Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Exegetical Eschatology: The Coming(s) of the Son of Man

Having been introduced to the four major eschatological positions, and having been warned against a novel, heretical position that has attempted to steal the designation "preterist" from the orthodox, let's begin this series in earnest by looking at some of the presuppositions Christians make when they examine biblical prophesies. If we're going to properly understand the intended meaning of the text, we need to make sure we're aware of the biases we tend instead to read into it.

The Olivet Discourse is one of the most popular passages discussed when it comes to biblical "end times" prophecy. It is sometimes called the "Little Apocalypse" because of its similarities to the book of the "Apocalypse," otherwise known as the book of Revelation. In this discourse, Jesus foretold the end of the world or age, a great tribulation, wars, false prophets and earthquakes, among other events. Arguably most striking, however, is that He foretold His "coming."

"For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, 'Behold, here is the Christ,' or 'There He is,' do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, 'Behold, He is in the wilderness,' do not go out, or, 'Behold, He is in the inner rooms,' do not believe them. For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be." (Matthew 24:21-27, emphasis mine)

Because Jesus spoke of His "coming," many Christians understandably immediately identify these events with His "Second Coming," His future, bodily return. As Dee Dee Warren puts it in her commentary on the Olivet Discourse, "It's Not the End of the World!", "Many Christians, because of the very real promise of Christ's future bodily return, i.e. His Second Coming, pour that meaning into 'coming' each time they see it in an eschatological context."

So this is the first presupposition we'll examine in this series, that His "coming" in the Olivet Discourse and in other "end times" contexts must be His physical return, presumably in conjunction with the bodily resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. Is this presupposition warranted? Are we justified in automatically understanding any "coming" of Jesus to refer to His "Second Coming?" Let's take a closer look.


The word "coming" in this passage is the Greek παρουσία (pronounced parousia or "pear-oo-see-uh") which means "presence" or "appearance." It is typically rendered "coming" because the "presence" of one who is absent presupposes one's "coming." It is used in the New Testament almost exclusively to refer to some "coming" of Jesus that would take place in the writer's future, and when we look at some of the passages in which it's used in this way, it is easy to see why one might assume it's referring to a single event that would take place at the end of history:

"As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, 'Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming [παρουσία], and of the end of the age?'" (Matthew 24:3)

"For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming [παρουσία]" (1 Corinthians 15:22-23)

"For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming [παρουσία] of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first." (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16)

When παρουσία is referred to as being correspondent to "the end of the age" and the time when "the dead in Christ will rise," it makes sense that we would think of there being one such event, and that it would be what is referred to whenever παρουσία is used. However, Jesus used another word to refer to the culmination of this series of events, and it is not used as exclusively.


"Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will." (Matthew 24:42-44)

In these verses the word "coming" is the translation of the Greek ἔρχομαι (pronounced erchomai or "air-ko-my"). It is clear from the context that the same event is being referred to. Jesus had just given the famous parable that is the namesake of the Left Behind series of books, in which He said that His παρουσία (parousia) would be like the days of Noah when "they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away," and "one will be taken and one will be left" (Matthew 24:37-41). "Therefore," He continues, "you do not know which day your Lord is coming [ἔρχομαι, erchomai]." Clearly He was not using a different word intending to refer to a different event.

What, then, is the difference between παρουσία (parousia) and ἔρχομαι (erchomai)? It's actually quite simple: the former is a noun, the latter is a verb. If you look up the word "coming" in the dictionary, you'll find the word defined as a noun--"approach; arrival; advent"--and (as "come") as a verb--"to approach or move toward a particular person or place." Likewise, παρουσία (parousia)--the noun "presence" or "coming"--is the state of being present that results from ἔρχομαι (erchomai)--the verb "coming." The former is used as "the coming" and the latter is used as "is coming."

This may seem inconsequential, but it is very important. Theological novice that I am, it seems to me as though the word παρουσία (parousia) is viewed by many as a special title, the "caption" for this event at the end of time. But that's simply not the case. It is merely the noun equivalent of a verb. In fact, it's not used only of Jesus:

"I rejoice over the coming [παρουσία] of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus" (1 Corinthians 16:17)

"But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming [παρουσία] of Titus" (2 Corinthians 7:6)

"so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming [παρουσία] to you again" (Philippians 1:26)

The Philippians passage above illustrates well the relationship between παρουσία (parousia) and ἔρχομαι (erchomai). Paul was currently absent, and having just spoken of his future "coming" using the noun παρουσία (parousia), Paul goes on to use the verb, saying, "Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come [ἔρχομαι, erchomai] and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm" (Philippians 1:27). It is evident that Paul is not speaking of two different kinds of "comings." As Matthew Henry wrote in his commentary on this passage,

"He had spoken in v. 26 of his coming to them again, and had spoken it with some assurance, though he was now a prisoner; but he would not have them build upon that. Our religion must not be bound up in the hands of our ministers: 'Whether I come or no, let me hear well of you, and do you stand fast.' Whether ministers come or no, Christ is always at hand."

In other words, in verses 25 and 26 Paul expressed confidence that God would permit his "presence" amongst the Philippians--which, being currently absent, would first require that he come--but in verse 27 he exhorts them to stand firm whether God permits him to "come" or not. In the former case he uses the noun παρουσία (parousia), and in the latter case he uses the verb ἔρχομαι (erchomai).

Now that we know that παρουσία (parousia) is not some special caption for the Second Coming, but is instead merely the noun equivalent of the verb ἔρχομαι (erchomai), something interesting begins to unfold. Let's look at how the latter is used elsewhere in Scripture.


