; 21:25–28
- 1 Corinthians 4:5; 15:23
- Philippians 3:20
- Colossians 3:4
- 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 4:16–17; 5:1-4, 23
- 2 Thessalonians 1:7, 10; 2:8
- 1 Timothy 6:13–16
- 2 Timothy 4:1, 8
- Titus 2:13
- Hebrews 9:27–28
- 1 Peter 1:7; 5:4
- 1 John 2:28; 3:2
- Jude 14.
To discern the timing of end-time events, an extremely helpful tactic is to find verses that mention two or three of the Big Three events in the same short passage and see how they relate together. This establishes the major end-time events that will occur on the last day of this age.
There are only a few short passages in the New Testament that speak to all three key events in the same cluster.[footnote]See John 5:24–29; Philippians 3:10–21; 1 Peter 1:3–9. [/footnote] More commonly found are groupings of two of the Big Three events within short passages.
- Resurrection at the second coming: Job 19:25–27; Isaiah 26:19–21; 1 Corinthians 15; Colossians 3:4; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17
- Judgment at the second coming: Matthew 16:27; 25:31–34; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Timothy 4:1–8; Hebrews 9:27–28; 1 Peter 5:1–4; 2 Peter 3:1–13
- Resurrection and judgment: Daniel 12:1-3; Luke 14:13–14 (parable example); Acts 17:31–32; 24:14–15)
The associations between these three events suggest a timing with very short intervals. The author of a cluster passage may be focused on one event but often associates it with another one of the Big Three which either just happened or will swiftly follow.
If only one obscure passage referenced all three events, or if we could only find a couple of ambiguous passages referencing two of the events, we could be skeptical regarding their proximity. However, as shown in the references above, the evidence is overwhelming that all three events will happen in quick succession.
Scholars in the school of literal interpretation know there is a second coming, physical resurrection, and divine judgment. How do we know the sequence of these events? Because the events are so frequently clustered together in the same passage.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
Jesus states that the sound of his voice at the second advent precedes the resurrection of the just (which is the gift of eternal life). His voice calls people out of the grave (like Lazarus; see John 14:43–44).[footnote]John 11:17 tells us that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. This is relevant to Christ’s resurrection power because according to the Talmud, “corruption sets in the third day after death” (Tholuck after Wetstein). All other biblical accounts of resuscitation (including Christ’s own resurrection) took place within three days. Lazarus would have been considered beyond reach, his soul perished. But Lazarus was raised anyway, providing hope to all. [/footnote] It should be noted that the righteous receive the salvation gift of life as a reward. Christ returns, the dead hear his voice, and the resurrection is underway.
While resurrection must wait for the second coming of Christ, notice that spiritual salvation is described in the present tense: “The hour is coming and is now here.” In this present moment, the spiritually dead may hear the voice of Christ and be saved. Yet the main thrust of the rest of the passage is more focused on physical resurrection. Those who hear his voice now and those who hear his voice upon being resurrected will be saved. (We’ll spend more time in chapter 7 comparing spiritual salvation to physical salvation.)
It would be very easy to spiritualize this whole passage with nonliteral tombs or metaphorical meanings of Jesus’ voice, but Christ obviously believed in a physical resurrection. He famously debated the Sadducees, who did not believe in physical resurrection because it was not clearly described in the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch was the only Scripture the Sadducees read). But Christ pointed out that Moses described God as the God of living patriarchs:
“There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers…, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.’
And Jesus said to them, ‘The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.’”
Here is another passage that includes all the Big Three events:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
—1 Peter 1:3–9
This passage may strike you as somewhat confusing. It does not present its featured events in a specific order, and the code words might not yet be apparent for a reader unfamiliar with this passage. However, when reading this passage closely, we can see that the “revelation of Jesus Christ” at the “last time” are key statements that dictate the timing of other related events.
We have all elements of the Big Three in this passage from Peter:
- The Epistle of 1 Peter starts by stating that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the cornerstone to the reader’s inheritance. This declaration is then carried through the rest of the passage.
- Immortality, translated here as something “imperishable,” is the inheritance that is kept in heaven for our future salvation upon the revelation (appearance) of Christ.
- We will pass the judgment test if our faith is genuine.
- The “revelation of Jesus Christ” is the second coming.
- Once Christ comes, he grants immortality; the two are tightly associated in their timing. Once a person’s faith is judged true, he or she is granted the inheritance—but this judgment is predetermined, not a throne-room judgment of deeds (see chapters 14 and 15).
Here are some simpler passages with references of two of the Big Three events.
“For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”
—Matthew 16:27[footnote]This is similar to Revelation 22:12 and several passages in Isaiah. [/footnote]
“[Y]ou will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Here the just are resurrected and rewarded (a good type of judgment) in the same moment. This teaching comes from a parable, but is true to the way Christ generally described the timing of end-time events.
“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”
—1 Corinthians 4:5
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom…”
—2 Timothy 4:1
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day—and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing.”
—2 Timothy 4:7–8
“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
Salvation can be used as a term for resurrection and eternal life in the land, but it is not clearly defined in the passage above. Yet it includes very clear language about the second coming and judgment. This passage combines salvation and judgment and presents them as events precipitated by the second coming.
Since the ascension, Christ has not yet appeared in body. Physical salvation happens at the resurrection when we see Christ; we will become like his resurrected, glorified body, as we see in Philippians 3:20–21.
