The Return of Christ

As he begins his treatment of the return of Christ, Herman Bavinck writes, “The course and outcome of world history are very different from the way people usually imagine them. It is most certainly true at the end of all things, if anywhere, that God's ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts.”[1] These words are a helpful reminder as we consider Paul’s teaching on the return of Christ in 1 Thessalonians 4. No matter what we do to try to wrap our minds around the second coming of Christ, it is an unprecedented event that therefore can only be processed with images and approximations.

Even Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4 are difficult to grasp. After all, what does it look like for Christ to come again, coming on the clouds of glory? But that is how the Scriptures describe Christ’s coming. Bavinck summarizes the biblical data well: “Although on account of its unexpected character, his parousia is comparable with the breaking into a house of a thief in the night, it will nevertheless be visible for all human beings on earth, be like the lightning that flashes from one side of the sky to the other (Matt 24:27; Luke 17:24; Rev 1:7), and be announced by the voice of an Archangel in the trumpet of angels (Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16).”[2] And while the biblical language of Christ’s coming is rich in symbolism, it is rooted in something real. What I mean is that the biblical text does not communicate some metaphor—"Christ will come again in our hearts”—but a “physical, local, and temporal” return.[3]

Why this is difficult to grasp, and why Christ’s return is unprecedented, is that Christ will come in glory. Excepting his momentary transfiguration and appearances to Paul and John, Christ’s glory has been hidden. But when he returns, he will come with glory, which would be unbearable for us to experience save for our own transformation at his coming. Robert Letham puts it this way:

This is nowhere clearer than in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Here, as in Revelation 1:7, Christ will come “with the clouds.” We noted earlier that the clouds are frequently associated in Scripture with the glory of God—at Mount Sinai, at the transfiguration, and at the ascension. As such, when Christ returns, it will be an unveiling, a full disclosure of the glory he has with the Father from eternity and into which he entered as our incarnate Mediator, his assumed humanity suffused and permeated with the glory of God. On those occasions when Paul and John were encountered by the glorified Christ, even accommodated to their limited capacities, the life was virtually knocked out of them. However, when he returns, we shall be like him. How then can the unregenerate stand with this open and overwhelming manifestation of the glory of Christ? It will be impossible for them to survive or coexist in an earthly kingdom in that environment.[4]

The point, then, is that when Peter, Paul, and John describe the return of Christ, they must use language and imagery that we can understand.

So, then, to apply this practically, does this mean that we will literally be caught up in the air to be with the Lord? Maybe, and I am hesitant to rule it out as a step in the process of Christ’s return, but the significance of such a “rapture” is not “changes in the laws of physics” but that “we will share in [Christ’s] glory in a public demonstration of the overthrow of the forces of evil” whose domain is described in Scripture as “the air” (Eph 2:2).[5]

And so, my encouragement as we read about the return of Christ is to hold to the details and descriptions lightly but to grip strongly to the central message that when Christ comes he will utterly fulfill his promise that he will lose none of his sheep. That is our comfort. May we encourage one another with it.

[1] Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2003), 4:684. [2] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4:689. [3] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4:690. [4] Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 856. [5] Letham, Systematic Theology, 856–57.

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