By George E. Ladd
To understand the significance of the second coming of Christ in the New Testament, one needs an over-all view of the basic nature of biblical theology. The Bible everywhere assumes the reality of the visible, natural world, but it equally assumes the existence of an invisible, spiritual world - the dwelling place of God. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). This world is imperceptible to the physical senses. It can be apprehended only by faith. The Bible nowhere tries to prove the reality of this unseen world; it is everywhere taken for granted, even as the existence of God himself is assumed: "For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Heb. 11:6).
This dualism of God vs. the world may seem to be very similar to the Greek dualism mentioned in the preceding chapter, of the spiritual vs. the material world. But the similarity is in reality superficial. There is a profound difference between Greek and Hebrew dualism. Greek dualism, as has already been pointed out, claims a parallel body-soul dualism in man. Man in his body belongs to the material world, but in his soul - wherein lies his true and most real life - he belongs to the invisible spiritual world. Therefore the wise man is he who cultivates his soul and strictly controls his body so it does not interfere with his soul. At death the wise man will escape from the visible world of matter and take his flight to the invisible spiritual world. "Salvation" means escape from the body which is the tomb of the soul.
Hebrew dualism is very different. While it realizes that something has gone wrong in the natural world, it continues to assert that this world in its essence is good and never evil. Man's natural dwelling is the earth. He knows God not by the discipline of bodily appetites and cultivation of the soul, but by God coming to man in his earthly, historical existence.
In Greek thought man flees the world to God; in Hebrew thought God comes down to man. Furthermore, God is to be known by his visitations of man in history in which he reveals himself. The greatest revelatory act of God in the Old Testament was the divine visitations of God in Egypt to deliver Israel and constitute them his people. The Exodus was no ordinary event in history like the events which befell other nations. It was not an achievement of the Israelites. It was not attributed to the genius and skillful leadership of Moses. It was an act of God. "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings" (Exod. 19: 4). Nor was this deliverance merely an act of God; it was an act through which Israel was to know and serve God. "I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God" (Exod. 6:6 - 7).
In the later history of Israel the Exodus is recited again and again as the redemptive act by which God made himself known to his people. Hosea appeals to Israel's historical redemption and subsequent experiences as evidence of the love of God. "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.... I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love" (Hos. 11:1,4).
History also reveals God in wrath and judgment. Hosea goes on immediately to say that Israel is about to return to captivity because of her sins. Amos interprets Israel's impending historical destruction with the words, "Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God. O Israel!" (Amos 4:12). The revelation of God as judge of his people in historical events is sharply reflected in the designation of Israel's historical defeat by the Assyrians as the "day of the Lord."
These wonderful visitations of God in the past are sometimes described in terms of what the theologian calls a theophany - an appearance of God. Before the glory and majesty of the divine visitation, creation is shaken.
The mountains saw thee, and writhed. . . .
The sun and the moon stood still in their habitation. . . .
Thou didst bestride the earth in fury,
thou didst trample the nations in anger.
Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people,
for the salvation of thy anointed.
(Hab. 3:10, 11, 12 - 13)
We have seen in an earlier chapter that there are three different messianic personages in the Old Testament - the Davidic Messiah, the heavenly Son of Man, and the Suffering Servant who will be instrumental in the final eschatological salvation of God's people.
It is often overlooked that frequently the Old Testament looks forward to the visitation in terms of a theophany, an appearance of the glory and majesty of God in the face of which creation will shudder and shake. One should read all of Isaiah 24 -25 to appreciate this; here we can cite only a few verses.
Behold the Lord will lay waste the earth and make it desolate,
and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. . . .
The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled,
for the Lord has spoken this word. . . .
On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven,
and the kings of the earth, on the earth,
They will be gathered together as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
and after many days they will be punished.
Then the moon will be confounded, and the sun ashamed;
for the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and before his elders he will manifest his glory.
(Isa. 24:1, 3, 21-23)
The important line is "The Lord of hosts will reign in Mount Zion." The establishment of God's rule, his Kingdom, is the central hope of the prophets. It will mean three things: the shaking and judgment of a fallen creation, the punishment of the wicked, and the salvation of God's people in a renewed earth The same passage in Isaiah goes on to say:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. . . . He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken. (Isa. 25:6, 8).