"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: 'I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming [ἔρχομαι] to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place--unless you repent." (Revelation 2:1-5, emphasis mine)

In this passage, Jesus instructs John to write to the church at Ephesus, warning them that if they do not repent and return to their first love, He would come (ἔρχομαι, erchomai) to them and would remove its lampstand. It seems evident that Christ was not threatening to hasten His Second Coming and final judgment solely due to the misbehavior of this one local congregation.

One mght argue, however, that Jesus is not saying He would come unless the church repented, but that He was coming anyway, and would pass judgment on the church upon His return if they did not repent. In other words, they would say that yes, this is a reference to Jesus' Second Coming, and that it is not the coming that is conditional, but the judgment; the coming was on its way no matter what.

This does not appear to be the case. Several interpreters agree that Jesus warned Ephesus that he would "come" to them, specifically, in judgment. Matthew Henry wrote in his commentary on the warned "coming" of Jesus to this church,

"He will come in a way of judgment, and that suddenly and surprisingly, upon impenitent churches and sinners; he will unchurch them, take away his gospel, his ministers, and his ordinances from them, and what will the churches or the angels of the churches do when the gospel is removed?"

A. R. Fausset interprets this warning similarly, writing of the warning to Ephesus, "'I am coming' in special judgment on thee...I will take away the Church from Ephesus and remove it elsewhere." He goes on to quote Richard Trench:

"It is removal of the candlestick, not extinction of the candle, which is threatened here; judgment for some, but that very judgment the occasion of mercy for others. So it has been. The seat of the Church has been changed, but the Church itself survives. What the East has lost, the West has gained. One who lately visited Ephesus found only three Christians there, and these so ignorant as scarcely to have heard the names of St. Paul or St. John."

David Guzik also interprets the warning to Ephesus as being that Jesus would "come" in judgment upon them specifically. His study guide on this passage reads,

"Jesus gives them a stern warning. Unless they repent, He will remove their light and His presence. When their lampstand is removed, they may continue as an organization, but no longer as a true church of Jesus Christ. It will be the church of Ichabod, where the glory has departed (1 Samuel 4:21)."

Likewise, in Chuck Smith's C2000 series, he writes,

"So the warning is that He will not stay in a loveless church. He will take that church away from His presence. For where was Jesus walking in the midst? 'This sayeth he who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.' So, it is relevant to the message of judgment that He announces. 'If you don't repent, I am going to take and remove the church from the place of My presence. I won't stay', He is saying, 'in a church that lacks love.'"

At, which bills itself as "Premillenial/Prewrath in Perspective" (a Futurist position which holds that the Church will be raptured in the middle of the Tribulation), the following is written regarding the warned "coming" to Ephesus:

"Coming = this verb does not refer to the Parousia of Christ, but an immediate visitation of judgment from Christ. This coming is conditional. If they repent, He will not come in judgment. This is not the case as it relates to the Parousia of Christ."

So it would appear that Jesus' warning to "come" in judgment upon the church at Ephesus was not referring to His Second Coming. Instead, He would "come" to that congregation specifically if they did not repent. And this is not the only place where ἔρχομαι (erchomai) is used to refer to something other than the Second Coming.


"Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in [εἰσέρχομαι, combination of εἰς meaning "into" and ἔρχομαι] to him and will dine with him, and he with Me." (Revelation 3:20)

This "coming" of Jesus is not typically believed to be a reference to His Second Coming. Matthew Henry wrote in his commentary on this passage:

"Christ is graciously pleased by his word and Spirit to come to the door of the heart of sinners; he draws near to them in a way of mercy, ready to make them a kind visit...Those who open to him shall enjoy his presence, to their great comfort and advantage. He will sup with them; he will accept of what is good in them; he will eat his pleasant fruit; and he will bring the best part of the entertainment with him."

This is not Jesus promising He would dine with believers at His Second Coming, but an allusion to Him coming to indwell the believer upon being born again:

"Jesus answered and said to him, 'If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come [ἔρχομαι] to him and make Our abode with him.'" (John 14:23)

Here, Jesus had already come in His first advent, would come again in His Second Coming, but throughout the span of time between those bookends He would be "coming" into the hearts of believers. So here we have another example of a "coming" (ἔρχομαι, erchomai) of Jesus that does not refer to His Second Coming.


We've seen, then, that παρουσία (parousia) is not some special caption or title for the event otherwise known as the Second Coming. Instead, it is simply the noun equivalent of the verb ἔρχομαι (erchomai), which is used to refer to other events besides the Second Coming, including Jesus' "coming" into the heart of the believer, as well as His "coming" in judgment upon straying congregations. Therefore there are, indeed, several comings of the Son of Man.

So, are we justified in presupposing a reference to Jesus' Second Coming wherever we read of Jesus' "coming?" No, apparently we are not. Anywhere παρουσία (parousia) appears, it is at least possible that it is merely referring to an ἔρχομαι (erchomai) of Jesus, "coming" in some other way and at a different time. It may be that every use of παρουσία (parousia) does, in fact, refer to the Second Coming. But the word cannot be presupposed to be used in that fashion; we must look at a variety of other evidences to determine what is meant.

As we continue in this series we'll discover other presuppositions we tend to read into the text. Once aware of these, let us endeavor to put our biases aside so that we can hope to properly exegete the eschatological prophesies of Scripture. If we don't, we are making tradition, not the Bible, our authority, and then the Protestant Reformation will have been all for naught. I picture Wycliffe, Luther and Calvin spinning in their graves.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I really appreciate the tone of humility that I detect throughout your blog. Thank you!. This issue has become so volatile and divisive that, to me, presenting any side without at least admitting the possibility of being wrong is at the very least irresponsible as it is a truly fearful thing to teach the scriptures.


    James Moriarty