Since this is the last Sabbath of the quarter dealing with the “Teachings of Jesus,” I am going to break some polite rules governing this column – mostly unwritten and some of them of my own making – because this particular lesson provides a wonderful opportunity for us to discover things in Scripture we had forgotten or never knew before. And let me be extraordinarily candid about the situation facing Adventism right now. A great fear is stalking the land, a fear that if we don’t reinforce what we have always said, and with greater emphasis, the church will disintegrate.
In my view, such an approach risks producing the very disintegration that the fearful have wanted to prevent. It’s like a drowning person desperately clinging to the rescuer in a way that puts both at risk. Given the fears haunting the church, can the independent press in Adventism – primarily Spectrum and Adventist Today – rise to the occasion and serve a positive, constructive role, not simply a negative, critical one? I would hope so.
Now if you follow this Spectrum commentary regularly, you may have noticed that in recent months my by-line has appeared a disproportionate number of times. Why? For a variety of reasons Spectrum has had difficulty finding the right mix of willing volunteers to write the commentary column. Under the circumstances, I granted permission to Spectrum to duplicate the study guide from the Good Word, the on-line Sabbath School commentary prepared by the Walla Walla University School of Theology. Sometimes the fit has been awkward since the Good Word study guide accompanies a 13-minute, three-person dialogue discussing the lesson. Our goal has been to meet the needs of those who like to stay in touch with the “official” Sabbath School lessons, but who want more substantial material than is available through the regular study guide. So here is a shameless plug for Good Word. Check us out at this web site for our audio dialogue and downloadable study guide: www.wallawalla.edu/goodword . We’re on every week. And a lot of what we say is true!
Another concern I would like to register here is the tendency for those responding to the Spectrum commentary simply to use it as a springboard for quite unrelated matters rather than using it to grapple with the biblical material. Given the changes in our world since the early years of Adventism, we have lots of reasons to engage Scripture seriously. But a deeply-rooted conservatism works against us, leaving both Sabbath School and Scripture as unhappy orphans. The phenomenon is not unique to Adventism. The other day I came across a 1970 book in my library by James Smart, a left-of-center biblical scholar at Union Theological Seminary in New York. His title and his narrative are remarkably relevant to Adventism today: The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church (Westminster Press). Now if you simply want lots of references from the Bible, visit the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Typically they are devout and faithful and quote the Bible a lot. But they are rarely drawn by the kinds of exploratory questions that drive thoughtful Adventists.
As we turn to this week’s topic, “The Second Coming,” I want to note the procedural method I adopted in preparing the Good Word study guide for this quarter. The overall theme has been, “The Teachings of Jesus.” But to my surprise, I discovered that the official study guide did not focus on the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels as I had expected. Instead, each lesson simply addressed a doctrine of the church, with key texts from throughout Scripture and occasional references to the Gospels. The impression given is that wherever you dip your finger into Scripture you get the same result. I believe such leveling of Scripture can be misleading. The Old Testament often says a great deal less than Jesus did on key doctrines, and sometimes in quite a different way. Furthermore, while Jesus should always be our touchstone, our ideal, the New Testament writers often did not fully grasp the far-reaching implications of his life and teachings. His treatment of non-Jews and women, for example, was revolutionary, so revolutionary that it is still not grasped by many today. So throughout this entire quarter, we have sought to make Jesus’ life and teachings the primary focal point of each lesson.
So what does the Bible say abut the Second Coming. Surprise! While Jesus’ return is the dominant teaching in the New Testament, at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be present in the Old Testament at all, at least not under the usual labels. Nave’s Topical Bible, for example, a thoroughly traditional source, lists only one Old Testament passage under “Jesus Christ, Second Coming of”: Job 19:25, “I know that my Redeemer liveth....” But even that one verse needs to be qualified, for in an Old Testament context, the application of Job 19:25 to the second coming is secondary. The first application would see the goel (KJV “Redeemer”) as the near kinsman who would come to defend Job’s integrity, just as Boaz was the goel (KJV “Redeemer”) who came to defend Ruth’s rights (see Ruth 4:4-6).
In that very connection, however, I have a painful personal memory. In probably the most challenging class I teach, Research and Writing in Religion, our goal is to introduce our students to the full spectrum of religious perspectives so that their faith and their conversations about faith will be accurately informed. But it was in that class that one of our very bright students exclaimed in dismay to my comment about Job 19:25 (essentially what I said in the paragraph above): “The size of our preachable Bible gets smaller and smaller and smaller!” She simply put into vivid words the deeply-rooted feelings of many devout people: “If God said it, it really should apply to all people, at all times, and in all places.” The unsettling implication for classroom and church is that when we seek to do “exegesis,” that is, interpreting a passage in time and place, we are unintentionally but subtly undermining convictions about the authority of the Bible, at least in the minds of many.
So where did the idea of a “Second Coming” originate? One could hardly expect the “Second Coming” to be clear in the Old Testament when Jesus’ listeners, relying on their Bible, the Old Testament, scarcely understood key aspects of his first coming. In Jesus’ day, everyone expected a deliverer (see Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh [Abingdon, 1954; Eerdmans, 2005]). But the crucial question that Jesus raised was: “What kind of Deliverer?” As C. S. Lewis put it, the incarnation “leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins” – A Grief Observed, IV.15 (see chapter 7, “The best story in the Old Testament: the Messiah,” in the author’s Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?).