We can see through association that the second coming, the resurrection, and judgment for the inheritance of eternal life will happen in immediate succession. The second coming is the key event, instigating the other two. Some of the passages above state these things plainly, and sometimes implied language is used, yet there are no conflicts or contradictions in these passages.
Everything related to the end times hinge on these Big Three events, either leading to or resulting from the second advent and the bodily resurrection of the just.
Second Advent in the Old Testament
Old Testament end-time passages about the second advent are tough to understand for Greek thinkers. And so modern Christians are tempted to bypass the confusion and adopt one of these viewpoints:
- Dispensationalism or Replacement Theology: proponents of these viewpoints simply state that the new covenant replaces the old covenant. Abraham’s promises are canceled, already fulfilled, or replaced. Problem solved.
- Poetry: instead of drawing literal conclusions about the events described within prophetic passages, proponents argue that Old Testament prophecy should be read as poetry, interpreting these passages through the lens of metaphor and symbolism. Problem solved.
When we have been blinded by preconceived notions, we’ll find ourselves forcing awkward interpretations onto clear passages. Sometimes we develop these notions through our Church traditions—a few of which may not hold up to scrutiny. It takes a lot of bravery and determination to test the answers we have been handed. Remember to compare your interpretations to what is clearly true about the Big Three end-time events.
Yet some verses are difficult to understand no matter how carefully you read them. Are you supposed to give the words literal or figurative meaning? In Zechariah 14:4, the Lord’s feet stand on the Mount of Olives. We know that Christ physically left earth from the Mount of Olives and will return in a manner opposite his ascension.[footnote] See Acts 1:11[/footnote] So is Zechariah 14:4 a literal prophecy of a physical second coming?
If we take this verse literally, it describes the future establishment of Christ’s heavenly kingdom on earth. If we take it figuratively, it could refer to Christ’s continued reign in the heavenlies, a realm featuring a mystical Mount of Olives. Or it could refer to the Church age; depending on our creativity, we could make it mean just about anything we want to believe. However, as we read the following verses of Zechariah 14:16-21, we encounter references to specific feasts and the participation of nations formerly at war with Israel. These details are hard to understand as references to the Church age or as metaphors for previously fulfilled prophecies. There are other options as well: perhaps this passage has already been literally fulfilled, or perhaps this passage has been made void by the new covenant, and thus irrelevant. Interpretation is the key.
The two advents of Christ are both part of God’s continuing plan of salvation. Some passages in the Old Testament describe these appearances of Christ in such similar terms that they almost seem to be happening at the same time. In Zechariah 9, for instance, verse 9 describes the triumphal entry, while verse 10 speaks to Christ’s physical reign over the earth.
“Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
“I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Verse 9 was fulfilled in the physical realm during Christ’s life on earth following his first advent (Matthew 21:1–11). Verse 10 describes the nature of his reign to follow the second coming. It seems impossible to state that though verse 9 happened on earth, verse 10 relates to a heavenly realm or a spiritual reign of peace.
Luke states that Christ quoted this Isaiah passage below concerning Himself. He didn’t quote the entire passage, as he knew exactly what parts related to His first coming, and what parts related to his second.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God…”
We read in Luke 4:18–21 that he read from the scroll, but stopped mid-sentence after saying that he was proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor,” then he “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
The “year of the Lord’s favor” related to Jesus’ first coming. Jesus didn’t read the last part of the verse in Isaiah 61:2 because the “day of vengeance of our God” relates to his second coming. He only fulfilled the first part of the passage in his audience’s hearing.
Examples provided by Isaiah and Zechariah clearly show the differences between the first and second advents. The humble Messiah proclaims and brings salvation at the first advents, while the King brings vengeance and reigns over the earth at the second.
The book of Revelation is adept at organizing the Old Testament prophecies, as it correlates much of its body in synchronicity with the Old Testament. There are hundreds of Old Testament references in Revelation, including many about the second advent.[footnote]Volume II will take a closer look at Revelation’s Old Testament references.[/footnote]
Sometimes it is easy to spot figurative language in the New Testament, and sometimes it is not. First Corinthians 15 is almost impossible to read with a figurative interpretation (aside from simple metaphors such as “feet”). The physical resurrection is paramount and can’t be missed in this passage.
“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 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.”
—1 Corinthians 15:20–26
There is no commentary needed if we believe this passage will be literally fulfilled (with exceptions made for “feet” and other clear metaphors). Verse 20 sets the tone as the basis of a physical resurrection. We will be resurrected or transformed to receive immortality at the second coming. There is no reference here to a tribulation period, so we can’t assume any timing to the tribulation period.
A purely figurative read of this chapter just doesn’t make any sense. There can only be one correct interpretation of this passage. Acts 1:11, this passage from 1 Corinthians 15, and other literal Big Three passages make no room for a figurative culmination of our age.
There will always be plenty of opportunities to debate controversial topics such as the tribulation period, but let’s not debate cornerstones of the foundation of faith.
We can obtain some spiritual meaning from 1 Corinthians 15 and similar passages. However, when literal interpretations put the focus on the physical realm and heavenly realm working in parallel towards a merger on earth, all end-time passages start to align and make sense as a whole. We are spiritually saved now and will be physically saved on earth in the future. As soon as we understand this paradox concept of the resurrection, more pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. A physical return of Christ and a bodily resurrection of the justified go hand in hand.