I have been getting dozens upon dozens of questions from that “Ask a Scripture or Theology” section on the right sidebar of this blog. I am realizing that I might have to turn it off for a while just so I can get caught up… Ha! Many of the questions are similar though, so my wife says that maybe I should create a “FAQ” section to the blog, and that way, after I have answered a question, I can point people to the post where I have already answered it… I think I will follow her wise advice. Just another reason I love her!
Anyway, below is another question that came in recently. This one is about Jesus’ second coming.
First, thank you for replying to my posts. Once in a while I see something online that I feel strongly moved to comment upon. The subject of saying “God bless you” is not what inspired me to make the comments, it just seemed like a good place to start.
Before I go any further, I need to tell you that it occurred to me after posting that you may have taken some of what I wrote as a personal criticism. That is by no means what I intended, not even in the least, and if my writing did give you that impression, I apologize.
The reasons I bothered posting are first, because I just “happened” upon your website this morning for the first time, when researching something I’m working on. One of the two biggest questions I’ve had in my own mind for some time now, with respect to traditional Christian theology, was regarding the meaning of 2 Timothy 3:16.
I knew I needed to find the meaning of the original words because I was fairly confident that there was a problem with the meaning of the word translated into English as “Scripture.” Your initial post answered my question thoroughly. Thank you for that. Responses from your readers were of additional help. As always, I got exactly what I needed, when I needed it. It still awes me that it continues to happen, and I hope I never become nonchalant about that. I’d like to add my own comments on that passage in 2 Timothy, and perhaps I will in the near future, but that is not the biggest priority in my work right now.
The second reason I posted was because of your apparent humility and lack of ego. I haven’t yet had the time to explore your website more thoroughly, but my first impression is that you try to present yourself as a fellow seeker who, in spite of formal theological training, understands that teaching and learning are inseparable, and neither of them is a one-way street. That is a refreshing change from the attitudes of so many evangelists both online and in the pulpit.
As I referenced your website while writing this, I came upon your statement that “my theology has changed a lot since I preached these sermons (which is one reason I am not a pastor today.)” That convinced me that I should ask you my next question.
There is another passage in the New Testament which I strongly feel has been misunderstood. I don’t have chapter and verse numbers memorized, so again I had to research before writing this.
Another awesome “coincidence” just happened again. I took a Bible down from the shelf and opened it. The first page I opened it to contained the passage I was looking for! That is Luke 17: 23-24. I’m sure you know the passage better than I do. It says, roughly translated, “People will say to you, look, there (he is)! Or, look, here (he is)! Do not go off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashing under heaven (across the sky), so will be the Son of Man.” The sense I get here is that Jesus will not appear in the flesh as the same Jesus of Nazareth who was speaking, but that it would be his spirit, the same spirit with which mankind is (or will be?) anointed, that will begin to manifest across the entire corpus of humanity, like flashes of lightning seen everywhere illuminating the darkness of the clouds. A beautiful metaphor for what I like to think of as the Beautiful Apocalypse. The earlier verse of Luke 17:21 seems to support that: “Neither will people say, ‘look, here!’ or, ‘look,there!’ for the kingdom of God is inside you.”
Also, in Mark 14:62, Jesus says, “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” This is a much more difficult verse to interpret for those of us who know neither Aramaic nor Greek, but the same interpretation seems to fit.
I don’t know if you’ve already addressed this in your blog, but I wonder if you might find time to share your thoughts on this?
Thank you for your many kind words, although I think you may have overestimated both my humility and my biblical knowledge…
Just this morning my ego lashed out at some poor soul on Twitter who accused me of blogging just so I could sell books. I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me, but we got in a bit of a tiff over it. Such a silly thing to argue about, but my ego got the best of me on that one. (For the record, yes, I like to sell books, but I also give away all my new eBooks for free to newsletter subscribers… If I was really just trying to sell books, would I be doing that? No.)
And regarding biblical knowledge, while I do have formal training, I think people sometimes place too much value on seminary education. I know for a fact that many seminary-educated people think their degree makes them better somehow than others. But I believe that having letters after your name doesn’t mean you know more about the Bible than anybody else. It may in fact mean you know less…
Jesus’ Second Coming
Anyway, that is not what you were asking about. You were asking about passages that speak of Jesus’ second coming, or the return of Jesus. You specifically mention Luke 17:20-24 and Mark 14:62.
I am by no means an expert on these texts. I have been studying and reading a lot about them in the last several years, but have no firm conclusions. So let me simply state some tentative ideas about these texts, and then trust God to lead you into more understanding about them.
The Traditional (??) Way of Understanding Jesus’ Second Coming
I followed the word “traditional” above with question marks because although this view is traditional for me (it is what I have been taught for most of my life), I am not sure that this is the traditional view throughout all church history. I suspect that it is not.
