Imagine you lived 2,000 years ago and were waiting for the coming of Jesus. You expected him to come soon but you weren’t sure where he would appear. So you studied the scriptures and listened to different teachers, but that only increased your confusion.
One group, quoting the prophet Micah, said the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.
Another group, quoting the prophet Hosea, said the Messiah would come from, Egypt
A third group said he would come from Nazareth.
Each group fought to prove the others wrong. But in the end each discovered that they all had a measure of truth, for Jesus was born in Bethlehem, called out of Egypt, and grew up in Nazareth.
We may smile at this ancient confusion, but today many are engaged in a similar debate: When is Jesus coming? Some say it will be soon. Others say it has already happened. Some say Jesus will return to Jerusalem. Others say he already did. Some say Jesus will return with angels and trumpets. Others say those are just metaphors.
Much of the debate about the coming of Jesus stems from confusion about the different comings of the Lord. You may be surprised to learn this, but the Bible speaks of at least five comings of Jesus:
1. The first coming
This is the coming that we celebrate at Christmas, the first coming of Jesus from heaven to earth. “For I have come down from heaven,” said Jesus. “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven” (Joh 6:38, 51).
2. The coming via the Holy Spirit
This is the coming that took place at Pentecost. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” said Jesus, speaking of the Holy Spirit (John 14:18). This was not a one-off event, for Jesus continues to come upon us via his Spirit. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as he did upon us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). There are millions of such comings!
3. The second coming
The phrase “the second coming” is not found in the Bible. Instead, the scriptures refer to the day or coming of the Lord or the coming of the Son of Man (Matt 24: 37, 1 Th 4:15). It is the “day of Christ” when “Jesus is revealed from heaven” (Php 1:10, 1 Pet 1:13).
By my count there are more than 80 New Testament scriptures that refer directly or indirectly to the second coming of Jesus to earth. His final return is undoubtedly his most anticipated coming.
But there are two other comings that many Christians are unaware of. These different comings are sometimes confused with the Lord’s second coming to earth.
4. The coming to the temple
Malachi spoke of the Lord coming to his temple with fire, soap, and judgment (Mal 3:1-5). To the preterist, this coming took place in AD70 when the Jewish temple was burned by the Romans. “Jesus came on the clouds with judgment and purified his people.” Some even consider the historic destruction of Jerusalem to be the second coming of the Lord.
I have a different view. God had nothing to do with the Roman massacre of a million Jews in AD70. Rather than cause it, he did everything to stop it. As for Jesus coming to the temple to refine, cleanse, and judge, that all happened during Christ’s time on earth.
5. The coming to the Ancient of Days
Daniel saw “one like a son of man coming to the Ancient of Days to receive glory, power and an everlasting dominion that will not pass away” (Dan 7:13-14). That prophecy came to pass when Jesus ascended to heaven to receive a name above all names (Php 2:8-9).
This coming may be the least familiar of all Christ’s comings because from our perspective it wasn’t a coming but a going. But every going implies a coming. Jesus told the disciples he was going, but he told the Father he was coming. “I come to you” (John 17:11)
So far, so good. But how do we distinguish between all these comings and goings? How do we avoid Bethlehem/Egypt/Nazareth types of confusion?
I recently read every single coming scripture and I made an interesting discovery. I found two keys that help us unlock the door to the different comings:
Key #1: Angels
Whenever Christ is described as “coming with angels”, he is on his way to earth. When Christ came the first time there was a heavenly host (Luke 2:13). When he comes a second time there will be more angels.
For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels… But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. (Matthew 16:27, 25:31)
It seems that when Christ travels from heaven to earth, angels come with him (see also Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, 2 Thessalonians 1:7). Just as the President travels with the Secret Service, King Jesus travels with an angelic entourage.
Key #2: Clouds
Whenever Jesus is described as “coming on the clouds”, he is coming to heaven. As we have seen, the “coming on the clouds” phrase comes from Daniel’s vision. It’s the Son of Man approaching the Ancient of Days.
Sure, there are Old Testament scriptures where clouds imply God coming in judgment, but every time the “coming on the clouds” phrase appears in the New Testament Jesus is being exalted (Matt 24:30, 26:64, Mark 13:26, 14:62, Luke 21:27, Rev 1:7). By exalted, I mean he is between the low point of the cross and the high point of the throne room. The ascension, in other words.
Angels and clouds. These are literary keys that the Holy Spirit has written into the scriptures to help us make sense of the different comings. If you can tell the difference between an angel and a cloud, you can determine which sort of coming is being described. Coming on the clouds means the Lord is going up (or coming to heaven); coming with angels means he is coming down (to earth).
When I discovered these two keys a lot of confusion about the different comings of Jesus evaporated. I felt like that first-century believer who realized that Jesus came from three different places. Suddenly the Bible made much more sense.
So there are five comings of the Lord but the one you most want to hear about is the Lord’s final or second coming to earth. When will that happen? What will it look like? We’ll take a closer look at the second coming in coming posts (pun intended). Stay tuned!
Adapted from chapter 31 of Paul’s forthcoming book AD70 and the End of the World.