This same theology of eschatological theophany, of the visitation of God to judge the earth and mankind and to redeem his people, will be found in such passages as Joel 3:14 -21 and Zephaniah 2, which we cannot here take space to quote. The important fact in such passages is that God will yet visit mankind in history, in his earthly existence, for both judgment and salvation. Nowhere is salvation conceived of as a flight from history as in Greek thought; it is always the coming of God to man in history. Man does not ascend to God; God descends to man. History is not the stage on which man lives out his human existence only to leave it; history shares with man both judgment and salvation.
In the New Testament this theology of the coming of God takes a new and unforeseen form - incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth was a man endowed with supernatural powers. Practically all of modern scholarship, both evangelical and liberal, admits that Jesus performed what appeared to be miracles of healing. One of the most characteristic miracles of Jesus was the exorcism of demons. Many modern men do not know what to do with the gospel teaching about demon-possession, but it is clear that it is an inextricable strand in the ministry of Jesus. Indeed, from one point of view it may be considered the most central strand.
At Jesus' baptism the voice from heaven proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God, as the Elect One. Election is involved in the words "with whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). The baptism is followed immediately by the temptation, which must be understood in light of the baptism. The threefold temptation assumes that Jesus is the Son of God: "If you are the Son of God" (Matt. 4:3) . The heart of the temptation was to persuade Jesus to abandon God's will in carrying out his messianic mission. "If you are the Son of God, display your deity by jumping down from the wing of the temple without injury and thus awe the crowds into worshipping you." The temptation marks the beginning of a struggle between Jesus and the powers of Satan which continued throughout his ministry.
On one occasion after Jesus had exorcised a demon, the leaders of the Jews admitted that Jesus had supernatural power but this power was Satanic - the power of Beelzebub. Jesus replied that such a state of affairs was impossible, for it would mean civil war in the domain of Satan and thus lead to his ruin. Then Jesus said, "But if it is by the Spirit of God that l cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house" (Matt. 12:28 - 29). It was Jesus' earthly mission to deliver man from Satanic power. This meant "invading" the strong man house - this world - to "plunder his goods," to wrest men and women from Satanic power. The most obvious symbol of this was deliverance from demon possession. Jesus had wrestled with Satan and had "bound" him, had conquered him so that he had to release his erstwhile slaves.
Demon exorcism was only the negative side of receiving into one's life the power of God's kingly rule. Demon exorcism was not an end in itself; the life must be filled with the power of God. Otherwise the demon can return, and the final situation will be worse than the first. The victorious conquest of Satan is further illustrated in the preaching mission of the seventy disciples. Returning from their mission, they reported that even the demons were subject to them in Jesus' name. Jesus replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Luke 10:18) . This is clearly symbolic language and not meant to be a geographical or astronomical statement. In the mission of the seventy disciples Jesus saw Satan toppled from his place of power. The binding of Satan, his falling from heaven, are both metaphorical ways of stating that Satan has been defeated in his struggle with Jesus.
The Gospel of John adds something which is only implicit in the first three Gospels. It speaks clearly of the preexistence and incarnation of Christ. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us'' (John 1:1,14). Paul witnesses to the same truth. "Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6 - 8) . In other words, the story of Jesus of Nazareth is not the story of a religious genius, a far-sighted prophet, an unusually endowed man. It is all this, but more. It is the story of incarnation, of enfleshment, of the visitation of men by the God of heaven. "His name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, God with us)" (Matt. l: 23) . Modern scholarship has been in search of "the historical Jesus," a Jesus who is no bigger than history, who can be understood in thoroughly human terms. But no "historical Jesus" has been found which satisfies the gospel portrait. To say "Jesus" means to say "God." This is why Jesus could say, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14: 9) .