The traditional (??) understanding of passages like Luke 17:20-24 and Mark 14:62 is that they refer to Jesus’ second coming. And yes, if that is what these texts refer to, Jesus’ second coming will be visible worldwide and there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind of what is happening. This is why Jesus says that if you hear reports about His return, you don’t need to go see if it is true. When He returns, you will know.
If this is the way Jesus’ second coming occurs, I do think it will be with a physical body. Though the passages mention clouds and lightning, these are simply things that would accompany His return, and do not themselves describe the form Jesus will take when He returns.
So if Jesus comes on the clouds with lightning, but He is in physical form, how will everyone see His return? This I do not know. I can speculate that maybe the lightning will flash all around the earth and Jesus would take a quick trip around the earth as well so that all can see Him, but I simply do not know.
It would put us on dangerous theological ground to say that Jesus’ second coming will not be with a physical body. Just as Jesus came physically the first time, died a physical death, and was raised with a physical body, so also, Jesus’ second coming and His rule and reign on earth will be with a physical body. This is partly so that Jesus can continue to identify with us in our humanity, but also so that we are not deceived into thinking Jesus has already returned spiritually when in fact He has not (this was part of the error Paul tried to correct in the Thessalonian church).
The rest of this post is going to question whether or not passages like Luke 17:20-24 and Mark 14:62 actually refer to Jesus’ second coming. But note that by challenging the interpretation of these texts, I am not challenging the truth of Jesus’ second coming itself. I firmly believe that Jesus will return at some point in the future, and that He will return physically, and that He will rule and reign upon the earth from Jerusalem. I believe in Jesus’ second coming, but I am not so sure that this is what Luke 17:20-24 and Mark 14:62 are referring to…
An Alternate Understanding of Luke 17:20-24 and Mark 14:62
So, there are alternate ways of understanding those texts you mentioned. One of the leading proponents of this alternate way of reading these passages is one of my favorite Bible scholars: N. T. Wright. (He truly is someone who has letters after his name and who knows more about the Bible than most others.)
He argues, rather persuasively, that these sorts of passages about Jesus coming in the clouds should be read in light of Daniel 7:9-14 where the “son of man” is described as going from earth to heaven for vindication before God. Wright argues that passages like Mark 14:62 do not predict a future second coming of Jesus from heaven to earth, but rather, predict the coming of Jesus from earth to heaven. This event was fulfilled through the resurrection of Jesus, and especially during the ascension of Jesus when He did in fact go from earth to heaven on the clouds (cf. Acts 1:1-11) and then was seen at the right hand of God the Father (cf. Acts 7:55-56).
This is a relatively new idea for many, so I recommend N. T. Wright’s book, How God Became King.
As for myself, I am not fully convinced of Wright’s understanding of these texts, but I also see major problems with the traditional (??) view as well.
The Coming of Jesus and the Second Coming
My current view is that both views are right. Kind of. Yes, Mark 14:62 and Luke 27:23-24 refer primarily to the ascension of Jesus, not His second coming. However, numerous other texts are pretty clear that Jesus will return physically a second time. Furthermore, Acts 1:11 seems to indicate that Jesus will return to earth in a similar fashion as He left, that is, with the clouds.
I do not know exactly what it means for Jesus to return on the clouds, how this will look, or how it will work. For me, it is enough to know that Jesus will return and finally set up His Kingdom, of which there will be no end. Until that time, we are called to live as if the Kingdom was already here. Doing so points people to Jesus, helps people see what God really intended for the world, and invites everyone to look for that blessed and glorious appearing of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And that, actually, seems be how Jesus explains His own words. In Luke 17:21, which you referred to, Jesus says that one reason people should not look for observable signs of His second coming (cf. 17:20) is because the Kingdom of God is within you. This concept of the Kingdom of God being within us (or being at hand), is common throughout the teachings of Jesus. In my opinion, Jesus means that before the Kingdom of God arrives physically (as Jesus’ second coming), the Kingdom of God arrives spiritually in our lives.
As we live our day-to-day lives according to the principles and values of the Kingdom of God, God’s rule and reign expands in our own lives… in our thoughts, our actions, or words, and our deeds… The Kingdom of God does not reveal itself with flashes of lightning in the sky, with signs in the stars, and great miracles which cause men to take notice.
No, the Kingdom of God primary comes through giving cups of cold water, through speaking the truth in love, through loving, feeding, and clothing those who have less than we do, through hugs to the lonely, meals to the hurting, through being present with the broken.
What does this mean? It means that as followers of Jesus, we have no business sitting around twiddling our thumbs and waiting for Jesus to return. Jesus is returning right now, in us, through what we say and what we do. So let us stop waiting for flashes of lightning in the sky and Jesus coming on the clouds, and start looking for ways to show sparks of love to those around us, and let Jesus return today in how we live.
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