But if one does not find the explicit teaching of the “Second Coming” in the Old Testament, what one does find is the hope of restoration. Isaiah 65:17-25 speaks of new heavens and a new earth, one in which the wolf and lamb would feed together and the lion would eat straw like the ox. Yet Isaiah 65:20 clearly states that death still reigns in that new heavens and new earth. There would be no premature death; but death still comes to those who have lived a full life. Isaiah 66:22-24 also speaks of the new heavens and new earth; but again the marks of evil remain vivid in the form of the dead bodies of the rebels. Modern dispensationalists use all these passages to describe their idea of an earthly millennium which includes childbirth, death, and animal sacrifice (see Zechariah 14). Our Adventist heritage offers another, far more “biblical” alternative (see “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy,” Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary 4:25-38).
The vision of a vegetarian kingdom in Isaiah 11 uses some of the same imagery as Isaiah 65, envisioning a world no one had ever seen, a hope for restoration at the end of history, a sharp contrast with the prevailing Canaanite idea of unending natural cycles.
Another phrase that becomes important for the idea of restoration is “day of the Lord,” always a local judgment in the Old Testament, but a local judgment that points to a final and ultimate “Day of the Lord.” Note how the key references to the “day of the Lord” are scattered through the prophetic books:
Isaiah 2:12; 13:6, 9
Ezekiel 30:3, 18
Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14
Zephaniah 1:7, 14-15
From an Adventist perspective the passages in Joel are particularly interesting because the first application is clearly to a grasshopper plague in Joel’s own day. But that wasn’t the end of it. This local “day of the Lord” already began to point to the ultimate Day of the Lord and the return of Yahweh.
Joel 2:31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved;
And here one can see a clear illustration of the idea of multiple applications. The celestial signs marking this event were signs of a local “day” which were re-applied to later events in expectation of the final “Day.” In Acts 2, Peter applied Joel’s prophecy to the events surrounding the death of Jesus:
Acts 2:16 (NRSV): No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Our Adventist pioneers applied these same signs to events in the 18th and 19th centuries, i.e. to events in their day: Lisbon earthquake (1755), dark day (1780), and falling of the stars (1833). Finally, in Revelation 6, the same celestial signs are applied to the second coming:
Revelation 6:12 (NRSV) When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.
Adventist pioneer, Uriah Smith, was so focused on a strict, monolithic historicist interpretation that he could only see the traditional historicist applications. But in the Bible, these signs in the natural world are all repeatable. In Revelation 6 they clearly refer to the second coming (see the author’s Beyond Common Ground, 186-220, for the development of idea of “applied historicism,” a both/and approach preserving the traditional historicist framework while allowing for later applications).
In the Old Testament, the “heavenly signs” involving sun, moon, and stars were almost always linked with the idea a local and imminent “day of the Lord.” Here is a succinct list of both OT and NT passages with their applications and objects of judgment as indicated by the context:
Isaiah 13:10 (Babylon) 24:23 (earth)
Jeremiah 15:9 (Jerusalem)
Ezekiel 32:7 (Egypt)
Joel 2:10, 31 (Zion) 3:15 (all nations)
Amos 8:9-10 (Israel)
Habakkuk 3:10-11 (earth)
Matthew 24:29-30 (Jerusalem/Advent)
Mark 13:24 (Jerusalem/Advent)
Luke 21:25-28 (Jerusalem/Advent)
Acts 2:20 (Pentecost)
Revelation 6:12 (Advent)
Given the tantalizing nature of the Old Testament evidence for a “second coming,” it is remarkable that the doctrine is so clear and emphatic in the New Testament. The traditional passages are all clear:
Acts 1:10 (NRSV) While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
1 Thess. 4:16 (NRSV): For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
From the Gospels, one thinks immediately of this passage from John:
John 14:2 (NRSV): In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
But there is another lesson from Jesus that believers have often overlooked: You can’t know when he is coming! That is especially true of Matthew 24-25 which first lists the signs of the end, then proceeds to say that the coming will be a surprise. Here are the key texts, including one from Acts and one from 1 Thessalonians, all of which state that the day will come as a surprise:
Matthew 24:36-39: But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Matthew 24:42-44: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Matthew 24:48-50:But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know.
Matthew 25:5-12:As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Acts 1:6-11:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11:Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
The practical application of these passages from Scripture is spelled out with clarity by C. S. Lewis in his essay, “The World’s Last Night”:
“We must never speak to simple, excitable people about ‘the day’ without emphasizing again and again the utter impossibility of prediction. We must try to show them that the impossibility is an essential part of the doctrine. If you do not believe our Lord’s words, why do you believe in his return at all? And if you do believe them must you not put away from you, utterly and forever, any hope of dating that return? His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions. (1) That he will certainly return. (2) That we cannot possibly find out when. (3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him.” – C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 107
Should one be fearful of the coming “Day”? Perhaps. As Lewis put it in the same essay:
“Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several others things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.” – WLN, 109
The practical value of being prepared is also seen in this quote from Thomas Merton who was asked how the Shakers, who believed the world would end at any moment, could still build such marvelous furniture. Merton said: “When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well.” – from Rodney Clapp, “Overdosing on the Apocalypse,” Christianity Today, October 28, 1991.
The message for our day is clear. Be prepared. You don’t need any end-time charts. Jesus could come today.