And yet Jesus is not the incarnation of unveiled deity. "The Word became flesh." Deity was veiled in human flesh. "He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant." Jesus made little impression on some people because they had known him from boyhood. "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?" (John 6:42). As we have pointed out in an earlier chapter, Jesus had the messianic mission to fulfill the role of the Suffering Servant before he should be the Son of Man in glory. The point we are now is that, contrary to outward appearances, the life of Jesus of Nazareth embodies an invasion into history by God, veiled though it was. In this veiled form the presence of God could be seen only by the eyes of faith. After the miracle of transforming the water into wine at Cana of Galilee, according to John, Jesus manifested his glory (John 2:11) . This was not evident to everyone, only to believing disciples. Most of the people experienced only extra fine wine.
We have pointed out that it was part of the main mission of Jesus to overthrow the power of Satan. Paul sees this as being accomplished also by Jesus' death and resurrection. "He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him" (Col. 2:15) . One of the main motifs in the New Testament as to the meaning of Jesus' resurrection and ascension is his victory over the powers of evil. On the day of Pentecost, Peter sounded this note. 'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet" (Acts 2: 34). Christ has already rendered Satan a decisive defeat; but Satan is not yet destroyed. "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (I Cor. 15:25 - 26).
This touches on the theology of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is finally to "deliver the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power" (I Cor. 15:24). The Kingdom of God is God's rule, manifested in Christ. We have already seen that Jesus' act of exorcising demons - of delivering men and women from Satanic power - was the outward evidence that the Kingdom of God has come to men in history (Matt. 12:28). In his resurrection and exaltation he was enthroned at the right hand of God (Acts 2:34 - 36). He is even now reigning as messianic King. Men and women continue to be delivered from bondage to darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). But the world does not know it. The world goes on as though Jesus had never come, as though the Kingdom of God was merely a dream. There are indeed millions of Christian believers in the world today who express his Lordship, who seek the ways of peace and righteousness. But they are not enough to mold the course of nations. Jesus himself said that there would be disturbances, wars, evils, and persecutions throughout the course of the age. The presence of God's Kingdom in the historical mission of Jesus was primarily a spiritual event. Although he has been defeated, Satan and the powers of evil are still very much with us. The world is still an evil place. The nations of the world ignore God and his Kingdom.
This is why the Second Coming of Christ is necessary - to complete the work begun in he his Incarnation. There are, in other words, two great events in God's conquest of the powers of evil, two invasions of God into history: the Incarnation and the Second Coming. One scholar has illustrated this by an analogy from World War II. There were two steps in the victory over Nazi Germany: D-Day and V-Day. Once the allies had launched a successful invasion upon the continent and the allied armies had secured a foothold and started their drive across France, the tide of battle turned. The allies were advancing, Germany was in retreat. But there remained much bitter fighting, which lasted until the complete capitulation of the enemy - V-Day. Then the fighting ceased; peace reigned.
So Jesus has invaded the realm of Satan and rendered him a decisive defeat. Because of Jesus' victory in his life, death, and exaltation, the tide of battle has turned. Since Pentecost the gospel of the Kingdom of God has been preached in nearly all the world, and an ever increasing multitude of men and women are rescued from the dominion of Satan and brought under the reign of Christ. An ever enlarging number of people bow before the Lordship of Christ. But he must reign until "every enemy is put beneath his feet" (I Cor. 15:25). Since these enemies are spiritual enemies - Satanic enemies - this is a victory that neither men nor the church can win. It can only be done by a direct act of God. The power that was in the incarnate Jesus in hidden and veiled form will be manifested in power and glory.
Another way of looking at the same fact: Jesus is now the Lord; he is enthroned at the right hand of God; he is reigning in his Kingdom. But this is a Lordship and a kingly reign which is known only to believers. It must be confessed by faith. His Second Coming will mean nothing less than the Lordship which is his now will be made visible to all the world. When we pray, "Thy kingdom come," this is what we are praying for: the effectual and universal rule of Christ in all the world, not only over believers. Then, when his Kingdom comes, "at the name of Jesus every knee bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10 - 11).
The eschatological theophany of the Old Testament - the glorious appearing of God - which will establish God's universal rule, is in the New Testament reinterpreted in terms of the Second Coming of Christ. He will come as the heavenly Son of Man and bring his Kingdom to his saints. He will reign in his Kingdom as the messianic King.