The Second Coming of Jesus is a pretty important part of Christian doctrine. But to be honest, it's also something that's not that easy to comprehend.
"He will come again to judge the living and the dead" is part of the apostles creed, repeated week by week in some churches. But what do we understand, or what should we understand about this?
And what about all this pictorial language in this passage from Luke's Gospel- signs in the heavens, the roaring and tossing of the sea, men fainting with terror and heavenly bodies shaking?
It's all a bit "Hollywood" in style, isn't it?
Over the centuries people have looked up at the sky and tried to read signs into the way the planets and stars align themselves - forgetting of course that this alignment rather depends on your viewing point. They've looked at natural disasters, changes in the weather systems that affect our world, the rise and fall of leaders and world orders, wars and financial crises and read into them signs of the end times which the bible talks about.
And we're still here, still speculating!
What on earth was Jesus going on about here? What was he trying to say to those around him?
And when Luke records Jesus saying that "this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" was this a mistake? Did Jesus get it wrong? Did he misinterpret the signs of the day? That's a lot of question marks - at least on the page I'm looking at.
The first thing to do is to try and understand the language that Jesus was using here. The Jews loved symbolism. They used pictures and symbols to excite the imagination of the listener. For the Jews the book of Daniel was a book that used this technique in dealing with the end of the present order and the start of the next world, and for Christians Revelation is another supreme example.
Jesus uses this same "apocalyptic" language here.
My Dictionary defines apocalyptic literature as that which claims to reveal things which are normally hidden, or to reveal the future. As we look at Jesus' words here we find that through the symbolism comes the picture.
Luke 21:25. " .the roaring and tossing of the seas". The sea has been an image for the endless movement and surging of nations in many languages. The heavenly bodies referred to can be seen as an image for those in authority (see Genesis 37). The rise and fall of nations, leaders, tyrants and despots have been a fairly commonplace occurrence in history, and nevermore so than in the first century and the last century.
Luke 21:29-36 (I did say a brief look) seem to refer primarily to the fall of Jerusalem. Now don't worry, I'm not trying to take away the mystery of this passage, I'm not trying to "explain it all away". What I'm trying to do is understand its relevance myself, because in doing so it might also help you . At least I hope so.
Luke 21:32 talks of "this generation not passing away until all these things have happened". As I am given to understand, and I'm relying on commentaries here, "generation" in the same language of apocalyptic poetry can mean both those living at a particular time and also "race" or "stock". Both meanings are common through all Greek literature.
And here is something remarkable, I think. It is true that there were those living who saw the destruction of Jerusalem. But it is also a true and remarkable fact that despite the attempts of nations to destroy the Jewish race, it has so far outlived them all. Is Jesus saying to the people here that the people of Israel as a nation or race will still be living at the end of the present order of things.
If so, then perhaps we must view the continuing crises which happen within and around the Middle East with more than passing interest. Perhaps it is here that we need to be very watchful as history unfolds.
There have been many arguments put forward about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ - when it will be and what it will be like. Passages such as this have been torn apart and put back together to paint all manner of different interpretations.
The fact is that these things are not for us to know.
Mark 13: 32: "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
Listen to the words of Peter in his second letter
"First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say 'Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.
"They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the godless.
"But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
"The day of the Lord will come like a thief. Look all you like for signs in the skies, and natural disasters, and the conjunction or not of stars and planets. We're talking here of something that will happen in God's time, not ours. The Lord is not slow about his promise, but is patient, wanting all to come to repentance."
The Old Testament prophets declared that God's purpose in history would reach its goal in a future time of blessing under God's rule, a rule that would be righteous, peaceful, universal, and permanent.
Isaiah 11:1 "A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins".
Jesus taught that this longed-for time of Salvation had dawned, the kingdom of God had drawn near (Mark 1:15), but had not yet fully arrived. He told his disciples to pray 'Your kingdom come.' And let it be known that the coming of the Son of Man would mark the dividing line between the present course of history and the full realisation of God's kingdom.
Mark 13:26 : "Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in clouds" with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven"
The one great truth enshrined in all this - in the message and prophesies of the Old Testament and the words of Jesus himself is that history is going somewhere. (A) has happened, and because of this (B) will follow as surely as night follows day. History has a purpose and a direction.
Have any of you ever owned a hamster or mouse as a pet? Delightful little creatures, and in my experience a tasty snack for the discerning cat, but creatures that seem to delight in spending ridiculous amounts of time running endlessly inside a very squeaky wheel - and going absolutely nowhere.
The Stoics, a school of philosophy founded around 300 BC held that history was circular. They reckoned that round about every 3000 years or so there was some form of massive calamity on earth. Then it all started again for another 3000 years - or so - until there was another massive calamity and the whole cycle started over again. Do you see the analogy with the hamster in its wheel? History and mankind going round in circles and ending up exactly where it started.
The Christian concept of history is rather different.
"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will never pass away' says Jesus in our reading.
"I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."
Do you sense the feeling of purpose in Jesus' words there?
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world" Matthew 25:34
Again, do you sense the feeling of purpose, of a beginning and an end.
Did the people to whom Jesus was talking understand what he was saying? Did they think it was all going to happen in their lifetime? Who can say?
One thing is clear, however, and that is that we are not aimlessly wandering through history as we might through a dark and overgrown jungle. Mankind, and all of creation has an ultimate purpose, something to aim for, and something to watch for.
"Yes," says Jesus. "You do need to keep your eyes open, you do need to be watchful."
"Yes," agrees Peter. "But don't expect a lot of notice."
The Christian concept of history then is that it has a beginning, and it has a destination - and at that destination Jesus Christ will be Lord of all. That is really all we know, and all we need to know.
Jesus painted a word picture for the people listening that had far more relevance for them than it does for us, because the style of language he used meant something to them, it was a part of their culture. He was also issuing a warning - a warning about lifestyle, a warning about sin, a warning to live each day as if it were the last, so that should God call each and every person to account they would be prepared.
Luke 21:34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap."
2 Peter 3:11 "But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation."
"Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation"
Yes, creation looks forward to "a new heaven and a new earth" as painted by the writer of Revelation. But the reality of that hope lies in each of our hearts and lives at this very moment in time.
The message of the Gospel is very clear on this. Yes, we look forward to the consummation of history with Jesus acknowledged by the whole of creation as Lord. But while we're living lives as if we don't believe it's going to happen for some time yet, how can the world appreciate the enormity of this fact?
"Be alert, be watchful, live each day as if it were your last," seems to be the message of the New Testament. So that when that moment comes, so poetically described in the gospel "Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven." we shall be ready and prepared.
History has a purpose, a destination. Our eyes need to be set in that direction. God is patient, says Peter, and we must be very, very grateful for that. Look upon it as your salvation, Peter says. God has something very special waiting for his people, his chosen people.
Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, waiting for the bridegroom. Some were prepared, ready to go at any moment. Some put their candles to one side and thought they'd have time to get it all together when the time came. The bridegroom arrived, and suddenly there was no time.
"I wish we'd all been ready" sang the Christian singer Larry Norman.
"He will come again to judge the living and the dead"
"Your kingdom come .. your will be done"
William Barclay ends his short commentary on this passage by saying
"The Christian must never come to think that he is living in a settled situation. He must be a man who lives in a permanent state of expectation. A novelist, in one of her books, has a character who will not stoop to certain things that others do. 'I know,' she said, 'that some day the great thing will come into my life and I want to keep myself fit to take it.; We must live forever in the shadow of eternity, in the certainty that we are men who are fitting or unfitting themselves to appear in the presence of God. There can be nothing so thrilling as the Christian life."